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‘The Song That Sings Us’ by Nicola Davies

A review of The Song That Sings Us, an epic environmental adventure story by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Jackie Morris.

The Song That Sings Us is an important novel that combines Nicola Davies’ work as a zoologist, her wide and deep knowledge of the natural world and her natural skill as a storyteller.

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Published by: Firefly, 2021. Available from Amazon.

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‘The Song That Sings Us’ – the story

In the alternative world that is the setting for The Song That Sings Us, the song is the link between all the creatures of the world. Some humans, the Listeners, can hear what other animals are saying and thinking. And some animals can slip their thoughts into the minds of humans and communicate with them. Many people, the Green Thorns, are trying to save the natural world from extinction. But others, the powerful Automators, have one aim: to destroy nature.

At the beginning of the story Harlon and her twin siblings Ash and Xeno are trying to help their mother to defend their home against the approaching Automators. Ma tells them to flee to save themselves – and their world! They must find a ‘lost island’. They set out on a perilous, exciting journey that separates them from one another and throws them individually into the hands of the Automators. Xeno and Ash are in particular danger because they are Listeners. If the Automators find this out, they will destroy the twins’ minds.

On their terrifying journeys the children encounter a vast array of characters. Some, like Doada, the leader of the Automators, and his sidekick Dough-Boy are unstintingly wicked. Others, like Mayo, help them on their way. She is a wonderfully drawn character, bedecked with a mop of hair that glistens with the jewel-like insects who are her friends.

The animal characters

Then there are the animals. The children meet them on their journey, travel with them, communicate and suffer with them, are helped by them, and fight alongside them. For instance, the Gula, a lovable wolverine who will warm your hearts; the astonishing Arctic Tern, whose song is the finest poetic writing you’re likely to come across; Skrimsli, the charismatic tiger captain of the Ice Maiden; and my favourite, Enkalamba, the last elephant of the forest.

I is all that remains
Only I.
But without we, what is I?
Without we, what can I be?
Where is the song for me?

Lost Island

Ma sent her children to find ‘a lost island’. It seems a hopeless task – what is it, where is it, why is it lost? They have no knowledge of it, or why they have to go there, but they know they must find it. And finally, the seemingly impossible quest is almost completed: Lost Island is located at last.

Everything runs through this place. … Every song and every story ever told runs through here and reaches out across the world. If you could draw them on this map it would vanish under a million threads.

It is here on this beautiful, magical island that Harlon, Xeno and Ash must bring an end to the wickedness of the Automators. But they aren’t there on their own; all their friends are there – but also their enemies. It is the ultimate showdown: the world they love is under its final threat.

Nicola Davies says:


“I’ve spent my entire career communicating biological science to children in various ways, trying to raise passionate zoologists, environmental advocates and campaigners. So almost all of my previous books in some way are about nature and human relationships with the natural world. In some ways, The Song That Sings Us is entirely consistent with that history, with deep roots in zoological science and in what I know about the human connection with all living things. But, this time, I wanted to write about it in a really different way, in a way that would be more emotionally engaging, in a way that would take my readers on a really exciting journey, in a way that would deliver a powerful message that everyone needs to hear.”

My thoughts on ‘The Song That Sings Us’

The Song That Sings Us is a hugely ambitious and important novel for all ages, dealing as it does with major concerns of environmental change and destruction. There is an enormous character list, and those of us who get confused by trying to remember who’s who could begin by jotting down new characters as they occur – but I promise you that very soon you’ll abandon the list. Nicola Davies’ powerful narrative will sweep you along with it, and everything and everybody will fall into place!

It is an epic adventure story, brimming with characters, animal and human, with ideas, poetry, humour, with exciting and seemingly impossible challenges, with heroic figures, slaughter of innocents, revenge, wickedness, endurance and triumph. Most important of all, it has a positive ending, an epiphany of song that brings an outstanding novel to a joyous close.

About Nicola Davies

Nicola Davies with Jackie Morris
Nicola Davies with illustrator Jackie Morris

Nicola Davies is a prolific writer, the award-winning author of 80 picture books, fiction and non-fiction books for all age groups. The Song That Sings Us is her 80th book – and, astonishingly – her first novel.

