Isa Pearl Ritchie and the first of her new fantasy series.

How anxiety and illiteracy inspired a young adult fantasy series

A new fantasy series by Isa Pearl Ritchie focuses on a girl who struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. Here, Ritchie explains how her own childhood sparked Awa and the Dreamrealm. 

I was confused a lot of the way through my schooling. I would zone out a lot in class and I struggled to pay attention. I didn’t realise at the time that I was neural-atypical. A Pākehā child raised in a bicultural family, I attended a total immersion kohanga reo pre-school and then went to kura kaupapa for the first three years of my schooling. I learned to read and write in te reo Māori. To me, it felt intuitive. 

But when I was eight I transferred to a mainstream school. I wrote about the experience for the Pantograph Punch.I remember the spinning sensation, the panic on my first day when Mrs Roe asked us to write down every word we knew how to spell. I only knew ‘and’ and ‘the’ in English. I left the page blank … I went from feeling fully literate to illiterate.”

It turned out I had a learning disorder – resulting from being neural-atypical – but I wouldn’t figure that out until I was an adult. I struggled all the way through school, except when I was really interested in a topic, and then I could excel. 

On top of that, not being able to read or write in English as an eight-year-old in a “normal” schooling context in New Zealand was painfully disempowering. I felt stupid and ashamed. I believed that it was too hard, that I’d never learn, and that I’d have to find a career that didn’t involve literacy, which didn’t leave many options.

Getting obsessed with particular books was what helped my literacy the most. The first books I got excited about were actually Goosebumps – those spine-chilling tales by R L Stine which were so big in the 90s. When I was nine, they were the most popular exciting fad, and all the kids wanted to read them. I got caught up in this wave of terrifying obsession and all of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I just really wanted to read.

At first, it seemed impossible. It was so hard that I had to get my mother to help read to me (very begrudgingly because she hated those silly books). My first Goosebumps book was about a piano being played by a pair of disembodied hands, and with much persuasion, she would read me a chapter and then I’d read a chapter to myself. I struggled through that first book but my literacy skyrocketed as I read a whole lot of other Goosebumps books.

My mother, hoping my tastes would mature and realising I liked fantastical things, got out The Hobbit from the library. I struggled with that too, painfully, but I adored the mythical world and cried when some of the dwarves died. Then I read some fabulous local books by Margaret Mahy and Gaelyn Gordon. In intermediate school I was reading Lord of the Rings which was also a big challenge. But over that time – in just three years – my literacy went from basically zero to the reading level of an 18-year-old by age 12.

I grew up. My grades improved significantly at university where I could choose to only take interesting papers. I studied sociology and eventually wrote a PhD on food sovereignty. I also wrote two novels: The Seeker’s Garden, which has themes around seasons, life changes, and grief, and last year’s Fishing for Māui, with themes around food, family and mental illness. 

I never planned to write a fantasy novel for young people.

Fittingly, the rush of inspiration came in a flood of purple stars. I was in bed one night, about a year ago. I was falling asleep when I was struck with a vision of a mystical glowing creature whispering suggestions for dreams into the ears of dreamers. More ideas flowed and pooled around this one. I turned on the light and wrote everything down: “dreaming is part of an evolution of consciousness, visions of sparkly purple stars … finding a sensitive child who could see the dream creature … sensitivity as a super power.”

I knew this was a book for young people. And I felt compelled to write it, realising that fantasy books had played such a major role in my life.

“Books [that] made me bubble with excitement”

I wanted to write something that would be relevant for other New Zealand kids, something both familiar and fantasy, a mixture that I’d rarely found in books. That’s why I loved Gaelyn Gordon’s stories. They were just so fantastical. There were three cousin witches in Tripswitch; mythical creatures that were inspired by local mythology in Stonelight; aliens that lived in your brain and had magical powers in the Alfred Brown series. All these books made me bubble with excitement. 

