Between Sea And Sky is a book that I am thankful exists and comes with the highest of praise and recommendation. I am a huge fan of Nicola Penfold’s writing, Where the World Turns Wild is a landmark in children’s literature for me, a herald of the turn towards eco-fabulism and lighting the path for further writers and deep resonant allegories with a conservationalist theme within children’s stories.
I knew I would love whatever Nicola wrote because of the care, plus the love and respect for the natural world that is embroidered into every word of her tales, but I was unprepared for quite how her second and most recent book Between Sea and Sky would affect me personally, and give me a sense of hope.
I am lucky enough that Nicola has reflected on this for me too.
A few generations after climate change disasters swept the world, Clover and Pearl live on a floating shellfish farm with their widowed father.
Whilst Clover dreams of escaping and going to school on land, Pearl resents the land she believes poisoned her mother, an open-minded scientist who had helped establish the nearest community in the mainland with its growing towers & solar farms. Pearl is scared of losing her sister like their mother and how their father has slowly lost himself in grief.
The problem is the ruling classes have established a one-child policy meaning if the girls are discovered Clover will be taken away forever.
Meanwhile on the mainland, a boy discovers a secret in the weeds amongst the solar panels that could change everything… and it just so happens he and his own scientist mother are headed for the sea farm.
“Blow it Pearl! Be like the wind!” Mum’s voice sounds in my ears like she’s here beside me and I’m seven years old again without a care in the world.
Between Sea and Sky is an incredible tale of awakening, of the heart, the mind, The Earth. Yet it also explores the unnerving feeling being on the cusp of the change particularly that between childhood and adolescence, riding a wave and not knowing if you will soar or tumble, will Pearl grow, blossom and find a new path or will she become the bitter sea witch of land Children’s nightmares.
Furthermore, it probes the experiences of grief and release, the pain of both recognising just what we have lost or may lose and having the courage to let those feelings free instead of bottling, festering the ability to adapt and change. This is explored across the personal, community and world level.
At its root like Where the World Turns Wild, there is a fable about caring for our Earth, in this case the importance of pollinators and how nature doesn’t belong to any one person, but is all our responsibility, and in turn we need to be kinder to each other. I come back to Pocahontas again but it’s true we need to respect the beauty and riches of nature whilst we still have them ‘ and for once never wonder what they’re worth’
This alone is 1000% worth the recommendation to readers, in fact I upon finishing I immediately put it in my mother’s hands and told her she had to read it. It is truly an achingly beautiful tale that will stay with me for years to come.
But it is the inclusion of alternative spirituality within its pages that I want to explore with you, if you are uncomfortable with that then thank you so much for reading so far and please check out the other stops on this tour.
However if you choose to go on, the depiction with a dash of realism and just enough scepticism yet good intentions is something that for me lifts this story to the sublime, but also could quite literally change a life.
I fully realise I’m going out on a limb here, but this book is one I am so very thankful for and so I’m going to be brave and admit a truth.
When I was a little girl I always felt like there was something else besides the hymns and stories being taught to me in school. I relished tales of mythological deities, of fantasy tales filled with magic and creatures not of this world such as (predictably) faeries and the like. I felt something missing in the words and ideas being presented to me, that there was something, other, beyond, something dare I say it supernatural about the world, that if we were all made of the same atoms and energy as the stars, then that surely means we are connected?
As a child of middle grade reading age I would collect petals and pretty stones, dance in the garden singing to the plants and feel things about people and events before it happened. And I was called weird.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager at the time when the concept of Wicca and Witchcraft and other neopagan ideas had already emerged into mainstream fashion thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, films like The Craft, Practical Magic and publishing houses like Llewelyn pumping out SO many books by personalities with names like Starhawk, Soraya D’Este and the notorious Silver Ravenwolf that I realised there were real people like me. I never knew there was a word for people like me other than weird, so I embraced and tumbled into the wyrd because of the sense of being seen, that the feelings I had were shared by others and that I wasn’t just make-believing fairy stories.
I can feel it Clover. I saw it in my dream
Between Sea and Sky could have the same empowerment, but in a sweeter, gentler way for a child who has alternative spirituality views of the world, whether buried in their soul or openly how they have been raised, yet I must stress the book doesn’t proselytise for neopaganism anymore than say Bedknobs and Broomsticks does- so is shall I say ‘safe’ for those who may clutch pearls at the thought of a book turning kids Wiccan!! No, Between Sea and Sky does not say ‘hey kids let’s do this’, instead part of it sings to the souls of those already attuned to hear it like The Merrybegot will do for older readers, and others will simply enjoy a cracking good story.
