In our very first non-fiction picture book for children, The Wide, Wide Sea, a young child befriends a seal on a trip to the beach and learns about the importance of caring for the ocean.
We spoke to author Anna Wilson and illustrator Jenny Løvlie about creating the book, their relationship with the sea and the future of the coastline. Anna also gives her top tips for families wanting to tackle the problem of plastic pollution together.
" I love the roar of the sea in the winter and its silver-smoothness in the summer. I love the colours of it, the smell of it, even the taste of it. If I could turn into a mermaid, I’d be the happiest person in the world."
Anna, we heard you’re a keen wild swimmer and swim at your local beach. Is this what inspired you to write the story?
Anna: Between May and September, a friendly seal always pops up in the bay where I swim and has a good long look at me. Once I was swimming and I heard a loud snort behind me – the seal was almost touching my feet with his nose, as if he wanted to chase me back across the bay.
I felt as though he was reminding me that the sea is his home and that I’m lucky to be allowed to swim in it too. This made me think about how we share our oceans with so many creatures and how we have a responsibility to keep the seas clean.
Jenny, what were your first impressions of the story? Did it spark ideas straightaway?
Jenny: The first time I read the story I had to have a little weep. It’s so beautiful and tender – and a subject close to my heart. I grew up on Ekkerøy by the Barents Sea in Northern Norway and, out of all the creatures in the ocean, I loved seals most of all.
The ideas flowed pretty freely. I love drawing animals and landscapes – and working out the colour palette for each book. The human character development was actually the most challenging task for this one.
Speaking of the characters, the story is written from the child’s perspective – and we never learn the child’s name. Anna, can you tell us more about this?
Anna: I wrote it from the child’s perspective as I wanted young readers to see the beach and the seal and the effects of the storm from their point of view – to think about how they’d feel if their favourite places were destroyed by litter.
I didn’t want to give them a name as I wanted any child to be able to read the story and see themselves in it. This is also why I’ve not settled on the gender of the child – and nor has Jenny Løvlie in her incredibly beautiful illustrations.
Jenny, what was your creative process of bringing the story and characters to life? Are they based on real-life people and places?
Jenny: I do a lot of research before I start drawing. I like to cast a wide net and let the research shape the visuals. If possible, I really like meeting the author and the team – it’s lovely to get to know each other and talk the story through. I work in a sketchbook to start with and then draw the final artwork in Photoshop using my trusty drawing tablet.
The landscape is a mix of the landscape on Ekkerøy, where I grew up, and the Cornish coast where Anna lives. The underwater scenes are largely from my imagination. The grandmother character is based on my old neighbour, Jack. She taught me a lot about nature and animals when I was a child.
So, you’ve both lived near the coast. What’s your relationship with the sea? Do you think the coast has changed over the years and do you worry about its future?
Jenny: The worry for the ocean has always been present in my life. My father was a fisherman until the seas went black in the 1980s due to overfishing by commercial trawlers and he had to find other ways to make a living. A lot of debris from trawlers would wash up on the beach where I lived.
We had a big beach clean every year to make sure it was safe for humans and animals to use. I’m hopeful that we will be able to make the changes that are necessary to turn the tide on plastic pollution.
" I hope that readers will realise that we can make the oceans cleaner and safer for everyone if we all do our bit. Every time someone recycles something, or takes it home and washes it instead of throwing it away, it makes a difference."
Anna: The coastline where I live has also changed a lot in the past 25 years. The land is slipping into the sea, and the sea itself is rising. This is going to have an impact on humans and non-humans alike. Some people are going to have to move out of their houses as the land falls away beneath them, and many birds and other animals are going to lose their homes as well.
The thing that makes me most worried – angry, actually – is plastic pollution. Animals eat litter that is left behind and it makes them sick. We humans end up eating it too, as it finds its way into the food chain. It is all rather depressing once you start to think about it.
Finally, what do you love most about the book?
Jenny: It’s so difficult to choose! I love the whole book, but if I had to choose just one thing, it would be the big double page with all the different birds. I had a fantastic time drawing them all.
Anna: I love Jenny Løvlie’s depiction of the beach, the birds and the ocean creatures – and the seal, of course! It was wonderful seeing her early sketches. It was as though she’d read my mind and saw exactly how I’d hoped the book would turn out. I particularly love the illustration of the sea birds, and where the child seems to turn into a seal in their imagination.
Anna Wilson’s top tips on tackling plastic pollution
- Reduce your consumption of single-use plastics. Try to avoid buying things that come in the kind of packaging you’d throw away. Take a reusable water bottle out and about with you instead of buying bottled water, or use a resuable container to pack your picnic.
- Reuse old packaging. If you have bought something in plastic or tin foil, see if you can wash the packaging and use it again and again. Tin foil pie dishes can be used for baking, and plastic trays can become seed trays if you are a keen gardener.
- Recycle as much as possible. This means separating out packaging and recycling it in special bins. You can also take old clothes and toys to the charity shop so that someone else can enjoy them, instead of simply throwing them away.
- Go on a ‘clean-up’ adventure. Take a bag with you on a family walk and collect any litter to recycle when you get home. Or get involved in a community beach clean, like the people in The Wide, Wide Sea.