Illustrations by Kristina Kister
For ages 9+
So eager was I to read a new middle grade by Sharon Gosling after reading 'The House of Hidden Wonders' in 2020, I regularly checked for any sign of a publication date on the bookshop wholesaler systems! As soon as I saw 'The Extraordinary Voyage of Katy Willacott' I sent a pleading message to her publisher, Little Tiger Press, for a review copy. My expectations have been met, and some! What a fantastic read this is...
I wonder how many young English girls in the 1870s wanted to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882) with a burning desire to sail around the globe exploring, discovering and understanding unfamiliar peoples, cultures and creatures. Our protagonist Katy Willacott is such a girl, and she is so filled with a fire for adventure that wild horses (or gender discrimination) won't be able to stop her!
About the story
Our protagonist, Katy Willacott, lives at Rose Cottage on the edge of Kew Gardens with her mother, father, older brother and grandparents. Katy Willacott’s mother, Mary, is a botanical taxonomist in charge of the herbarium at Kew Gardens, whilst her father is an assistant archeologist at the British Museum. Katy often helps her mother with her work, but would much rather follow in her father’s footsteps, but as was so common at the time, her wishes for adventure and exploration are sidelined in favour of her brother Stefan, because she is a girl and "expected back at the kitchen sink". Katy has a close relationship with her family who dote on her, especially her grandfather Ned, with whom she spends time sailing boats on the pond at Kew and learning all sorts of nautical skills.
Illustrations from the book by Kristina Kister
In 1879, Kew Gardens in Richmond, London is at the forefront of preserving and identifying specimens of plants sent back by naturalists around the globe, as it is today. It's a world renowned destination and beautiful place to visit if you haven't yet had the chance. The gardens are spectacular - so much to explore; there are wonderful play areas for children, the glasshouses make you feel like you are walking into the past, and the Sunday roasts are so yummy!
L to R: Kew Gardens Palm House in the 1880s, 300 paintings of specimens at Kew by Marianne North (1830 – 1890), Botanical illustration of an orchid by Sarah Ann Drake (1803 – 1857) © RBG Kew
Frustratingly, at a moment's notice, Stefan is chosen to go with their father, Josef, on an archeological dig in Hastings. Katy is incensed at the injustices of women being refused to go on expeditions, as her father won't entertain the idea of her going with him. Even though her field skills are way better than Stefan's, her father gives her a plethora of reasons why she would be a hindrance due to her sex.
I don't know who your poster pin-ups were when you were around Katy's age (feel free to let me know in the comments), but mine included Madonna, Bobby Brown and F-14A Tomcats (I was obsessed with Top Gun jets). Katy's heroine couldn't be more opposite end of the spectrum... Fran Brocklehurst (“Who wants to be a ‘miss’ when they can be a ‘hit’?”) is a bees knees heroine, an investigative journalist, daring adventurer and her articles adorn Katy's bedroom walls. Fran visits Kew to interview Katy's mother, Mary, as part of an article she is writing about women in the sciences and Katy is totally made up! I mean, imagine if Madonna had visited my mother's place of work... actually, in all seriousness that could never have happened. It's this level of excitement though for Katy!
Whilst Fran is talking to Mary about her work, they are disturbed by an unexpected visitor - Sir Thomas Derby, a naturalist who is overseeing the construction of London's new Natural History Museum and Josef's superior at the British Museum. Enter this story's no.1 major baddie. He's an arrogant, misogynist, bully. He's utterly horrified at discovering Mary, a woman, is one of the lead scientists at Kew and threatens to remove the department to the Natural History Museum as a result. As a woman reader especially, I can't help but mentally spit blood over his venom and ignorance! How women had the courage to stick their heads above the parapet in that day and age I will never fully grasp. Being a feminist in England in the 2000s is far safer.
I must add that I am truly grateful to author, Sharon Gosling, for introducing extraordinary women in this period of history to readers through this story. Perhaps Fran is the voice of Gosling, who herself imagined herself on expeditions and adventures around the world as a child, as she gives Katy hope and encouragement that she too can one day live her dreams and perhaps even lead an expedition of her own. Fran cites German naturalist Amalie Dietrich who explored Australia in the 1860s, 'Pirate Queen' Ching Shih, the USA's Flying Cloud clipper's navigator Eleanor Creesy in 1851 and English woman Mary Lacy who disguised herself as a man called 'William Chandler' to join the navy in the seven years war in the mid-1700s... I'm ashamed to say I'd only heard of Ching Shih and that was thanks to children's author, Justin Somper's addictive middle grade 'Vampirates' series! I learn more from reading children's books today than I ever did when I was a young reader in the 1980s.
