Welcome to the Oxplore Book Club!

We're delighted to be reading 'The Girl of Ink and Stars' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave for the month of May. Discover our resources below plus check out our activity sheet here to enhance your understanding further. Register now for our free online Q&A with Kiran; we look forward to seeing you there!  



About the author

Find out about this month's author, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, in the short bio below. 



Growing up, Kiran Millwood Hargrave loved to travel. She and her brother used to play games with their parents’ atlas – maybe it’s not a surprise she wrote a novel about a map-maker’s daughter! She has travelled to lots of exciting places. She says India is particularly important to her because it’s where her mother comes from, and where lots of her family still live, including her cousin Sabine, who was the inspiration for Isabella (source)! 

Kiran first got the idea for 'The Girl of Ink and Stars' whilst on a trip in the Canary Islands. The landscape of the volcanic islands and a book of myths from the area that she read whilst she was there inspired her, but it was a few years before she would write the story down. At that time, Kiran hadn’t thought of being a writer! It was only when she was in her twenties that she asked herself what she was really passionate about, and realised the answer was books. That was when she started working to become a writer (source).

Kiran’s first published writing was poetry. She studied for a Master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Oxford, and it was on that course that she started writing 'The Girl of Ink and Stars', her first novel. Kiran has now written several more books. Her second novel, 'The Island at the End of Everything' is about a girl whose island home is turned into a colony for people with leprosy (a harmful and infectious disease that mainly affects the skin). It won the Young Quills Historical Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award and the Blue Peter Book Award. Her third book 'The Way Past Winter', was Blackwell’s Book of the Year. It tells the story of Mila and her sisters journeying across an eternal winter to bring their brother home. 'A Secret of Birds and Bone' is set in Italy during a plague, and is about two children trying to find out what has happened to their mother. It was chosen as a book of the year by Waterstones, The Guardian, and The Big Issue.   

For older readers, Kiran has written 'The Deathless Girls', a retelling of Dracula which focuses on his brides, and, for adults, 'The Mercies', inspired by a storm and witch trials in the Norwegian town of Vardø in 1621. 'The Deathless Girls' was shortlisted for the Foyles Children’s Book of the Year Award, the YA Book Prize 2020, and the Diverse Book Awards 2020. 'The Mercies' was The Times Number 1 Bestseller and The Sunday Times Bestseller. She has another book for adults coming out in May 2022, 'The Dance Tree'. 

Kiran lives in Oxford with her husband Tom de Freston, who is an artist. They have created a book together called 'Julia and the Shark', about a girl called Julia who moves with her parents to an island where her mother is looking for a rare shark. 'Julia and the Shark' won the Waterstone’s Children’s Gift of the Year in 2021, and was shortlisted for Waterstone’s Book of the Year.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave


Introducing 'The Girl of Ink and Stars'

 Kiran Millwood Hargrave shares some of her thinking behind 'The Girl of Ink and Stars' and reads aloud some of the text. 


Exploring the themes in 'The Girl of Ink and Stars'

Doctoral student, Helen Dallas (Oxford English Faculty) discusses the key ideas and themes that underpin the novel and how these relate to other famous works of fantasy fiction.

Helen Dallas

The Story

Isabella lives on the island of Joya with her father, a cartographer (someone who makes maps). When he was younger, Isabella’s father travelled the world, and Isabella is fascinated by the maps of all the places he has been. However, she’s even more fascinated by a map that belonged to her mother: this map shows Joya and includes the Forgotten Territories, a dense forest at its heart. The village where Isabella and her father live, Gromera, is ruled by the Governor, who won’t allow anyone to leave the village, or to go into the Forgotten Territories. The Governor’s daughter, Lupe, is disliked by many people because of her father’s cruelty, but she and Isabella are best friends. When a girl from their class at school is found dead, killed by someone – or something – from the Forgotten Territories, Lupe sets off to try to solve the mystery. Worried about her friend (and longing to see the Forgotten Territories for herself), Isabella disguises herself as a boy and sets out with the Governor’s search party, acting as their navigator and mapping the Forgotten Territories.

