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Spellhorn

Spellhorn is a fantasy adventure story about a blind girl and a unicorn. Laura is the only who can see, with her ‘mind’s eye’ the unicorn who comes to her garden.

As the Wild Ones come to reclaim him, Spellhorn takes her to his Wilderness. She has a mission to complete, and in return, she regains her sight. But can she ever go home again?

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Published by Harpercollins Essential Modern Classics, 2010, ISBN 978-0007331994. Previously published by Hamish Hamilton, 1989, HarperCollins paperback, then Collins Modern Classic.

Spellhorn is also published by HarperCollins as an unabridged audio book. Click here to listen to an audio sample and to order.

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And then they vanished, from sight, from sound. Laura, and the Wild Ones, and the unicorn, had gone.

Foreign editions

Spellhorn was also published in Denmark and Mexico.

Spellhorn, my magical adventure story, is about a blind child who senses something beautiful and mysterious in her garden. She tries to tell her friend Sam about it, but he can’t see what she sees in her mind’s eye. But other creatures move around their village, people from long ago and far away. They are the Wild Ones, led by the Old Woman. They want their unicorn back. They also want the girl-child, Laura. As soon as she touches Spellhorn, two amazing things happen. Laura can see the unicorn, and the Wild Ones capture her and take her to the Wilderness to be one of them. She has many adventures there, and fights many battles. She has enemies, and she has extraordinary friends. But most of all, she has Spellhorn.

Berlie Doherty has magic in her… uses words as if language had just been invented.

Times Educational Supplement

How ‘Spellhorn’ began

Spellhorn began as a commission to write a radio play about a unicorn. Radio is wonderful medium to write for, as the listeners are invited to join in the sound world that the writer creates for them. I felt it would be amazing to involve children in this new project, and to share the development of the play with them. Then I thought how interesting and exciting it would be to involve children for whom sound has a particular quality. I contacted a school for the visually impaired in Sheffield, Tapton Mount School (now closed), and asked if it would be possible to talk to some children there.

They said yes, and invited me to meet four of their children, all aged eleven. They made up one class, imagine! Holly, David, Richard and Robert. At this stage I had no idea what I was going to do, or what I was going to write about. I had had very little contact with the blind. I wanted to make this a very special experience for them. 

Powerful and moving, a delicious blend of fantasy and reality.

Lovereading4kids

How we worked together

I soon I got to know Holly, David, Robert and Richard really well. We went for walks together, we went swimming,  they came to my house and played with my cat and stayed to tea.

And we wrote all kinds of things together. I began by asking them to write, on their Perkins Braille typewriters, stories or poems about any animals. I was surprised because I wouldn’t have known from their writing that they weren’t sighted children, as they wrote descriptions of colour, shape and movement. I realised that what they were doing is what most children do, using what they read as inspiration for the way they write. They were giving me what they thought I wanted, but I found I wanted much more.

I wanted to encourage them to write from their own experience, using their other senses. We spent many hours together, writing and reading to each other, listening to sounds and making words for them, listening to each other on recordings, as if it was radio.

Why I wrote ‘Spellhorn’ as a novel

Gradually I began to work on the play, which I called A Dream of Unicorns. I wanted to share it with the children while I was writing it, so I wrote it as a novel at the same time, so it would be easier to read it to them. The scenes in the play became chapters in the novel. At the end of every chapter we discussed what might happen in the next one, and then they write their version and I wrote mine. We’d read them out to each other and compare them. We made up languages and taught them to each other, and that was how I developed the language of the Wild Ones. We made up songs. We created Wildernesses out of silver paper, wool, leaves, anything. Their Wilderness had nothing to do with sight.

After the play was broadcast on Radio 4 I continued to work on the novel. When the book was published we had a launch party in Crystal Peaks Library in Sheffield. The National Library for the Blind created Braille copies for the children, and I commissioned a potter to make four ceramic tiles with the raised impression of the book cover so the children could have lasting memories of our wonderful time together.

Woodcut of a unicorn, dating from 1658. Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Woodcut of a unicorn, 1658. Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Why I wrote about a blind child

I didn’t know, when I started to write the play and the story, that Laura was going to be blind. It just happened, and then it was so obviously right that I wondered why I hadn’t always known that was what I was going to do. I didn’t tell the children until I read the first chapter out to them. I said ‘Have you noticed anything about Laura?’ They said this and that, and then I said, ‘The thing is, she’s blind.’ ‘Well of course she is,’ they said. I knew I’d got it right.

I loved the freedom of writing fantasy, and I really enjoyed developing the language of the Wild Ones. Often when children send me letters about Spellhorn they write  in the language of the Wild Ones! That makes me right heart-glad, that does.

Questions from children

Q Are you yourself blind?

A No, and I didn’t really know any blind people until I visited Tapton Mount School in Sheffield.

Q Did you learn anything from the children?

A Oh yes! The most important thing I learned was that blindness isn’t a frightening thing, it’s just different. I learned, occasionally, how to look into their world of darkness. I learned that for some of them, blindness didn’t mean complete darkness, but a different kind of light. But they also taught me to write bravely. For instance, when we all wrote the big battle scene in Spellhorn, their version was much more bloodthirsty than mine. A battle is a battle, they insisted. And so mine became much livelier, on their insistence!

Q Where did you get the idea for the Sea of Snakes?

A In some of the legends about unicorns they are said to be able to make poisoned water clear, so I imagined a whole sea poisoned by snakes, that would divide the wilderness from menfolk land.

Q How did you think of the descriptions for the different lands?

A Sometimes I base them on places I know, like the wild, rugged moors of boulders on the hill behind my house, where there are some huge stones battered by the wind into weird shapes. Sometimes I just dream the landscape up.

Q Do you think going home would be a happy or a sad time for Laura?

A Happy-sad, as the Wild Ones would say.

If you love fantasy and magical fiction…

You may also enjoy some of my other books:

Writing idea

When I am writing from Laura’s point of view in the first part of Spellhorn, I only use the senses of hearing, touch, smell and taste. Write a story about meeting a fantastic creature without using the sense of sight in your description. Think about the sounds it would make as it moved, breathed, howled or roared or sang or whimpered. Think about touching it – is it warm or cold to touch, rough or smooth, hairy, furry, scaly, prickly, soft? Does it have a smell – foul, sweet, salty, flowery? Would you taste your fingers then? Oh, imagine if you did!!

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