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  • Ratha Tep

Interview with Steve McCarthy, THE WILDERNESS

The Vasylenko family are adventurers. They all love the wet and the wild, the thrill of exploring the outside world. All that is ... except Oktober.


By Steve McCarthy

Published by Walker Books

(Hardcover, 1 Sept. 2022; paperback launching 7 Sept. 2023)

Thanks for stopping by, Steve! I know you've illustrated several books with the wonderful Sarah Webb, but The Wilderness is your author-illustrator debut. And what amazing one it is. Can you tell me what inspired it? SM: "It’s kind of a fantastical reflection of my own family. I was taught at home, not homeschooled but in a scrappier incarnation of 'Unschooling,' a term for child directed learning. I only discovered the official term very recently. I don’t like the name, but the method is certainly spot on; there was a lot of exploring our own interests, with the guidance of our parents. There was no curriculum or schedule, we just sort of learned by doing things and talking; it was a bit wild. Oktober is very much inspired by my brother. When he was young, he always seemed burdened with the weight of the universe, although reluctantly, yet doggedly adventurous. Everything scared him, but few things deterred him from trying almost

anything. It reminded me of what I loved about Indiana Jones, a reluctant adventurer."

Interior spreads from Steve McCarthy's The Wilderness:

"Reluctantly, yet doggedly adventurous." I love that. While reading The Wilderness, I couldn't help but think of Covid and lockdowns when we were all shut in our homes, not getting to explore any sort of wilderness. So I'm curious about the timing of your book. Were you working on it during a lockdown, imagining a more hopeful future? Summoning children to have the courage to explore the outdoors anew when the time came? "The funny thing is, it is… or was, and it isn’t…or wasn’t? I’d say this might be true for many artists, but I was working from home long before Covid, and when I was younger, I was taught from home. I know a thing or two about isolation; it’s tough, but nature was always a dependable source of reassurance, awe and inspiration, even more so during lockdown. But for me in particular, it was nostalgic, and suddenly it felt like a whole generation was having a learning experience similar to mine. It felt nice to know a book like The Wilderness might remind kids that nature is a place to get lost in often."

Outtakes from Steve McCarthy's The Wilderness:

For those who love The Wilderness, can you recommend a few other titles that you think they might enjoy? Sweep, written by Louise Greig and stunningly illustrated by Júlia Sardà, has by far, the best leaves I’ve seen in any book, including mine.

Anything by Júlia Sardà actually. Her self-authored debut The Queen in the Cave is stunning. It has a similar childlike horror to the Labyrinth with David Bowie or Roald Dahl's The Witches.

Also Paddy Donnelly's Fox & Son Tailers. Our books were released at the same time, and we’ve gotten to do a few events together; I think the two stories compliment each other. Paddy has the same keen interest in magical realism as me, and I can’t wait to see what stories he tells throughout his career.

There's something so wondrously generous and epic about the story, that it brought to mind Astrid Lindgren for me. Who are some writers you admire? "A huge inspiration for me is Dino Buzzati, in particular The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily. It's a masterpiece of deadpan humour, magic, and bear politics. The New York Review Collection edition includes a cocktail recipe concocted by none other than Lemony Snicket himself."

Your illustrations are just knockout. Who are some illustrators you admire? "He’s not strictly an illustrator, but I get a lot of inspiration from Pieter Bruegel, and I loved Tintin as a kid. Hergé is a hero of mine, and later in life learned that a team of illustrators worked on editions of Tintin, with specialists drawing cars, locations and other elements specific to each of their skill sets. I’ve always dreamed of working on something with an illustration team."

What upcoming picture books are you most excited by? "I’m excited to read Manolo & the Unicorn by Jackie Azúa Kramer, Jonah Kramer, and Zach Manbeck and The Skull: A Tyrolean Folktale by Jon Klassen. They look fantastic."

Lastly, can you share what's next for you?

"I have two more books with Walker, one about Banshees, written by someone so exciting I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say it yet? And my next book which is about the colourful world of sound."


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