"When animals speak, it's time humans listened." Such is the arresting strapline for The Song That Sings Us, a visionary new YA novel from zoologist and prolific children’s author Nicola Davies. Pitching readers straight into roller-coaster action, it’s a heart-in-mouth environmental thriller set in an imaginary world, but with chilling ecological echoes of way our own is heading.
The Song That Sings Us is the story of twins Ash and Xeno, and their older sister Haron, who has been raised to protect her younger siblings because they have siardw: a power to communicate with animals that is outlawed by the state. But when the ruling Automators attack the trio’s mountain home, they are forced to flee, leaving their mother to the flames. All three escape but are separated, then captured. Can they reunite and fulfil a promise made to their mother?
When we speak via Zoom, Davies, a former presenter of CBBC’s “The Really Wild Show”, tells me that the novel, her first book with Welsh indie Firefly, was inspired by her research into animal language and commu- nication, which began when she studied cetaceans in the field as a zoologist. “Sperm whales have complex click communication, humpback whales sing these incredibly complex songs. I became fascinated by parrot intelligence and experiments to teach chimps and bonobos human sign-language. So I wanted to write something that would make people think about what it would be like if we paid attention to the consciousness of other species on the planet.” And indeed The Song That Sings Us resonates with the voices of numerous species, from birds and insects to Enkalamba, the last elephant on earth, and Captain Skrimsli, a tiger. It is a tribute too to indigenous societies in our own world who, says Davies, “value animal consciousness in a way that we in Western societies no longer do”.
The novel is never didactic, but uses the richness of storytelling to convey its message. It is also beautifully written, in a way that reflects the lyricism of its title. “I absolutely adore writing dialogue and action sequences. But the sound of words, their careful choreography, is also very important to me. Even though writing long-form isn’t the same intense poetic experience as writ- ing a picture book, I still want the words to sound musical.”
This love of music derives partly from her lyric-filled childhood. “My father recited Keats to me from when I was tiny. And we had Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ playing at ear-bleeding volume three times a week.” Born in England, Davies was “utterly besotted” with animals from an early age, and is of solidly Welsh working-class heritage. A year ago she moved from the Brecon Beacons to west Wales to be closer to the sea, and among her new near-neighbours in Pembrokeshire are her friends, renowned illustrators Jackie Morris and Cathy Fisher. Davies has collaborated with Fisher, but had never managed to work with Morris, despite each having acted as the other’s first audience for years. In lockdown however, opportunity came knocking. “Me, Jackie, Cathy, and Cathy’s daughter Molly were all here during lockdown, so we formed a bubble. Every evening, as I was writing The Song That Sings Us, I’d read them an episode. I’ve never done that before. But one of the reasons I have confidence in this book is that I saw it work when I read it aloud. That was huge for me. That’s why Jackie, Cathy and Molly are credited in the book as midwives of the story.”
Morris was so enchanted by The Song That Sings Us that she asked Davies if she could design the cover. As well as an exquisite starling for the front, Morris also created animal images for the interior, including creatures to denote each of the main characters. A sumptuous hardback—one of the first hardbacks Firefly has ever published—is due in October.
Davies has numerous other projects in the pipeline, including another book with Fisher. And the redemptive story contained in her 2013 picture book The Promise is being made into an opera, for which she is writing the libretto. The Song That Sings Us is a clearly a book close to her heart, because it distils a lifetime’s passion for nature, and the increasing urgency she feels about the climate crisis. “I’ve been writing for nearly 30 years, and always my aim has been to ignite a passion for the natural world in my young readers. I have been more or less successful— sometimes I even meet people who have become biologists because they read my books. With The Song That Sings Us, I wanted to really grab people by the ventricles and say: ‘OK, you’ve really got to get this message, and you’ve really got to get it now.’”
The Song That Sings Us will be published by Firefly Press on 14th October 2021 (hardback, £14.99, 9781913102777; e-book, £7.99, 9781913102500; audio tbc).
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