We couldn’t be prouder to present our Q&A with children’s author Hannah Durkan in celebration of Children’s Mental Health Week.
Children’s Mental Health Week 2024 runs from the 5-11th February to create an awareness week that empowers, equips, and gives a voice to all children and young people in the UK.
Hannah Durkan discusses the importance of this year’s theme, ‘My Voice Matters’, and how she engages with this as an author and within her Zeina Starborn series – stories with exciting adventures about fantastical creatures.
What is the Zeina Starborn series about?
Zeina Starborn is feisty, determined, and a little bit stubborn. She is also a fantastic inventor. She lives in a very polluted world – so polluted that a thick smog has settled over the city.
Zeina is a ‘Below’. ‘Below’s’ don’t have much money, work very hard, and must scavenge for their needs. Due to the pollution, they must also wear respirator masks outside.
But there are also ‘Above’s’, who are wealthy enough to live at the top of skyscrapers which tower above the smog. ‘Above’s, like Jackson Willoughby, also have access to airships and can fly up to luxurious hotels built on the backs of giant flying whales.
The first book in the series, Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale is about Zeina and Jackson forming an unlikely friendship. It’s a fast-paced and adventurous story all about fighting for what you believe in.
If you love Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale, you can read the second book – Zeina Starborn and the Emerald King. This story is set on a frozen continent with ice palaces, bear kings, and giant flying horned sky whales.
Can you share with us your journey to becoming an author?
I’m someone who’s always loved stories. From a young age, I always wanted to be a writer.
During high school, this faded because spelling, punctuation, and handwriting became the focus, which I found very tricky – and still do. It wasn’t until later in life that I rediscovered the joy of writing.
After the birth of my first baby, I became unwell. I’m someone who has struggled with mental health problems throughout my life, and that was one of those really, really hard times for me. Luckily, I was enrolled on a creative writing course for mums, and that really helped me.
Initially, I wrote Zeina Starborn just for myself to improve my mood and recover from my mental illness. That group gave me the confidence to finish this story that had been in my head for a long time – this story about flying whales.
Until then, I hadn’t had the confidence or resilience to finish the story.
After completing it, I set about submitting it to many competitions. I didn’t get results from all of them, but I was lucky enough to win the Northern Writers Award, which got me my publishing deal with Hachette.
How do you feel about ‘My Voice Matters’?
I think there’s real power in asking questions – not simply accepting that things are the way they are and there’s nothing we can do about it. As adults, we can get bogged down in the big picture and think the small things we can do as individuals are irrelevant – but they’re not. For a significant change to happen, everyone needs to make small changes.
I think children are a lot more open to this than adults. Even children can choose one thing extra each month to do that’s small on their own, but together, it has a significant effect. This could be something like walking to school or fixing broken things instead of buying new ones.
If everyone does this together, all those small things will have a big effect.
How can creative writing aid ‘My Voice Matters’? How has it helped you?
Writing about issues you care about can be a great way to share your ideas and educate others.
I think fantasy writing can be a great way to do that because pushing the boundaries of reality to the extreme can make people sit up and listen.
Since childhood, I’ve always been very passionate about nature and caring for the environment. So, environmental issues naturally became a theme in my writing.
Zeina Starborn lives in a very polluted world where she must challenge the views of others to find out the truth and protect the sky whales. I wanted the readers of my books to be inspired to have that same curiosity and the strength to take a stand and ask questions because it’s only through asking questions that we change things that aren’t right in our world.
In the future, I hope to write even more fantasy stories for children filled with creatures that have an environmental theme and inspire readers to stand up for what they believe in.
What books would you recommend to school libraries to bring awareness to environmental issues?
As well as the Zeina Starborn series, many great books for children feature environmental issues.
It would be best if you appealed to the interests of the children. So, if they’re interested in the rainforest, choose stories about it.
My favourites are:
- The Day of the Whale by Rachel Delahaye, this is set in a world that has been flooded.
- The Orphans of the Tide series by Struan Murray.
- Why the Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo. I remember reading this as a child, and it sparked my obsession with whales and the environment.
Many great non-fiction books also feature people who stand up, make a change, and ask difficult questions. Examples of this would be:
How can schools get involved with you?
If any children have read the Zeina Starborn series and been inspired to make a change or take a stand, I would love to hear about it – no matter how small!
Please send me a picture or a message on social media – it’s something that I would love to see.
Also, if you would like me to visit your school for a talk or a workshop, there are many details on my website about contacting me here.
I’m happy to offer a free 20-minute virtual Q&A session for any class reading one of my books. You can find them in any good bookshop as well as online.
Thank you for taking part in our Children’s Mental Health Week initiative! As well as our Q&A, Hannah has also partnered with our Reading Plus Champions – wait to see how they got on.