Clockwise from top: Mary Lacy, the 'Flying Cloud', Ching Shih, Amalie Dietrich
Once Josiah and Stefan are on their way to Hastings, grandpa Ned shows Katy a newspaper article about the recent Perseids meteor shower meteorites falling in the coastal city of Salvador in the Bahia region of Brazil. Naturalist Sir Thomas Derby is leading an expedition to retrieve specimens for the grand opening of the new Natural History Museum. Crew needed urgently. Report to Southampton by Saturday!
With second-to-none sailing skills and a desire to be one of the "world’s extraordinary women doing extraordinary things", she manages to swear her best friend Edie to secrecy, changes into some of Stefan's clothes, hops on a train, cuts her hair and joins the crew of the SS Alerte as William Chandler (sound familiar?), cabin boy.
Illustration from the book by Kristina Kister
Katy leaves Southampton at 11.58 am on 2 August 1879 for what becomes a perilous sea voyage hoping for her name to appear on a ground-breaking meteorite discovery; instead, many weeks later, in Salvador she discovers the magic of new friendships, a curiously large black kitten, new plant specimens and uncovers the true horrifying purpose of the dastardly naturalist’s expedition when she discovers the rainforest’s devastation and tribal villages abandoned.
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil
Hiring local children desperate for work, siblings Theo and Celia, Katy manages to set up her own expedition away from Sir Thomas Derby and his cronies. It's a race against time, it's a race between good and evil, between male and female. The magic of the rainforest blesses Katy and her friends as they escape hunters time and again whilst weaving their way through the rainforest, sometimes in the feline form of a little black kitten. The reader learns through Theo and Celia's grandfather - a tribal elder - wisdom of the white men who brought disease and killed local tribespeople or enslaved them for their sugar plantations. Perhaps this expedition has a bigger purpose than collecting specimens or the glory of a discovery? Grandfather says to Katy: “not everything is for you, even if you think it is… perhaps your journey was not about the meteorite at all, but about you, yourself.”
Images of slavery in Brazil in the 1800s, sugar was the 'gold' of Brazil.
'The Extraordinary Voyage of Katy Willacott' is a thrilling historical adventure highlighting the plight of the Amazon rainforest, glory hunting and slavery, whilst giving a fascinating insight into the world of botany and exploration in the 1800s. Yet again, or perhaps for the first time, the reader is enlightened and cautioned about a period in human history when some humans had freedom and others had none, when there was so much advancement in science and technology, yet at an unfathomable cost. The cost of which is still being felt today by the descendants of the indigenous tribes who lost their lands, and those whose ancestors were sold as slaves and transported from Africa to Brazil. The relentless desire for sugar and now more recent crops like soy and cattle farms are depleting the rainforests and fast-tracking our planet's journey to extinction. This is a pacy read that never lulls and I'm very much looking forward to another historical middle grade from Sharon Gosling.
Some useful links for further research:
Transatlantic slave trade in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil http://slaveryandremembrance.org/articles/article/?id=A0129
A blog article by the author about her inspiration for the book
Earthshot Global Alliance
About the creator
Sharon Gosling (author)
Sharon Gosling is an award-winning writer who lives in a small village in the far north of Cumbria. Her first middle-grade book, 'The Diamond Thief', won the Redbridge
Kristina Kister (illustrator)
Kristina Kister is an illustrator and character designer from Essen, Germany. After graduating in Communication Design she worked as a junior art director in an ad agency in Düsseldorf, where she illustrated for clients like Weight Watchers, Fashion Designer Thomas Rath, DHL and many more. Today she is a freelance illustrator illustrating pen&paper books, children’s books, developing character and concepts for German TV shows and all kinds of projects which involve illustration work.
Having a background as a graphic designer, her style is characteristic for geometric shapes, unusual color palettes and clear outlines. Working mostly digital, she experiments with watercolour and pencil textures to give it an analogue feel.
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Publication date: 7 July 2022
*Little Tiger Press provided me with a review copy of 'The Extraordinary Voyage of Katy Willacott'.
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