Before there were people, there were beasts…

Boasting mighty flying beasts, mysterious lands, and a quest fraught with danger, the debut novel from Jess French is an action-packed ode to the wonders of the natural world and the start of an epic new fantasy adventure series.
We chatted to author, vet and mini-beast expert Jess about the writing of her first fiction book, the creation of this thrilling new world, and about the beast that she dreamt up as ‘the ultimate pet’…

How long has Beastlands been sitting in your brain? What inspired you?

The world has existed in my head for most of my adult life. I’ve always had a very overactive imagination – originally it was just a place that I would go to as an escape. I’ve always been obsessed with animals, and I’ve always wondered ‘what would happen if evolution had happened differently? What would that look like?’ Once I started writing other books, I kept thinking: ‘well I’ve got this world in my head, maybe I can explore fiction too…’, but I didn’t find the time to finish it until lockdown.

How did you find the challenge of making the switch to writing fiction for a middle grade audience? How did it compare to your non-fiction work?

I live a very patchwork life. I do a lot of very different things: I’m a vet, I’m a mum, I do different bits of writing… Non-fiction can be pretty easy to fit into those snatches of time, to switch on and switch off. But with fiction, you need to immerse yourself in the world, to stay in that place for a significant amount of time, understanding how your characters are feeling. It’s much harder to do that in short spurts.

And this world is so vast! There are so many places, and people, and beasts – and so many of those are not included in this first book. I know this world so well, but there were hundreds of different options of where we could go and what our characters could do. Finding the story within the world was tricky.

The trio of heroes have grown up fearing and fighting the natural world. How important was it for you to introduce young readers to the wonders of nature and to highlight the damage done to it by humankind? These are big themes delivered in an accessible, hugely entertaining way.

Opening people’s eyes to the wonder of the world was definitely in the forefront of my mind. A lot of the work that I’ve done has been highlighting often misunderstood animals. I’ve done a lot of work with minibeasts – the ‘ugly’ creatures that people don’t necessarily think of when they’re picturing big, exciting animals. I’ve done a lot of work highlighting those creatures that are crucially important to our world.

I actually didn’t think at all about bringing in conservation themes as I was writing it. It wasn’t something that I realised was in the book until after… But the book is mirroring what happens in our world so It was inevitable that when I put people into this world that it would have the same outcome! I guess even though I was writing from my imagination, I was writing what I know from nature, and I know that when people get involved they… mess it up.

Alethea is an amazing character. Fighters and warriors appear in lots of children’s fiction, but it is really thrilling to see a healer given such a spotlight, and to show such strength and ingenuity of their own. How important was it for you to show a different type of role model for young readers?

Alethea has no bravado about her. She’s very real and very raw. It was super important to me that there was a representation of the power of being kind and caring, and the power of using your brain – not just in a book-smart way, but by having ingenuity and thinking outside of the box. We often see clever characters that solve all the problems, or we see strong characters that solve the physical challenges, but Alethea comes from a place where she won’t have been educated formally, and yet she has this smart way of looking at the world and is able to solve problems by thinking laterally.

In Alethea, Rustus, and Kayla (underneath all her layers!), there is a kindness there. And a kindness to other people – as well as to the plants and the beasts – was something I really wanted to portray the strength and importance of. I think I have aspects of all of the characters in me – and maybe everyone will feel that they can relate to parts of each of them.

One of my favourite moments was Rustus sitting in the wagon reading through the bestiary, becoming ever more besotted about the natural world. Did you have a book like that growing up? Or perhaps even a Marquis Macdonald of your own who sparked your interest?

I had lots of books like that! I devoured all books – fiction and non-fiction. DK Eyewitness Guides of Dogs, Cats, Lions… Absorbing all the information about the natural world. And I read loads of fantasy stories as well.

Marquis Macdonald isn’t based on my dad, but he was the person who spent a lot of time introducing me to the natural world. We would go out into the woods, and he would teach me to look under every log, and rock and stone, and just look closely at nature. It’s so easy to go for a walk in this country and feel like there’s nothing there, but if you take the time to pause and look closely, our forests are bursting with life. Some of it is tiny life, but it’s there!

It takes so many species to make our world spin. We so often only think about humans, and we don’t often pause to be grateful for the role that animals play in our day to day lives. But if you take a magnifying glass and look closely there is so much going on there! And I think partly in the book I have magnified that: the things that are small I have made much bigger. Those things are there in our real life, you just need to take a closer look to see them.

There are so many brilliant beasts introduced in this book. Do you have a favourite?

The pangron! It was the first beast I created. I was living in South America and I had a pet cat at the time. I was like: ‘You’re so cute. You’re so fluffy… But imagine if you could fly? Imagine if I could ride on you?’. The pangron is basically something I’ve created as the ultimate pet.

(Jess’ dog shoots her a reproachful look from across the room)

My dog Baxter is the king of side-eye… Sorry Bax… You’re also great.

And finally, can you give us any hint at all of what to expect from the next adventure?

The next book will take us to the Crystal Caves…

You can expect beasts that glow, animals that are adapted to a cave environment, more adventure, more challenges, more danger, and – ultimately – more of the power of the friendship of our three main characters.

Beastlands: Race to Frostfall Mountain by Jess French is out now with Piccadilly Press.