How Bristol author Polly Ho-Yen’s new book inspires you to head to your local library

Polly Ho-Yen’s new book is inspired by the nature that surrounds Bristol, as well as by her time spent working in the libraries across the city

Acclaimed Bristol author, Polly Ho-Yen, has a new book coming out this week and it’s sure to get you inspired to head both out into nature and into the cosy depths of your local library.

Having spent time working in Bristol’s public libraries, Ms Ho-Yen has seen first-hand how libraries act as enriching environments and are key in developing a love of reading.

For Ms Ho-Yen, it’s only natural, then, that her new novel weaves in so many inspiring messages about the beauty and sheer joy and magic of libraries. Inspired by the creative atmosphere of teaching in primary schools, as well as her time spent working within libraries, the book is uplifting and joyous.

“I felt very inspired by being in primary schools because you are just bowled over by the creativity that is in the air,” smiles Ms Ho-Yen. “When I moved to Bristol, I worked in the central library and I got to know the character of each of the other libraries in the city, too.

Polly Ho-Yen’s book The Boy Who Grew a Tree is a love letter to the magic of nature and libraries

“I saw how much pressure they were under but how incredibly valuable they are and how they can be a real centre for people’s lives.”

So, what can people expect from the book, which is written for ages five plus? Written in the middle of the pandemic, it’s supposed to be joyful. The Boy Who Grew a Tree, illustrated by Sojung Kim McCarthy, is about a nature-loving boy called Timi who finds a tiny shoot in his local library which magically grows into a huge tree.

With the library due for demolition, Timi is going to need the help of everyone in the community to save the library, and his tree too.

Perhaps also unsurprising then, given that Bristol is a place particularly connected with nature and the outdoors, is that the rest of the book is about the power of nature.

The character of Timi was inspired by one of Ms Ho-Yen’s former students when she was working as a teacher, who had a passion for growing plants even though he had no space of his own to do it.

Ms Ho-Yen tells us that she is also a keen (though amateur) gardener herself and finds herself drawn to the miracle of nature in cities like Bristol – from blossom to daffodil shoots and daisies – and is a firm believer in ensuring kids in inner cities have access to green spaces too.

The main character Timi was inspired from one of Polly’s former students

“This story is trying to show the magic in nature and how we can really lose ourselves in it,” says Ms Ho-Yen. “I see children focusing on a bit of soil and getting lost in the world of a ladybird on a leaf. There’s a real magic there.”

The Boy Who Grew a Tree is a love letter to the magic of nature and libraries and Ms Ho-Yen hopes that children reading it will see the magic in them too.

“I’ve always understood the value of libraries because they are completely democratic and made for everyone, no matter your background,” says Ms Ho-Yen. “You can just be, you can explore, you can investigate.”

But like with the threat of demolition in the book, working within Bristol’s libraries made Ms Ho-Yen acutely aware that they could disappear at anytime. She’s keen to remind people that they are still there to be used, and still a wonderful resource.

“Libraries are still around. But I feel like in the future, someone will say they have an incredible idea for a space that anyone can come to, one that can be a learning space, can be used in multiple ways, it will be free for everyone and it will be a really revolutionary idea,” laughs Ms Ho-Yen.

“But we’ve already got it! So, come and use them - libraries are just amazing. They are gold. They are magic to me, so I just wanted to put that in the story.”

Having spent so much time immersed in the world of literature in Bristol, I wonder if Ms Ho-Yen thinks the city is a supportive place for those wanting to pursue a career in writing?

‘We’ve still got so many of our branch libraries, here,” she says. “I think after lockdown, people haven’t realised that they are open again. But in Bristol, we’re really lucky that there are so many. There’s a culture of creating, and we see that in the artwork on the walls, and that appreciation for making is very nurturing for young creators coming up.”

Speaking of nurture, I wonder what makes Bristol home for Ms Ho-Yen. “I think the community in Bristol is really strong and there’s a feeling of being in a family,” she smiles. “There’s a sense of caretaking in the people and in the air, which I find very inspiring.”