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Islands of the Earth: An Interview with Jess Butterworth

Can you tell us how the idea of a desert island and gibbons came about?

I’ve wanted to write a castaway style book ever since reading and loving Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo when I was ten-years-old and it was next on my list to do. I always write about the things that I care passionately about, and I learnt about endangered gibbons and the threats facing them after researching some of the bigger apes such as orangutans for a different story.

Yellow cheeked gibbons are found in Cambodia, which is also where I spent time on an island once, so the book came together in that magical serendipitous way stories sometimes do.

At what stage in the planning, or the writing, did you decide on using the idea of a diary as the way to tell the story?

I had always wanted some sections to be written in Lark’s voice as if it was her diary, but it was actually my editor, Lena, who suggested writing the whole book in the diary format after reading the first draft, which I immediately loved the sound of. Then it became a case of figuring a way to weave in the back story, which is where the idea of Lark writing the diary to her rescuers came from. It was Lark’s way of making sure that she got the chance to explain how she ended up on the island.

How much research was needed to make certain the information about the nature of desert islands and gibbons was accurate for the story and at the correct level for your readership?

I did lots of research how to survive on a desert island which ranged from reading non-fiction books to first-hand accounts of survivors, to watching documentaries and talking to people. I remember at one point watching video after video about how to get into a fallen coconut without a knife.

Telling everything through Lark’s first-person narrative and in her own words in the diary really helped to make sure that everything was presented at the correct level for the readership. I also loved researching the ecosystems around the island that Gibbon Island is based on, from the mangroves to the seagrass beds.

I loved listening to sound clips of gibbons sing and visited some zoos and wildlife parks to get a sense of their size in real life. Their arms really are incredibly long, and they are mesmerising to watch swinging from branch to branch.

Your books are an interesting mix of fact and fiction, helping to entertain and educate readers. How do you manage the delicate balance in this story of survival and pollution?

I always try to show the reader how these things have an effect and impact on my characters rather than tell them. I had lots of fun exploring these themes in this story. I wrote a list of the different elements of survival that would be affecting Lark and how it would physically make her feel the longer she went with limited food and water. I always had that in the back of mind as I wrote.

When I was researching the plastic pollution washed up on beaches, I was saddened to see the sheer quantity strewn across the sand. I also discovered specific objects I hadn’t considered before; things like Christmas baubles, full crisp packets and rubber ducks. It was easy to weave this into the story because in Lark’s case the pollution actually benefits her and it becomes part of her daily routine as she searches for washed up items that could help her survive.

Do you have any thoughts on the design and layout of the books?

I wanted the whole thing to look like Lark’s journal and when I first saw it, it was even better than I could have imagined. The design team, and illustrator Rob Biddulph, did an amazing job. I also wanted the section breaks to be as if Lark was doing little doodles in her diary which I think works so well. I feel so grateful that they’ve created such a gorgeous book.

Have you ever been on a deserted island? What would you do if you were stranded and had to learn to survive until you were rescued?

Luckily after doing all the research for this story, I feel like I would at least know where to start with trying to survive if I were stranded on an island!

When I was eighteen, I went travelling and ended up stranded on an island off the coast of Cambodia for ten days because the sea was too rough after a storm for a boat to come and collect me to return to the mainland. There were other people on the island and I had access to food and water, although there were no roads or electricity, so I wasn’t totally castaway but I was definitely able to draw from some of my own memories and experiences when writing Lost on Gibbon Island.

For instance, I saw a jellyfish being pulled out of the water there and that’s what inspired the jellyfish infected waters, and I remember feeling like I would be stuck on the island forever after seeing a water spout out in the sea.

There are lots of clever twists to this story. How do you choose when it is an appropriate point to build in a new twist so that is works with the plot and surprises the reader?

I usually tie in the plot twists with my main character’s emotional journey. Sometimes I think about what I would like or expect to happen in the story and then take it in a different direction on purpose and sometimes I go with my gut.

What do you love most about writing stories?

Writing has always been my way of making sense and exploring the world around me. I love to write about the things that I love and care passionately about, whether that’s our environment or the animals in it.

I write the stories that I would have loved myself as a child, so being able to share them with readers today is a huge privilege and source of joy.

What are your top tips to our readers to take away this Earth Day?

I think it’s important for us all to be inspired by the world around us! It then becomes easier to take action in whatever way feels meaningful to you, whether it’s raising awareness about the things you care about, a solo litter clean up or a new invention, or idea to help protect our environment.

Thank you to Jess Butterworth for taking the time to answer these questions and to publicist Sarah Farmer for helping facilitate.

Jess Butterworth's Lost on Gibbon Island, illustrated by Rob Biddulph and published by Orion Children's Books, is out now and available from all good booksellers!


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