Wellington coast setting for kids book

17:00, Jun 10 2012
rachael king
GROWING UP: Rachael King sees childhood parallels with her protagonist.

On a typical day, Wellington's south coast can easily resemble the North Atlantic. The waves, the wild wind, the rocky shoreline.

Five years ago, writer Rachael King was taking a walk towards Red Rocks, the site of a seal colony, when a story came to her. It was more or less complete: a boy finds a seal skin on the Wellington coast and takes it home, only to learn it is the skin of a shape- shifting selkie, and without the skin, the selkie is trapped in human form.

Lacking a pen and paper, she phoned herself and dictated the story. Back home, she quickly wrote what would later become the first chapter of a young adult novel, Red Rocks.

First of all, how well known is the selkie mythology? This is northern European folklore with a tragic dimension. The stories come from Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands. Seals turn into people, leaving skins behind.

The best known treatment might be the John Sayles film, The Secret of Roan Inish. A little earlier, there was George Mackay Brown's Orkney-set novel Beside the Ocean of Time.

"It's one of those stories I've always known about and I just assumed everyone else knows about it as well," King says. "When I say the book's based on the selkie myth, I'm finding a lot of people don't know about it. I get some blank looks."

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Anyway, this was 2007. King then moved to Christchurch with her family, initially to take up a writing residency at Canterbury University. She wrote the Canterbury-set Magpie Hall, her second novel after the award-winning The Sound of Butterflies. She put the selkie chapter in a bottom drawer; after her second son was born, she dusted it off.

It was always going to be a kids' book, aimed at ages 9 to 12. In the story, young Jake is staying with his father, a writer who lives in a cottage in Owhiro Bay.

It's the school holidays; usually, Jake lives with his mum and stepfather in Auckland. With dad, he enjoys relative freedom. He explores the coast and finds the selkie's hidden skin. A cracking yarn follows.

It's not just a great story, with unexpected twists. It's also a lovely evocation of that stretch of Wellington coast - "Such an exhilarating place," King says.

Despite living in Christchurch for five years, she was never tempted to relocate the story to seal colonies at Banks Peninsula or Kaikoura. As for writing for kids, compared to adults, "I actually don't think it's that different". The first chapter feels younger to her, and from then on, she's just writing a story. She didn't have an editor or publisher telling her to keep it within certain confines. "With any big words, it's obvious through the context what they are. And I don't believe in dumbing down the language for children; if they have to get a dictionary, that's great.

"I definitely didn't feel like it was a lesser thing to do. We've got a really good tradition of children's writing here. I feel less anxious about this one coming out than I do about adult books."

There's an appealingly old- fashioned feel to the book as well, as explained by some of the influences. "My models were the books I loved when I was a kid. The one that immediately springs to mind, in terms of the tone and the age, was Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, the first book in The Dark is Rising sequence.

"I didn't read any contemporary children's novels. I re-read some of my favourites, like Over Sea, Under Stone and Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park. I was interested in that idea of a realistic world and realistic family situation where magic happens, rather than full-on fantasy and larger-than-life characters, which is the thing right now. When I finished Red Rocks, I went back and read some Margaret Mahy that I hadn't read: The Haunting, The Changeover and Kaitangata Twitch. I feel like what I'm trying to do is similar to those books."

As for the possibility that all fiction is really disguised autobiography, King sees clear parallels between her childhood and that of Jake: "Much of Jake's experience with fishing, rowing and so on is based on my own. I was a city kid but I learned to row and fish at an early age, both with Dad [writer Michael King], when he lived at Paremata, and my grandparents, who lived in the Bay of Plenty. I actually pinched a line from Being Pakeha Now, where Jake describes the anticipation he feels when he drops the bait, as a homage to Dad if you like.

"I guess it was inevitable that any kids' book I wrote would be set around the sea as it contains my most enduring childhood memories, and I was able to conjure it up at a very base, instinctual level.

"Also, Dad lived in a series of small cottages by the sea, which my brother and I used to go and stay in, so I definitely had those in mind when I created the Owhiro Bay house."

Red Rocks by Rachael King, Random House, $19.99.

The Dominion Post