The idea that a middle grade children’s book like Between Sea and Sky could make a validation for a child who feels the way I did is incredible. To see the way you think, feel and hope about the world (often fully knowing others disbelieve or think it childish make believe as Clover herself taunts Pearl) presented on paper, by characters you emote with and identify with like Pearl, (or even as Clover in her wavering) that what they do is realistic and ok, and not the subject of ridicule or persecution is Huge. Validating. Empowering. And even more so before the crippling self doubt of adolescence.
we found an old book in her office. Rituals, Magic, Witchcraft…magic to do good.
Much of the alternative spirituality in the book is a beautiful child’s perception and interpretation of post-modern alternative or neo-pagan ideology. Pearl recounts finding an old book on Wicca that inspired their views on the world and that for me is one of the most interesting things as indeed they aren’t ‘Wiccan’ but for so many on The Path, Wicca was the starting point and then one finds or weaves our way from there just like Pearl has. Simply knowing a word where to start your journey from is so powerful. For me to know there was a word that validated what I felt about about the world was groundbreaking, even though was only the start, and not the destination.
A wishing in the book is the key ‘ritual’ behaviour of the girls when they want to evoke change or bring something into their lives, and it’s complexity dressed in simplicity is just beautiful. The wishings by Pearl and Clover are truly beautiful and some of the sweetest forms of spellcraft.
Five points for ,spirit, water, fire, earth and air…the centre has to be something special, for the wishing to be a success.
A ‘wishing’ is basically spellcraft which isn’t curses and hexes, it is a focus of intent, and was once described to me years ago by a respected writer and witch as like ‘a prayer with bells on’ and this in a way is enough for Pearl, a prayer with bells on that her hopes will come true.
Like with many spells Pearl and Clover empower their wishing by offering an exchange of energy in the form of carefully arranged precious items like mudlarking treasures to the sea in the hope that this offering will draw and direct energy through what is often called ‘the law of return’ back to possibly grant the wish but leaving it up to the sea that the energy will be transformed by the waves into something new like shards of smashed bottles tumble over time into smooth shapes of sea glass.
It’s an action of hope, and whether it is simply a placebo affect of action assigning reason and thus order to chaos or truly tickling the energies of nature it brings Pearl and many others comfort and a sense of identity and belonging.
Nicola wanted to say a few words on her own intentions behind this and I’m lucky enough to host them here:
Spirituality in Between Sea and Sky
In my drowned, future world, it felt right to include some spiritual elements. It’s an age post organised religion, I think, at least in Blackwater Bay, where the story is set. On land, Nat and his friends tell ghost stories, and Lucas’s grandmother tells them the seagulls are the souls of people that died in the floods. I think it’s human nature to tell stories to explain difficult events. Also, with the lack of much of the technology and information we all take for granted (so much has been lost in the floods; what knowledge remains is tightly controlled by Central District), stories and magic have moved into the place of science and recorded history.
Out at sea, Pearl and Clover live amongst the elements. Their life is ruled by the tides and the weather. They’re intrigued with things that wash up on the mudflats, things from long ago. They use them in their wishings – spells or ceremonies or prayers, where the girls arrange their found treasure in stars and pentangles on the sand, and leave them for the tide to take.
We wish to get better when one of us is sick. For a winter without the sea freezing over. For the geese to come back in October.
The wishings are a way of giving more meaning to the girls’ lives, and establishing a kind of control over these things which they can’t really of course control, like incoming storms. Pearl especially holds on to the wishings because they remind her of her mum. The wishings started when the girls found an old Wicca book in their mum’s belongings.
I loved writing this element to the story – this magical otherness, this thread or connection to something older, deeper, mysterious, elemental. I was actually inspired by a couple of other books (I usually am!). One is a novel by Iris Murdoch, The Sandcastle. The main characters are adults, but I was always intrigued by a child in the book, Felicity, who believes herself to be psychic, and performs an elaborate ritual on the beach, to no specific end, but it nonetheless feels very important. Then the other novel was I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, one of my favourite ever books, and which I have Clover reading in Between Sea and Sky. In that book, sisters Cassandra and Rose, perform rites on Midsummer’s Eve. They make garlands of wild flowers to wear around their necks, place roses in their hair and dance around a fire chanting. This directly inspired the final scene of my book. That’s why Clover asks for bluebells and foxgloves and mallow!
Thank you so much Nicola, I believe I have to read The Sandcastle now as Felicity seems to be me as a child 🤣
I hope that regardless of what you feel of my interpretation you try this amazing book and check out the other stops on this tour!
Between Sea and Sky by Nicola Penfold is published by Little Tiger.
Thank you so much to Nicola for writing Between Sea and Sky and to Dannie and the Little Tiger Team!