The plot for The Explorer made its first appearance while I was in the sky, up above the Amazon River. I knew already that I wanted to write something akin to the books I had loved as a child; survival stories, in which mud-spattered children struggled to stay alive against the odds. I loved reading about improvised rabbit traps and soup made from rain water; I loved Hatchet and Willard Price. Growing up in Zimbabwe, I had a dog-eared book called Don’t Die in the Bundu: it had detailed diagrams showing how to extract water from a vine and light a fire with two sticks. By age ten I had memorised most of it, just in case. And that first day in Brazil, looking down over the jungle, I saw a green world large enough to fit a thousand adventure stories.
Almost every chapter in the novel is based on something I saw in the Amazon; though with many embellishments (I caught a tarantula; I did not eat it). I learned how to build a jungle fire, how to gut a piranha (carefully), and how to extract the edible grubs from cocoa pods. I learned just how loud the jungle is at night; an opera of insect calls and monkey cries. With a friend and a guide, we traversed river tributaries on a wooden fishing boat with peeling red paint. One morning, at sunrise, a pod of wild pink river dolphins swam under our boat. We pulled off our shoes and jumped in, fully clothed, to swim after them.
Not all of the journey, of course, was idyllic. I left with seventy mosquito bites, many of them in impolite places. A piranha bit the tip off the finger of our guide, and we had a close call with a caiman. But it remains one of the astonishing times of my life; I thought, before I went, that I already knew how beautiful the world could be. I didn’t. There are places so breath-taking that it feels incredible that to reach them all you have to do is get on an aeroplane. It feels that there should be a task: you should have to wrestle a tiger. I wanted, with The Explorer, to try to help children imagine the beauty of the world just a little more sharply: to add one more landscape to their vision of the world.
Most of all, though, I wanted to write a book in which the children discover that they are braver they think they are. I wanted to write about children discovering that the world is more beautiful and more complicated than they had ever imagined. I wanted to write about fire and food and love. Survival stories are after all, at their heart, about why it’s worth living in the first place.