Gecko Book

November 4th, 2017

My new Nature Stroybook, Gecko, is about a day in the life of a gecko, as he hunts for food in the jungle and is himself hunted by deadly predators. With stunning illustrations by Brian Lovelock and published internationally by Walker Books. Learn more about Geckos.

Reading and the Brain

October 1st, 2017

Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways. Gail Rebuck (Humans Have the Need To Read)

Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed. Maryanne Wolf

Readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative… using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities. Washington University

We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically. – Gregory Berns (Emory University)

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Photo: My grandson, Spencer, 5 months old

Best Opening Sentences

September 2nd, 2017

Never open a book with weather.– Elmore Leonard (10 Rules For Writing)

The best opening sentences in novels take the reader captive immediately – they introduce character, setting and problem; they fire the imagination; and the action is clear:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on … that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.– Kurt Vonnegut

(Vonnegut’s own Breakfast of Champions begins, “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”)

My favourite opening from a children’s novel is from Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, deftly introducing people, place, and problem in a single sentence:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Test Yourself

Match these classic openings from children’s novels to the titles below.

1. All children, except one, grow up.

2. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

3.The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff.

4. Here I am, Ralph William Mountfield, banished to my bedroom on Christmas Day.

5. Keith the boy in the rumpled shorts and shirt, did not know he was being watched as he entered Room 215 of the Mountain View Inn.

6. My father is put in the stocks again! Oh! the injustice of it!

7. When Old Tip lost his bark, Uncle Trev had to teach his horse to bark and chase the cows up to the shed for milking.

8. It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.

9. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

Titles: The Iron Man, I Capture The Castle, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Devil-in-the-Fog, Matilda, The More the Merrier, Uncle Trev, Peter Pan

More: Advice for writing an effective opening (Jacob Appel).

 charlotte's web

Jane Goodall – Reason For Hope

August 1st, 2017

Jane Goodall’s memoir, Reason For Hope, is certainly that – her life in an inspiration in difficult times. The book covers her childhood in WW2; her studies of chimpanzees which revolutionised biology; and her development work via the Goodall Institute. The writing is honest and poetic, and I like the way she integrates science with her beliefs (which embrace several traditions). Here’s a link to an interview with Jane Goodall; and quotes from the book:

Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference.

We either agree with Macbeth that life is nothing more than a ‘tale told by an idiot’, a purposeless emergence of life-forms…or we believe that, as Teilhard de Chardin put it, ‘There is something afoot in the universe, something that looks like gestation and birth.’

Yes, my child, go out into the world; walk slow
And silent, comprehending all, and by and by
Your soul, the Universe, will know
Itself: the Eternal I.

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Bees Tell The Time

July 1st, 2017

Honey bees have a body clock to keep track of time – this is vital because flowers produce nectar at different hours of the day – eg. dandelions at about 9AM. We have a similar inner clock but most of us rely on outer clocks to tell the time. If our devices were removed we’d probably revive our body clock. Bees learn very quickly: scientists trained some bees to feed (on sugar water) at 10.30AM, and after that the bees turned up at exactly that time to be fed every day.

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Peake Pirate

June 4th, 2017

Not another pirate picture book! Yes, but a beautifully offbeat one. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) is a masterpiece of illustration by the artist/novelist Mervyn Peake (author of the intricate Gormenghast trilogy). His pirate Captain has a mid-life crisis on a weird pink island where he discovers ‘a creature as bright as butter’ who inspires him to ‘drop out’ (the creature looks ‘like Bob Dylan with cocker-spaniel ears’ – NY Times.) Peake’s son, Fabian, says his father always wanted to live on an island ‘living a bohemian life free from the pressures of modern society’. See more of Peake’s incredible illustrations.

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The Day Boy and the Night Girl

May 7th, 2017

The Day Boy and the Night Girl (1879) is a fairy tale by George MacDonald about a witch who raises two children in a bizarre experiment – the girl, Nycteris, never sees the sunlight, and the boy, Photogen, never sees the night. The two escape and meet at the twilight hour to help each other overcome their fears of dark and light. It’s an eerie romantic allegory which also subverts male/female fairy tale roles. MacDonald was an unorthodox preacher turned writer whose fantasy tales inspired both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. My favourite is The Light Princess (1864) a witty story about a feisty  princess who has lost her gravity – she floats like a helium balloon and can’t take anything seriously, even a prince who gives up his life for her.