As a child, I used to feel I would have no place at all in society because I would never learn to read and write in English. Learning to read – and learning to love it – was thrilling, as was the sense that I’d finally found places that I belonged, even if they were inside the pages of books. 

When I read I love the feeling of connectedness, of communion with something bigger, deeper and greater. I want to share the sense of meaning and empathy that people can get through reading. These things inspired me to write novels in the first place.

The other thing that came to me in the rush of sparkly inspiration that led to Awa and the Dreamrealm was a surprising sense of terror. It was that kind of fearful awe I get from thoughts of enormous sea creatures in the deepest ocean. And I was very confused about why this was happening. A couple of people I talked to suggested that this fear was part of the story.

The terror made me reflect on the extreme fears and anxiety that I experienced as a child, often through ordinary daily activities. It’s tricky to explain non-specific anxiety disorders because they make very little sense. Social interactions would put me on edge and I would retreat into my shell. School sports  – especially anything that put me on the spot – brought on extreme panic. The aerobics circles in the morning were fine until I was made to go into the centre. I would freeze in icy terror while the other kids attempted to drag me into the middle. Anything involving speaking in front of the class was enough to send me to the sickbay with a headache. To make matters worse I had an extreme phobia of death, and anything related to death would set off my anxiety, including seeing gravestones, funeral parlours, or the line “there are people dying” in the Michael Jackson song ‘Heal the World’ that we had to sing in school.

I still struggle with anxiety, and I’ve learned a lot of skills to manage it now, but as a child, I had no idea what it even was.

Isa Pearl Ritchie’s fantasy series began as a dream of purple stars.

Anxiety is invisible. It’s often silent. It’s often thought of as shyness or something else that matches the external behavioural responses – that is, what people see on the outside – but internally it’s extreme and painful and awful and paralysing. For me, it was tightening in the chest and constricted breathing, and it was set off by so many things, being such a sensitive child.

The best New Zealand statistics around anxiety in our children show rates are tracking up. As of last year, 3.7% of children younger than 14 had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, up from 0.4% in the 2006/07 survey. Many, of course, will be undiagnosed. 

While there is a large body of research around highly sensitive people, the term ‘sensitive’ is still often used as a derogatory label. Sensitivity for me, means I’m affected more than most people by my environment. I’m strongly affected by the emotions of people around me, and being around groups of people or crowds is a lot of sensory input. It takes me a while to recover from social interactions, and I’m in a constant state of processing ‘life’ inputs. For me, this sensitivity extends to the physical senses. I have an annoyingly strong sense of smell, hearing, taste, and even sight (my partner makes me sniff food to tell him if it’s still safe to eat). 

In order to sleep, I need to wear earplugs and an eye mask and sometimes turn the dehumidifier on, to buffer my own sensitivity to sound and light. I wasn’t aware of any of this, in particular, as a child, because I had no idea what normal experiences of these things were like.

I suspect that sensitive kids are more prone to anxiety and I wanted to explore this theme in Awa and the Dreamrealm. Being a sensitive person can also be a strength which is why the story celebrates sensitivity as a special ability. I wanted that to be a kind of superpower, and I wanted to bring anxiety into the story in a way where it was both a challenge for Awa and an opportunity for her to develop resilience.

As I started writing, the book bloomed and became enormous. I realised I was writing at least a trilogy, so there are now two more books to come. I think this will make it even more exciting because I wrote this book, in a sense, for myself as a 10-year-old and for other especially sensitive and imaginative, maybe slightly anxious children. As a child I would have loved the continuity of having a whole series, not just a single book, to mitigate that feeling of sadness when you get to the end of the book and it’s over.

My wish is that Awa and the Dreamrealm can give something of the kind of literary magic that captivated me as a child, helping to boost my literacy to the point where I could eventually write a PhD thesis and novels. And perhaps another child like the past me will pick it up and see a little of their self reflected in the story.

Awa and the Dreamrealm by Isa Pearl Ritchie (Te Rā Aroha Press, $22.99) is available from Unity Books.



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