How it all begins...

From the very first lines, Kiran Millwood Hargrave makes clear to us that something is wrong in Gromera:

‘They say the day the Governor arrived, the ravens did too. All the smaller birds flew backwards into the sea, and that is why there are no songbirds on Joya.’

The songbirds leaving when the Governor arrives is an omen, a sign of something bad to come. The joyful, singing birds have all fled, and in their place are the ravens, birds which are often themselves considered an omen of death (because ravens are scavengers, meaning they eat what food they can find, which includes dead animals). 

This opening also establishes the mythical elements of the story right at the start: the words ‘They say’ point to Isabella’s interest in folklore (beliefs and stories passed down from person to person), and birds flying backwards suggest something magical about the world, too. The author uses these hints of stories to hook us from the start: we immediately want to know what the truth is, to know more about Joya and the Governor. 


Myths are a key theme in 'The Girl of Ink and Stars'. Isabella loves the myths of Joya, especially the ones about Arinta, a girl-warrior who stopped a fire demon called Yote destroying the island a thousand years ago. Isabella tells Lupe that the difference between a myth and a story is:

‘A myth is something that happened so long ago people like to pretend it’s not real, even when it is.’

The power of myths is often a feature of the fantasy genre. As Isabella says, myths can be a source of knowledge from a long time ago, but working out what is just a story and what has a grain of truth in it can be difficult! 

Kiran Millwood Hargrave draws on several myths in this book, particularly the mythology of the Canary Islands. On Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, legend says that a demon called Guayota lives in the Teide volcano. 'The Girl of Ink and Stars' also makes reference to Greek mythology with the labyrinth called the Dédalo. ‘Dédalo’ is the Spanish version of Daedalus, the name of the architect in Greek mythology who designed the labyrinth that the minotaur lived in.     

By telling us about Joya’s myths at the start of the book, the author lets us wonder how they will be important to Isabella’s adventure. Because we know the myths say there was fire demon threatening the island in the past, we suspect there might be something very magical and very dangerous in the Forgotten Territories, which both builds tension and makes us want to keep reading to know more. 

A Quest

Another common theme in fantasy stories is a quest. A quest is a dangerous and difficult adventure, usually trying to find something, like Isabella going into the Forgotten Territories to find Lupe. Some of the most famous and influential works in the fantasy genre are about quests, such as 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings' series by J. R. R. Tolkien. Like 'The Girl of Ink and Stars', these books feature a journey across a dangerous and magical world, and a map of the fictional land, so you can follow the characters’ quest. You can see a map of Middle Earth, where The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are set, here. How did you feel reading Isabella’s adventure? Excited? Scared? Both? Do you think you were feeling the same emotions as Isabella, who narrates the story?

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s descriptive writing involves the senses and helping us share in Isabella’s experience on her adventure. 

‘It was hushed in the forest. The horse-high bushes stopped sound the way water does, and the torches’ light threw everything into shadow.’

These sentences tell us about what Isabella sees – not just that there are bushes, but that they are as high as she is up on the horse she is riding – and what she hears, what the quality of sound is like in the Forgotten Territories. We get a sense of how eerie the place is, as though we are experiencing it for ourselves. 

One feature of using first-person narration (the story is told by one character, in this case Isabella) is that we can only see what that character can see. This means that when Lupe goes into the Forgotten Territories, we, like Isabella, don’t know what’s happening to her and if she’s okay. It might have been interesting to hear from Lupe’s perspective, to learn more about how she feels about her father and what she finds in the Forbidden Territories. Or if we had Isabella’s father’s perspective, we could find out more about what Joya was like before the Governor arrived. But hearing only from Isabella builds tension, because we don’t know what’s happening to the characters who aren’t with her. 

A map of the 'Forgotten Territories'


Isabella goes on this quest because she cares about her friend. Friendship is another important theme in this book. Kiran Millwood Hargrave shows us how important Lupe and Isabella are to one another before the adventure starts.

