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One Step Beyond the Garden Wall

When we first meet Ivy, the 13-year-old protagonist of The Sky Beneath the Stone, she’s setting up a tent – in her bedroom. She has a pack full of equipment she knows how to use, hiking guides she’s scribbled all over, and a pair of well-worn, muddy boots. But she’s too afraid to go outside.

It’s been a year since an incident in the fells shook Ivy so badly that she hasn’t been herself since. She carries her map everywhere she goes, sticking to the routes she has memorised to school or the shop or her friends’ homes. Looking up at the sky or straying from the path can bring on a panic attack.

But when Ivy’s younger brother, Callum, is turned into a kestrel before her eyes, her anxieties prevent her from going to his aid. Filled with shame and misery, Ivy discovers that Callum is now trapped in a fairy realm. There’s nothing else for it: she will have to do the unthinkable and venture into unknown territory to bring him home again.

It was challenging to write Ivy’s story and lay down my own insight into mental illness in black and white. Like many people, I’ve grappled with anxiety over the course of my life. At the beginning of the story, Ivy’s mum tells her “It’s never a straight road,” and I really wanted to reflect this in Ivy’s journey. Literally speaking, she has to voyage back and forth across the fairy realm of Underfell, hiking over mountains, through valleys, and around lakes in pursuit of clues that will lead her to her brother.

All the while, she’s battling the “grey fog” that creeps in whenever she starts to feel overwhelmed. For me, the fog is the best way of illustrating that feeling of disorientation and difficulty focusing that comes with intense anxiety. But even when she’s so close to achieving her goal, Ivy still suffers from setbacks. It was important to me to show that it truly isn’t a straight road to recovery, even as you grow and learn along the way.

Ivy is fortunate to have good company on her journey: Grendel, a Border Collie, and Kit, a boy her age who’s also lost in Underfell. As she travels around she meets characters who help her with her quest, sometimes simply by giving her the chance to rest. Just like in real life, support comes in many forms – from friends, family, animals, and people who make it their business to help others.

I first wrote The Sky Beneath the Stone during some personally tough times, then edited and redrafted against the backdrop of a global pandemic which sent shockwaves through the mental health of the world at large. Reading over Ivy’s story with every new draft was like a reminder from myself that there is light in the darkest of places; that one day you might look up at the open sky and feel no fear at all. Whether or not the book’s readers, young or old, have already experienced similar challenges, I hope the story will help to equip them with understanding and the courage to face whatever lies around the next bend in the path.

Ivy’s map is her touchstone, and when she loses it, she’s lost as well. To find her way again, she has to understand the maps that are already written deeply in her own mind. All that’s left to do then is start walking. As Ivy’s mum puts it: “One step beyond the garden wall, and then another, and another.”

Alex Mullarky


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