Catherine Bruton on Bird Boy and middle grade books with rural settings

Bird Boy by Catherine Bruton. Book cover and author photo.

Our Cockatoo subscribers are heading to the mountains this month with the wonderful Bird Boy by Catherine Bruton. This hugely moving and heart-warming story had us gripped from the very first page. With a stunning rural setting and a cast of wonderful, empathetic characters it was an easy pick for our subscription boxes. Here Catherine tells us about nature therapy, the magic of osprey and her favourite middle grade books with rural settings.

What inspired you to write Bird Boy?

Bird Boy was first inspired by a friend who works with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, using nature therapy to support traumatised children, including young refugees and asylum seekers.

I have always loved animal stories: Watership Down, Charlotte’s Web, A Kestrel for a Knave, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Last Bear, When the Sky Falls, Brock, Sky Hawk… glorious, beautiful books that made me laugh and cry and which left fossil prints on my heart.

Then in 2020 I stumbled across the livestream of a Welsh osprey nest – Dyfi Osprey Project. This was the early days of the pandemic. I was stuck in my house, feeling trapped, but that day I sat transfixed watching an osprey egg hatch – and my heart soared. Over the coming months I watched the chicks grow and fledge. When Autumn came, I watched the fledglings finally take the skies and migrate.

That was the magic I wanted to capture in Bird Boy – a story about empty nests and learning to take flight. But a story also about conservation, the importance of caring for the natural world, for protecting endangered species, and learning from nature. How this care is essential for our planet’s continuing health and for our own.

Are any of the characters or events based on real people and their experiences?

As a teacher for nearly thirty years, it has been my privilege to teach refugee children from all over the world – children fleeing genocide in Rwanda, civil war in Bosnia, conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine; children displaced from their homes; brave and brilliant children learning to start again, trying to make sense of the past and to build new futures.

Like Aya in No Ballet Shoes in Syria, Omar’s story in Bird Boy was written for those children and the millions like them across the world. Neither Aya nor Omar are based on real people, but I love the idea that reading their stories might help real young people to tell their own stories of migration, displacement and starting anew – far better than I ever could.

I also hope that Aya and Omar’s story might help young people look beyond the labels of ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ and see the children behind – children with hopes and dreams, like Aya and Omar; children who are funny, kind, brave, brilliant and strong – just like so many of the wonderful young people I have been privileged to teach.

In what ways would you say Will’s mum influences the way the story unfolds?

Will’s mum instilled in him her own wonder and love of nature and especially of birds. Even as her mental health deteriorated and she found it harder and harder to cope with the world, she and Will continued to watch and feed the birds. Just before she dies, Mum tells Will, ‘we all come back as birds’ and so he feels his mother’s presence through his connection with nature and particularly with the injured osprey chick, Whitetip. I wanted the story to explore grief of losing a parent, and the ways in which our lost loved ones remain with us.

What do you hope young readers will take away from the story?

I hope that it will inspire young readers to go outside, enjoy nature, perhaps find out more about the wildlife in their local area and how they might get involved in conservation projects. I love the idea that young readers might be inspired to find out more about endangered species like osprey, or to put up a bird box or bird feeder in their own garden or yard to help common or garden species. There is so much wonder in the world around us, if we only open our eyes!

Can you tell us anything about what the future holds for Will?

Oh, I love this question! I often get asked by young readers what will happen after the final chapter of my books. They often have the most brilliant ideas for the further adventures of my characters. In fact, I happen to know that many, many young readers have written their own sequels to books of mine, including No Ballet Shoes in Syria and Another Twist in the Tale. One girl told me she just couldn’t wait for me to write the next chapter, so she wrote her own, and I love that! So, I’m not totally sure what the future holds for Will and Omar. I feel certain they will remain friends, and that they will have further nature adventures. I also feel sure it’s not the last they will see of Whitetip. But, other than that, I look forward to seeing what my readers dream up for them!

Why did you choose to write books for this age group?

I think the books I read at this age had a profound effect in shaping who I am, how I see the world, and what I write. My own work is constantly inspired by the books I loved as a child – the books which left a fossil print on my heart. From Ballet Shoes to Goodnight, Mr Tom, A Kestrel for a Knave, Tom’s Midnight Garden and many more, I often find myself revisiting much loved stories in my own work. Perhaps it’s something about the particular receptivity of young readers at that particular stage in their development. I know the books I read with my children at that age remain much loved favourites. And as a teacher I see first-hand the power of books to open young people’s eyes, expand their horizons, make them ask questions about themselves and the world. It’s an awesome and awe-inspiring responsibility to be able to do that!

Do you have a favourite place to write?

I can write ANYWHERE! In fact, I’m a bit of restless writer, so I like to change locations – coffee shops, the local library, the kitchen, in bed … even when I am out running, I often take a pen and paper in case inspiration strikes mid run!

Which other middle grade books with rural settings would you recommend our subscribers read next?

I’ve just finished Angel of Grasmere by Tom Palmer, a wonderful book set in the Lakeland Fells during the Second World War. I love anything by the amazing Gill Lewis, particularly her book Sky Hawk which was a huge inspiration for Bird Boy. Not forgetting Anthony McGowan’s Carnegie Winning Novel Lark, the fourth in his heartbreakingly lyrical collection, this one set on the moors.

 

Copies of our Bird Boy pack, including a copy of the book and loads of fun activities to go with it, are now available for individual purchase. Grab a copy while stocks last!

This post includes affiliate links to our bookshop.org page, meaning we receive a small percentage of the sale should you purchase through them. Additionally, a percentage from all sales on the platform goes directly to local UK bookshops which is an initiative we're delighted to support!


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