5 min read

How children’s books challenge us to hope harder

Reading an award-winning children’s book challenges Elizabeth Wainwright much more than expected - to imagine and hope.

Elizabeth Wainwright is a writer, coach and walking guide. She's a former district councillor and has a background in international development.

A close up of face, showing an eye, mostly obscured by a closely-held open book.

This year, the Waterstones book of the year prize was awarded to Impossible Creatures, a fantasy book for children by Katherine Rundell. This was not the children’s book of the year; this was overall book of the year – it beat novels and non-fiction books for adults. I felt momentarily but deeply joyful when I heard the news and was curious why.  

During the pandemic, I found myself unable to read the non-fiction books I usually turn too. Even adult fiction felt heavy. It was children’s books and authors I turned to. Philip Pullman, Dodie Smith, Alan Garner, Ursula K Le Guin. Others new to me. On reflection, I wasn’t reading these books because they were in any way easier, because they weren’t – they asked me to think and hope and imagine much harder than a lot of adult books, despite everything the news would have me believe. And it is for that very reason that I sought these books out. The Waterstones prize made me think a bit more about this – and why it might matter now especially.  

Imagination helps us to confront and solve problems – it is not an indulgence, it is essential for the becoming world, and for being the people we are called to be. 

First, I thought about my time as a District Councillor in local government. Here, I quickly learned all sorts of things about planning, environment, community, working across opposition and more. I needed to call on my perseverance, patience, strategic thinking. But the things that I found myself calling on again and again were imagination and relationship-building. Building relationships – especially with people who weren’t like me – was the only way to get things done.  And imagination because it’s the thing that recreates, that sees things as they could be not as they are. Albert Einstein said, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, and I’ve seen how that’s true. It did not feel enough, for example, to try to fix problems of dwindling budgets with more cuts and more inefficient meetings. Instead, imagination asked me to think about what this budget-setting process might look like at its best, and how the wider community might help us decide priorities, and how we might restructure our work so that the District doesn’t just scrape by, but thrives. It asked me to step out of business-as-usual, and imagine business-as-it-could-be.  

Jesus too shows us the importance of imagination – he so often called out who he saw people to be, not who they were. And he points us now towards what is yet to come. He calls us to wait, and to trust in his arrival – however distant it might feel. Children’s books often do this too: Frodo trusting that the ring would be destroyed, imagining life outside of the grip of the darkness of Mordor, despite all evidence to the contrary. Bastian’s imagination helping to save Fantasia in the Neverending Story. Jo March showing the possibility of another kind of life in Little Women. Imagination helps us to confront and solve problems – it is not an indulgence, it is essential for the becoming world, and for being the people we are called to be.  

I think the best children’s books do the same thing – they ask us to look up, to look out, to feel the whisper of the voice behind us urging us on to something more beautiful. 

Second, the children’s books I read during lockdown gave me hope in a way that books for adults didn’t at the time. Hope is, I think, innately tied to imagination. It asks us to look ahead, even when things aren’t clear, and walk forward. Rebecca Solnit explores hope, optimism, and activism in her short book Hope In the Dark. She says,  

“Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”  

I think the best children’s literature shows us how to hope, and shows us what right action can look like when we invoke that hope. In Rundell’s Impossible Creatures, Mal and Christopher must save the ‘Archipelago’ – where mythical creatures still live – and the world beyond them from a growing darkness. Hope shines bright, reminding the reader that it is not naïve but necessary and world-changing, if we let it be. Hope changes things. In the New Testament, Paul tells that along with faith and love, hope will remain. When it feels like the world – fictional, or real – is falling away, hope will remain. Coupled with imagination, bound with faith and love, made active with hands and hearts, it might just pull us through to things we cannot yet see.  

When she won the National Book Award, Ursula K Le Guin underlined the necessity of imagination and hope right now:  

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.” 

Jesus was the ultimate realist of a larger reality. He asks us to love in the face of hate, to believe that food and wine can come from faith, to believe so hard in love – not as a pink heart-shaped commodity, but as a world-shaking force – that we might literally see resurrection. Jesus lived in a particular place, at a particular time, grounded in people and soil and society, but always pointing to the bigger truth he knew, and to a world that did not yet exist. I think the best children’s books do the same thing – they ask us to look up, to look out, to feel the whisper of the voice behind us urging us on to something more beautiful. Importantly, this is not a rejection of the world as it is – we are called to love our neighbours here and now, to build the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. But in what is, there is the seed of what could be, there is a light that shines in places that are still dark. I think the gospel, and the best children’s books, help us to see that light and see what it might illuminate. Jesus knew that children’s minds were perhaps better at seeing this light – he even says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Allowing ourselves to imagine, to hope, is perhaps the only way we’ll take the kingdom of heaven seriously here on earth.  

Katherine Rundell herself has pointed out that children’s books don’t just make good readers, they make good people. I think that with imagination, hope, courage, and more, they help call forth the people we are becoming, and the world that could become. That is why I turned to them during lockdowns, that is why I turn to them now as parts of our world seem dark, and that is why I turn again and again to Jesus – the ultimate realist of a larger reality.  

1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 


Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.