Kelly Halpin spent her childhood outside. It had a profound effect on the author and illustrator. “My parents were very big on allowing me and my sister to just roam around in the woods, in the forest and among the sagebrush,” she said.
That spurred within her enduring curiosity and reverence for the natural world. “I know it’s the same for a lot of my friends who grew up in the same way, with access to the outdoors.”
But with the advent of smartphones and the latest and greatest technology, Halpin has noticed a dramatic shift among children today. “Most kids I see are pretty stuck on their iPhones or their iPads. They’re inside all the time.”
A generation growing up glued to their iPhones, not remembering a time without them, isn’t the only issue, Halpin said. “We don’t really have access to outdoor spaces the way that we used to. There is a lot less of that in urban and suburban areas. A lot of places you can’t even climb trees anymore.”
With all these notions swirling through Halpin’s mind, she wrote, illustrated and self-published her new children’s book, Silas and the Last Forest. In the book, Halpin imagines “a world where you don’t go outside anymore.”
Ensconced in a grey existence, Silas, the main character, finds a picture of a forest and is deeply intrigued. He can’t get the image out of his head “because it’s part of us as humans, to be connected to nature,” Halpin said.
So he does the unthinkable: he leaves his apartment for the first time in his life to find the forest.
Halpin said there was a moment in Jackson that sparked the idea for the book. She was listening to someone speak about a back to nature theme “and I had this idea in my head about a story where all the illustrations start out in black and white until this kid goes into nature and then everything’s in color.”
Enter Silas: a boy living in “a cement world” until he goes into the forest.
That lightbulb moment was six years ago. For years, Halpin gingerly worked on the illustrations for the book, modeling them off photographs. Then she worked on the words, carefully shaving them down for a young audience. During that time, she often put the book on the back burner in favor of her commissioned illustration work. But a voice inside her kept growing louder, one that told her: “I need to get this book into the hands of kids. I need to get this message out.”
Halpin said among the messages in the book is “taking the initiative to go out and explore your curious side, and that it’s OK to do that. And then, of course, the connection to nature that Silas was missing.”
He always felt a void in his life until he found the forest and discovered nature. That’s when he finally felt whole, Halpin said.
The book also contains a message for adults. Halpin wants parents to consider that their kids “don’t have to be constantly staring at a screen. They don’t have to be constantly entertained by something digital. They can go out and be creative and use their imagination in the outdoors because I think that’s what fuels creativity.”
In other words, Silas and the Last Forest has something for everyone. For children, it’s a gentle nudge to engage with the natural world. For parents and other grown-up kids, it hearkens back to a simpler time. It is also a warning that speaks to generations across the spectrum about a life cut off from the outdoors. It is a grey, drab and depressing existence. But once we go outside, we meet a technicolor world of possibility.