From St. Thomas Around The World

From St. Thomas Around The World

Love of literature inspires FHS grad’s new book


Leigh Crandall grew up on St. Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“It was a wonderful childhood, with lots of time outdoors,” she remembers. “We lived on a stretch of road that had no traffic, and all the kids in the neighborhood were pretty much allowed to wander where we pleased. We were just up the hill from the beach, so many afternoons were spent swimming, exploring tide pools, rock climbing or trying to construct a seaworthy raft, which never actually worked.”

But her family also spent summers at her grandparents’ farm in Berryville, “where they lived because my grandfather was a professor at the University of Arkansas. We eventually moved to Fayetteville when I was in the middle of 10th grade.”

Since graduating from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with a double major in film and English, Crandall has been traveling the world as a writer and photographer. She recently finished her first book for middle-schoolers, “Dark Hedges, Wizard Island, and Other Magical Places That Really Exist.” Thanks to her connections to Northwest Arkansas, where her family still lives, Crandall agreed to answer a few questions for The Free Weekly.

Q. Tell me about your childhood and what you remember about books and writing coming in to your world. When and how did you know that writing was your calling?

Dark Hedges in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland

A. Because we grew up on a small island before the internet had arrived, books were our main form of entertainment. Even though there were no bookshops with a children’s section there, we always had plenty to read. I felt like Christmas had come early whenever new titles from the Scholastic book order form arrived at school. I loved classics like “Little Women” but also spent hours binge reading popular series like “The Babysitters’ Club” or “Goosebumps.” My favorite books had elements of fantasy, like “The Witches,” “The Phantom Tollbooth” and “A Wrinkle in Time.” As I got older, I thought storytelling would be something I’d like to do for a living, though I wasn’t exactly sure what form that would take since I was equally interested in photography and film.

Q. Are there people you give special credit to for supporting your dreams and goals?

A. My parents always encouraged my ideas and also set the example of being involved with local arts organizations — there is so much inspiration to be found within your community. I’ve also had wonderful teachers, most especially Dr. Martha McNair, who taught English, and Warren Rosenaur, who taught drama, both at Fayetteville High School. Both of them had a passion for their subjects that was infectious and drove me to work harder.

Q. Tell us about college and how that experience led to your career?

A. I moved to Los Angeles to attend film school at the University of Southern California. I loved the curriculum, but I missed language arts and ended up double majoring in film and English. As soon as college ended I headed for New York — where I’d wanted to live since I read E.L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” [and] where I’d been hired for an internship in the photography department of Rolling Stone. The experience opened up the idea of working at magazines, a perfect marriage of visual and written storytelling. The internship soon turned into a full-time job as a photography assistant, which I loved, but I also knew I wanted to be writing more. After a little over a year there, an opportunity came up to travel with a friend through India. I was so inspired by that country and challenged myself to write daily journal entries that would do India’s beauty, wonderful people and even its hardships, justice. I could get lost in the writing process for hours, and I knew then I wanted to transition into travel journalism.

Q. And tell us about your career, which sounds wonderful and thrilling!

A. When I came back to New York, I interviewed to join the staff at a new bridal magazine Conde Nast was launching. The team had a smart, forward-thinking editor-in-chief who wanted to modernize the entire bridal lexicon. This included the “Honeymoons” section, which I became the editor of, where we focused on authentic, experiential travel. After several wonderful years with, I moved to to be the managing editor and was fortunate to travel a lot during my two years there. Two years ago my husband and I decided to spend some time living in Europe (in Berlin and Amsterdam) and so I made the switch to freelance writing.

Q. How did the idea of writing a book for middle-schoolers come about? And how did you turn the idea into action?

A. Middle-graders are at a unique age where they’re learning so much about the world through science and history, but they’re still able to see things through the magical lens of childhood. This mix of fantasy and fact, and the idea that you hold both concepts together at once, was exactly the tone I wanted to create with “Dark Hedges, Wizard Island, and Other Magical Places That Really Exist.” The book features myths, legends and incredible histories, but they’re attached to real places in the world kids can actually go visit — the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, for example, where the story goes that two giants did battle. The basalt columns still there today are said to be the remnants of a bridge from that fight.

Once I had the idea for “Dark Hedges,” I created a book proposal, which included an intro, 10 sample entries and a short personal bio. Because the book falls more into the nonfiction category, I didn’t have to write the whole book to sell it the way you would with fiction. I researched agents who seemed like a fit for my voice and this project, and happily I got a quick response from my wonderful agent at Sterling Lord Literistic. She and I worked together on polishing the proposal and then she sent out the pitch to editors. A few weeks later I accepted an offer from Running Press Kids.

Q. What have you been doing during quarantine? How has it changed your view of THE world and YOUR world?

A. Like a lot of people I’ve been relishing time outdoors with my family. The months of quarantine and social distancing have underscored how fundamentally humans need the natural world for our mental and physical well being, and I hope once this crisis passes and we’re able to turn towards the future, we’ll return the favor to the planet. If I had a wish for this book, it would be that the stories make kids feel more connected to the places in its pages and that they then grow into adults who are eager to put resources behind conserving them.

Q. What’s the first thing you want to do as you get your life back to whatever “normal” looks like?

A. Travel to visit friends!



Listen Here!

Listen to a podcast with Leigh Crandall and Becca Martin-Brown at

Buy The Book

“Dark Hedges, Wizard Island, and Other Magical Places That Really Exist” by Leigh Crandall is available wherever books are sold but, she says, “please do buy from your local, independent bookshop if you can. For online shopping I recommend, which supports local sellers.”

Categories: In The News