Welcome to this virtual landscape where SCBWI-BI members share their debut journeys with us. This month Helen Simmons steps out with author Nicola Penfold, whose debut middle grade book Where The World Turns Wild was out on 6th February.  

Let’s begin our journey... 

There’s nothing like a good walk to fuel creative ideas and give us inspiration in our writing. Where are you taking us on our walk today?

 I live off a busy high road in north London. It’s a fantastic and diverse community, with amazing restaurants, greengrocers, beautiful Victorian houses, great schools. There’s also way too much traffic and litter. We’re walking up the high road and it’s noisy, with cars and buses crawling by, but don’t despair, we’re going somewhere green. I’m taking you to Woodberry Wetlands, an urban wetland managed by the London Wildlife Trust. There are coots, moorhens, swans and Canada geese on an artificial river and reservoir. Cormorants, herons and little egrets fly in from breeding colonies at nearby Walthamstow Wetlands. It’s a proper oasis of green in the city – reed beds, grassland, wildflower meadow, hawthorn hedges, beautiful old oak trees and cow parsley. Walking here unlocks my brain. New words come and all kinds of plot holes can be fixed.

What about the landscape you have created in your novel? How important is the setting to your plot and themes?

 Landscape is vital in my book. The first half is set in a city where nature has pretty much been eradicated following a disease carried by ticks. It’s a bleak, sterile landscape, and this has become a state of mind. The city is ruled by a cruel, authoritarian leader, and it’s a miserable, congested, kept-down kind of existence. Outside of the city, in the absence of humans, nature has grown back with a vengeance. It’s a huge, untamed wilderness. My main characters, Juniper, 13, and her brother, Bear, 6, were born outside in the wild and the book is essentially their journey back there.

As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand steps starts with one. Tell us about your inspiration for your novel.

The seed of the idea came from a non-fiction book I read called Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. It was the book that coined the term nature deficit disorder and claims we are raising the first generation of children to grow up without meaningful contact with nature. And of course at the same time, we’re more stressed, more depressed, and there are rising rates of allergies and autoimmune conditions, and mounting evidence that these things are connected. From a story point of view, there was just something about Louv’s title that I couldn’t stop thinking about: who were these last children in the woods?

 Now we have got into our stride, can you tell us what you loved most about writing this book? 

I adored writing this book! It was my own escape from the city. I loved imagining Juniper and Bear walking out into the wild and thinking what that might look like – a world that has been abandoned for fifty years. In Japan people practice ‘shinrin-yoku’, or forest bathing, and this book was my own kind of forest bathing. I could feel the landscape of my brain change when I was writing it, especially the second half of the book, which is more elegant I think, and smoother, than the city section, which is quite claustrophobic and itself a bit congested at times.

We seem to be lost in the woods now. Can you describe your most difficult moments when you were writing, and how you got back onto the right path? 

It’s a cliché, but in the beginning this book almost wrote itself. I’d laboured over a young adult novel for a couple of years previously, and I loved writing that too, but there was something different about this city and this journey into the Wild. Like everything was there already, and I was just discovering it. My opening chapters were shortlisted for the first Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize. Then, a couple of months later, the same opening was picked for SCBWI’s Undiscovered Voices competition. This led to quite a few full manuscript requests, but, inevitably, rejections followed, feedback came in, and whilst lots of people connected with Juniper and Bear, I realised how much work there still was ahead. Luckily for me, some people saw enough potential, and Gillie Russell became my agent and, a little while down the line, Kate Jennings from Stripes my editor. Editing with Katie was incredible. I mean totally incredible. Having someone with enough distance and objectivity to look at the bigger picture and help make the structural changes my book needed. And then, later, to interrogate words, phrases, details, just as closely as I did, and make sure they were all doing their job. For me, the structural changes were the hardest bit. It felt like the most complicated jigsaw puzzle with all the parts scattered through my brain, and I couldn’t find a large enough stretch of time or enough space in my head to sort them out!

 As we reach the summit, can you tell us how it feels to be a first time author?

It’s a dream come true and I’ve had some really lovely reviews from bloggers and some of my favourite authors too. People are saying all the things I wanted them to say, and my book is in bookshops and libraries and people’s homes. It also feels exposing. I really do feel like I’m at the top of that summit, and it’s a long way to fall, and everyone can see me. And obviously, you know, it’s my first book. It’s not perfect. Some bits still niggle at me. I still want to learn more, get better… 

We’ve finished our walk and now so I think we deserve to celebrate with tea in a cosy inn. As we warm our feet by the blazing fire, tell me where you think your writing will take you in the future?

 I haven’t found you a country inn, but I’ve ordered tea and cakes at the lovely Coal House café. We’re sitting outside. It’s cold, but the sun’s shining, and we’re looking out over the reservoir. A cormorant is hanging out its wings to dry, looking decidedly vampire-like. There are cormorants in my next book, which I’m writing for Stripes. It’s set by the sea. It’s a completely different landscape to Where the World Turns Wild, but still about our connections with nature.

Finally, I have really enjoyed walking and talking with you today. Can you give us one take away tip for yet-to-be-published writers?

I spent a long time writing by myself, not showing my work to anyone. Things really changed for the better when I found writing friends. That would be my tip: find some writing friends! SCBWI is a fantastic place to start!


Nicola Penfold was born in Billinge and grew up in Doncaster. She studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge. Nicola’s worked in a reference library and for a health charity, but being a writer was always the job she wanted most. 
Nicola writes in the coffee shops and green spaces of North London, where she lives, and escapes when she can to wilder corners of the UK for adventures. She is married, with four children and two cats, and is an avid reader of children’s books.

Follow Nicola:
Twitter: @nicolapenfold

Helen Victoria is a writer of YA fiction, a full-time drama teacher and a reader of anything and everything. When she is not putting on shows, reading or writing, Helen loves to walk in wild places, or hang out with her family and friends in London, France and Cornwall.

Follow Helen:
Twitter: @helensimmons100


Imogen Foxell is an illustrator with a particular interest in creating intricate imaginary worlds. She illustrates English literature revision cards for, and interesting words for Her website is Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. 

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