MacDonald occupied a major position in the intellectual life of his Victorian contemporaries. His stories are profoundly experimental and subversive. – (The Complete Fairy Tales of George MacDonald)

Plant Intelligence

April 6th, 2017

Plants have between 15 and 20 senses, including smelling, tasting, and sensing light and sounds. The root tips are especially ‘intelligent’: sensing gravity, water, light, pressure, hardness, volume, nutrients, toxins, microbes, and messages from other plants. Here are some remarkable examples of plant behaviour:

  • Some corn plants emit a scent when caterpillars attack them, and the scent attracts parasitic wasps which then eat the caterpillars.
  • Many plants produce caffeine, a drug which encourages bees to remember the plants and return to pollinate them.
  • Forest trees use a ‘wood-wide-web’ of underground fungi through which they deliver food and water to other trees in need, and also signal others about insect attack.
  • Plants eat sunlight!

Read more about intelligent plants in this excellent essay by Michael Pollan.

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King of the Golden River

March 11th, 2017

The King of the Golden River (1841) by John Ruskin is a children’s morality tale that still speaks loudly. It’s unique among fairy tales in having a punchy environmental and social message as well as being highly atmospheric. It’s about two brothers who exploit the land and have no compassion for their workers:

They shot the blackbirds, because they pecked the fruit; and killed the hedgehogs, lest they should suck the cows; they poisoned the crickets for eating the crumbs in the kitchen; and smothered the cicadas, which used to sing all summer in the lime-trees.

Their fertile valley becomes a wasteland and is cursed by the Southwest Wind (illustration below by Richard Doyle). To break the curse the brothers must journey to the Golden River but they fail to help the people they meet on the way. Their younger brother cares for the needy and as a result is saved from the fate of his brothers.

The Importance Of Living

February 5th, 2017

Thoughts from The Importance of Living (1938) by Lin Yutang, Chinese philosopher and inventor.

On writers:

Every word has a life and a personality. A writer always has an instinctive interest in words.

Writing is but the expression of one’s own nature or character… style is not a method, a system or even a decoration; it is but the total impression that the reader gets of the quality of the writer’s mind.

A writer in the ‘familiar’ style speaks in an unbuttoned mood. He completely exposes his weaknesses, and is therefore disarming.

A literary masterpiece is like a stretch of nature itself, well-formed in its formlessness…

On readers:

The ancient peoples called books ‘limp volumes’ and ‘soft volumes’; therefore the best style of reading a book is the leisurely style. In this mood, one develops patience for everything.

I regard the discovery of one’s favourite author as the most critical event in one’s intellectual development. Like a man falling in love with his sweetheart at first sight, everything is right…

A good reader turns an author inside out, like a beggar turning his coat inside out in search of fleas… an itch is a great thing.

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Am I Stardust?

January 7th, 2017

Am I really made of stardust? Yes, many of my (and your) atoms were made in dying stars – when the stars exploded (‘supernova’) the atoms were flung into the universe and eventually became planets and plankton and people. The atoms themselves have not changed but were constantly recycled into different matter – those same atoms of stardust make up 93% of my body mass (some are hydrogen atoms which are actually Big Bang dust). That means I’m billions of years old… which is strange but oddly hopeful.

‘Our presence in the universe is deeply rooted in this cosmic history.’– Marco Bersanelli, physicist.

puppisMy Mum and Dad? The remnants of two ancient supernova explosions, Puppis and Vela. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Pinocchio

December 16th, 2016

Would it be possible to find a more ungrateful boy, or one with less heart than I have! – Pinocchio

Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1882) is a rare thing: an archetypal story for children. The puppet-boy represents every disobedient, lazy child who must face life’s hardships, find parental love and grow up. It can also be read as a Christian allegory, a snapshot of society or as a myth. The language of this classic has barely dated. The best recent version is illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, capturing all the pathos of the tale – his iconic artwork combines painterly detail with cinematic angles. This dark, humourous adventure is a far cry from the sanitized (but beautiful!) Disney movie version.