‘Lupe always met me by a barrel at the edge of the market square so we could walk to school together, even though it meant she had to get up almost as early as the labourers.’

The two girls love to spend time together, with Lupe caring more about seeing Isabella than sleeping. Even in a fantasy world that includes so much that is strange and frightening – an underground prison, animals fleeing the island, unknown monsters – Lupe and Isabella’s friendship is something we can understand and relate to. We care about what happens because we care about the characters. 

Do you like sharing stories with your friends? Are those stories entirely made up, or do they have some truth in them, like Joya’s myths? 

Test your knowledge of myths from around the world!

Leave your review of 'The Girl of Ink and Stars'

Tell us what you think about 'The Girl of Ink and Stars' and you could win a copy of 'The Way Past Winter' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave! You have until the end of May to submit your review via this form and a selection of your comments will be posted below.


If you enjoyed 'The Girl of Ink and Stars', you might also like...

  1. 'The Way Past Winter' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
    1. 'The Way Past Winter' is another book by the author of 'The Girl of Ink and Stars'. Like 'The Girl of Ink and Stars', it’s set in a magical world inspired by myths. Mila lives in a cabin in the snowy woods with her sisters and brother. When their brother disappears, the sisters go on a journey across a dangerous, frozen land to find him.

  2. Percy Jackson and the Olympians – Book 1: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
    1. If you like mythology, you might enjoy the 'Percy Jackson and the Olympians' series. Percy Jackson’s life is turned upside down when he discovers that not only are the Ancient Greek gods real, but he’s the son of Poseidon, god of the sea! In the first book in the series, 'The Lightning Thief', Percy and his friends go on a quest to retrieve Zeus’s stolen lightning bolt. 

  3. 'Lalani of the Distant Sea' by Erin Entrada Kelly
    1. 'Lalani of the Distant Sea' is a fantasy book inspired by Filipino folklore. Lalani lives on an island surrounded by danger. When her mother becomes ill, Lalani has to leave the island and sail across the ocean – a journey which many grown men have died trying to make. 

  4. 'Howl’s Moving Castle' by Diana Wynne Jones
    1. Sophie works in a hat shop in the magical land of Ingary. Her life seems fairly ordinary – until she is cursed by a witch and is turned into an old woman. Sophie goes to the moving castle owned by the terrifying wizard Howl. There, she makes a pact with the fire demon who makes the castle move: they will help one another break the spells they’re under. But things turns out to be quite different from the stories Sophie had heard... 

  5. 'Magyk' by Angie Sage
    1. In a magical word (in which magic is known as magyk), things take a frightening turn: the Queen is murdered, and a powerful evil wizard is trying to take control of the land. On the same night of the murder, Silas Heap finds a baby girl abandoned and takes her home to raise with his other six sons. His seventh son, Septimus, is believed to have died. Who is the abandoned baby? What really happened to Septimus? Do these two mysteries hold the secret to stopping the darke magyk? 

  6. 'Northern Lights' by Philip Pullman
    1. 'Northern Lights' is set in a world that looks a lot like our own, but with some magical differences. One significant difference is that everyone has a talking animal companion called a daemon. Lyra and her daemon live in Oxford, getting up to mischief around the college, but then children start being kidnapped... When Lyra’s friend Roger is taken, and people she thought she could trust are apparently behind it, Lyra finds herself on the run, all the way to the North Pole...

  7. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
    1. If you liked Isabella’s journey through a magical land in 'The Girl of Ink and Stars', you might want to read 'The Hobbit', a classic of the fantasy genre! (You may have seen the film series!) Bilbo Baggins, who usually loves peace and quiet, finds himself going on a quest with a group of dwarves to get stolen treasure back from a dragon. The book also includes a wonderful map of the fantasy world of Middle Earth!

  8. Recommendations from Kiran Millwood Hargrave herself!
    1. Kiran Millwood Hargrave discusses some of the books she enjoyed in the 2020 lockdown in the short video below: