Why I wrote Wolves In Helicopters…
“MUMMY!” screamed our three year old son.
And like I’d been struck, I would bolt up from my bed and navigate a flight of steep stairs in the dark, to his room. I’d jump into his bed and wrap my body around his trembling form. Stroking his head of soft curls I would say, “it’s ok, I’m here, and you’re ok. It’s just a dream.”
Once he had caught his breath I’d ask, “what did you dream about?” But he would never tell, and I imagined that perhaps he felt, if he spoke it out loud it would summon the terrors of his nightmares into life. So I stayed with him until he dropped back to sleep, and then I would lay awake, wondering what he had experienced or seen to provoke dreams too horrific to even talk about.
The nightmares went on and my midnight dashes down to his room became a regular occurrence, but still our happy, joyful little boy remained tight-lipped. Until one night, he let slip.
In the half state between dream and wake he whispered to me, just one word...
Wolves, a primal, ancient thing to fear.
Wolves, such a prominent, common species in children’s literature, and of course we read a lot... Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Clever Polly and The Stupid Wolf, Peter & The Wolf beautifully illustrated by Alan Howard and of course, my favourite, The Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman. Children’s bookshelves everywhere sag under the weight of these much maligned and misunderstood creatures, so capable of striking fear into our hearts despite the fact humans in Britain persecuted them to extinction by 1760.
Of course we talked about nightmares and I explained there were no wolves in Truro (as far as I know!) and how it’s good to talk if something is troubling you, should the wolves in his dreams represent some other worries, but nothing we said or did seemed to help.
Watching someone you love suffer, and in this case, the person we loved most in the world, and not being able to do anything to ease that was heartbreaking. And that stayed with me, planting the seed for our book Wolves In Helicopters.
Thankfully, as he grew, the night terrors became less frequent, until eventually they stopped all together. But the seed was germinating and one day, in front of a blank page, pencil in hand, the lines came to me;
Hop sits in a dark wood.
One hundred hungry eyed wolves watch her through twisted trees.
I wanted the story to acknowledge that nightmares aren’t scary, no, that’s belittling the experience of a nightmare, they’re not scary, they are terrifying.
I wanted children to know they are not alone in their experience of nightmares, and I also wanted to say maybe, it’s possible to beat those monsters in your dreams.
So I thought of my son’s dreams and of my own childhood fear of alligators, (as far as I know there were none of those in Surrey either!) As a child I developed a fairly macabre taste and enjoyed frightening myself by sneaking a look at my Dad’s book covers, Jaws or James Herbert’s The Rats and of course all the fairytales we read were just a page turn away from something horrific. So I channeled all that into writing the story.
And then I showed a first draft to a writing tutor who told me it was too scary for children. So I showed it to another, the brilliant Tessa Strictland, who told me, “It’s like Hitchcock wrote a picture book, this is good.” So I carried on...
I am so grateful to Sue Buswell at Andersen for championing the story; it was a brave choice for a publisher as it’s not really a ‘mainstream’ book. And you can imagine my excitement when Sue paired me up with Paddy Donnelly, an illustrator I had long admired. The colour palette he used is incredibly beautiful and perfect for the dream scenes, the warm pinks softening the text. The confused expressions of the wolves towards the end of the book are hilarious bringing great humour and ridicule to the menaces of the protagonists nightmares, which, I am hopeful, may be a help to any children suffering with night terrors.
Thanks for taking the time to read about our book, I do very much hope you enjoy it.
– Sarah Tagholm