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Honey Bee Quotes

November 5th, 2016

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour – Isaac Watts

For a long life, breakfast daily on honey. – Pythagoras

Human beings have fabricated the illusion that they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature’s services… – Achim Steiner

Life is all one – as big as the world and as small as a honey bee.  – Hattie Ellis

Bees – their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers. – Ray Bradbury

We have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light. – Jonathan Swift

The comb of the hive bee is absolutely perfect. – Charles Darwin

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Best Plants For Bees

October 1st, 2016

Honey bees are the glue that holds our agricultural system together…Hannah Nordhaus

One cause of the current honey bee decline is monocultural farming: bees are starving because of a lack of flower diversity. You can help by planting bee-friendly fruit trees, bushes, herbs and wild flowers, such as:
  • Nectar-rich flowers: clovers and mimosa; rosemary, thyme and sage; koromiko and veronicas; brassicas; dandelion, sunflower, dahlias, cosmos, and zinnia
  • Bluish-purple flowers such as Californian lilac, erica, and lavender
  • Flowers that bloom at different times in the year

LAVENDER copy                                                             Photo of lavender by Sarah Anderson

 

 

Feeding The World

September 4th, 2016

About 2 billion people, mostly woman and children, are undernourished. But there’s enough food on Earth to feed everyone. It’s partly a problem of distribution and diet:

The world’s farmers produce enough calories today to feed 9 billion people. – Joel K Bourne Jr (The End of Plenty)

This food is produced mainly in the wealthier, developed countries which also eat more meat and dairy products than others – over two-thirds of the world’s farmland is used to grow feed for livestock. There’s certainly enough money: the world’s military spending is $1.5 trillion/year – just $30 billion of that could feed the hungry for a year.

Every 10 seconds we lose a child to hunger… we know how to fix this problem…

…says Josette Sheeran, head of the World Food Program. Her ideas for solving the hunger problem include:

  • Encouraging breast-feeding: in poor countries only a tiny percentage of mothers breast-feed their children.
  • Food banks: the community tops them up in good times with ‘food interest’ ready for use in lean times.
  • Malnutrition-busting food packs: made from chick-peas and nutrients and costing only 17 cents a packet.
  • Feeding children at schools: meals cost 25 cents a day and it also pushes up rates of girls’ attendance.

Why War?

August 14th, 2016

There are many potent alternatives to military intervention which are often not pursued. The peace scholar, Gene Sharp, listed 198 non-violent alternatives including noncooperation, protest, sanctions, persuasion, and nonviolent intervention. The world spends about $1.6 trillion a year on the machineries of war – imagine if this was invested in  fighting poverty, in education and health care. Research shows that non-violent campaigns during the last century were more successful than wars in bringing change. When unarmed civilians gather in their thousands on the streets, people power has an impact.

It is the great challenge of our time: how to achieve justice — with struggle, but without war.– Howard Zinn

Video: Jamila Raqib promotes nonviolent resistance to people living under tyranny — and there’s a lot more to it than street protests:

 

 

Connections

July 23rd, 2016

We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.– Ray Bradbury

The human brain:

  • 85 billion neurons (nerve cells)
  • Each neuron is unique
  • Each neuron connects to 10,000 other neurons
  • That’s up to 1,000 trillion connections possible

The universe is not composed of mere matter, but of mind stuff. – Charles Birch

Photo: ‘Facebook’, my limestone bookends inspired by a Polynesian mask.

Chris van Allsburg Books

June 24th, 2016

Rare is the American child who finishes school without at least once being asked to write a story based on one of the eerie, enigmatically captioned illustrations from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.– Meghan Gurdon

Picture books by Chris van Allsburg are not only beautifully illustrated, the stories are open to wide interpretation, which makes them ideal for children. It’s impossible to look at the pictures in Harris Burdick without imagining a story. (There’s also a spinoff, Chronicles of Harris Burdick, short stories by writers including Stephen King and Lemony Snickett). My other surreal favourites are Bad Day at Riverbend, about a black and white cowboy town attacked by a crayon – and The Wretched Stone, about a strange glowing stone which makes the people regress intellectually.