She is also a passionate environmentalist and conservationist and was one of the original presenters of the BBC children’s wildlife programme The Really Wild Show. She was trustee for the World Land Trust for many years, and has based several stories on their projects in different locations. The World Land Trust work with partners like Viet Nature, Hutan and Wildlife Trusts of India.

And she has explored some of these places: she’s an adventurer! If you visit her website and look at her blog you will find an exciting photographic diary of her travels in a rainforest in Borneo.

‘The Promise’

In 2022 an animated version of her picture book The Promise will be toured by a small touring opera. It will link to tree planting and rewilding projects around Britain. You can watch the filmed animation and and also Nicola’s introduction to it on YouTube.

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PAPERBACK

Published by Walker Books. Available from Amazon.

About Jackie Morris

High praise must also be given to Jackie Morris for her striking cover and inside illustrations. She is the highly-acclaimed author and illustrator of many beautiful picture books. Visit her website to explore her beautiful range of books, thoughts, and memories. Deservedly, in 2019 she was awarded the Kate Greenaway award for her much-loved book The Lost Words, written by Robert Macfarlane. In 2018 they jointly received the Children’s Book of the Year award.

Jackie Morris with Nicola Davies
Jackie Morris with Nicola Davies
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Published by Hamish Hamilton. Available from Amazon.

I visited her cottage in Wales a few years ago. She took me for a walk along the cliffs to show me the bay where seals come to have their pups. She told me the names of the coastal wild flowers, and we watched gannets diving. Jackie is a keen observer and painter of nature.

Jackie and fellow-author Catherine Fisher became a writers’ bubble with Nicola Davies: during the long hours of lockdown she read The Song That Sings Us aloud to them; they discussed it, cried over it, laughed with it, rejoiced, and begged for more!

‘The Song That Sings Us’ – reviewed by younger readers

“It is hard to explain this book without giving much away, there are a lot of twists and turns, but what I can explain is that this book changes the way we look at climate change and species extinction. I particularly liked how some people could reach into the minds of different animals and be able to listen to their point of view. My favourite character was Harlon because she was always so focused on what she was doing. I did not understand the ending that well because the plot changed a lot, but I understood the rest of the book clearly. This book is aimed at people who are twelve and up who are real bookworms. I would give this book four out of five stars because it is a truly magical story that will draw you in but is a hard read at times.”

Review by Emily Howden-Leach, Y8, Hope Valley College

Emily from Hope Valley College, one of my young reviewers of ‘The Song That Sings Us’

“This is a beautifully written book, trying to mirror climate change in a different reality, with animals or listeners vocalising how it affects them. The characters were interesting and the storyline was encapturing.

I would have liked some more from Xeno’s perspective as she was an important character. I found the ending slightly too predictable – but it was the best ending possible.

I would give it 9/10 and would recommend it to – anyone!”

Review by Maia, Y8, Hope Valley College

Maia from Hope Valley College, one of my young reviewers of ‘The Song That Sings Us’

Children connecting with wild animals in my own books

One of my early books, Tilly Mint and the Dodo, was inspired by a visit to The Jersey Zoo, which was founded by the naturalist, conservationist and writer, Gerald Durrell, in 1959. The emblem of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is a dodo. Tilly Mint and the Dodo forms the second half of Tilly Mint Tales. Tilly Mint tries to save the last dodo in the wold from extinction.

Two other of my books in which children connect with wild animals are Wild Cat and Bella’s Den.

Tilly Mint Tales by Berlie Doherty
Wild Cat by Berlie Doherty
Bella’s Den by Berlie Doherty, 2018 edition

Over to you

Gill Lewis also writes very popular children’s books about animals and the environment. What others can you recommend? Let me know in the comments box below!

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her most recent books are Far From Home and Joe and the Dragonosaurus. Her latest novel The Haunted Hills will be published in 2022. See the About me page for more information.

This post has 2 comments

  1. Hi Berlie, I wish I’d discovered this lovely blog before. I’m going to share it with other grandparents. It is perfect book inspiration for grandchildren near and far. Thank you, Nicola

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