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Puriri Moth

May 29th, 2016

There are few butterflies in New Zealand but there are over 1,650 species of moth (most are found only here) which are important pollinators. The largest is the beautiful puriri, which can be up to 15 cm across its velvety wings. It spends four years as a caterpillar eating rotten wood, then changes into a moth that lives for only a few days.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhoto: Puriri Moth, © Robert Hoare (used with permission). Click to enlarge.

Don’t Cross The Line – Review

May 9th, 2016

Gecko Press‘ latest picture book is that rare beast, a message book that also entertains – it’s also artfully designed with eight blank pages and sixty characters! In Don’t Cross the Line by Isabel Minhó Martins, an army general orders a guard to keep the right-hand page of the book blank. But a crowd of people build up on the border, desperately wanting to use the space. What can the guard do? People power succeeds in the end. It’s those eight blank pages that will speak to all ages about freedom:  children see an empty space and want to play in it; teenagers ask why it’s forbidden; and adults see the injustice in it. A wonderful concept with lively illustrations by Bernardo Carvalho. (Read about Peace books for children here)

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Last Child In The Woods

April 23rd, 2016

Just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may also very well need contact with nature.

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv is an inspiring book about how to prevent ‘nature deficit’ in children. Children today are often more aware of threats to the environment (climate change, extinction, pollution) than they are of the environment itself.

If we fill our classrooms with examples of environmental abuse, we may be engendering a subtle form of dissociation. Lacking direct experience of nature children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse.

Louv brings together a body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development. He takes a positive approach by offering practical solutions in your own backyard.

Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts…It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world. – Rachel  Carson

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Honey Bees

April 7th, 2016

1. The bee and its place in history:  by Claire Preston, author of Bee.

The bee is the only creature on the planet that is a true creative artisan. It gathers materials and transforms them to make not only architecture but food.– Claire Preston

2. Behind the Bee’s Knees: The Origins of Nine Bee-Inspired Sayings

In the late 18th century, this slang term for something stylish and excellent actually referred to something small, weak or insignificant, such as the joint in a bee’s little leg.– Time
3. How To Keep Bees – The Basics: video from POD, the edible gardening website.
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Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride

March 19th, 2016

William Steig, (creator of Shrek) has been called ‘one of the finest cartoonists and creators of children’s books’ (Jonathan Cott). He began writing for children at 60 and his stories are often uncompromising but always celebrate the richness of relationships and nature. Steig used sophisticated language to entertain readers rather than befuddle them. farmer palmer cover

The picture book Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride is one of his most playful. A farmer-pig suffers a series of slapstick mishaps as he takes gifts home to his beloved family. I love his description of a rainstorm:

‘Harum-scarum gusts of wind … a drubbing deluge … thunder rambled and rumbled … it dramberamberoomed!’

Read the full article about William Steig and his books.

Even Daleks Love Bees

March 3rd, 2016

Daleks exterminate, it’s terribly rude:

But humans kill bees, who make our food.

Bees give us honey and fruit for free,

Daleks love bees, so why can’t we?

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Perhaps it’s because the Daleks have a ‘hive mind’, a collective consciousness – much like honey bees which communicate in the hive by smell, touch, and by democratic systems.

Listen to the Dalek High Commander speak:

dalekDalek hand-made by Barry Renwick, Woodstock Furniture Makers.

 

Read To Babies

February 14th, 2016

Reading and brain development are linked almost from birth. A baby’s brain grows quickly (tripling in size in the preschool years) as the brain cells make connections with each other. What creates those connections? Reading and singing to a baby; playing with a baby; touch and eye contact. By six years old, a child has the most brain connections he or she will ever have. A baby who’s been introduced to books will start school with many literacy skills in place.

The amount of time the child spends listening to parents and other loved ones read continues to be one of the best predictors of later reading.– Maryanne Wolf

Reading and thinking can enhance each other. It’s our brain’s ‘plasticity’ that enables us to learn to read – reading creates brand new neural pathways and these then become the basis for new thinking. (More reading quotes here).

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 Spencer and his Dad

Science Metaphors

January 31st, 2016

Tell all the truth but tell it slant – Emily Dickinson

Science can be difficult to describe: all that maths, the weird words, and ungraspable quantum physics. That’s why analogies and metaphors are so useful in science. And so comforting:

We find it easier to reason by comparing unfamiliar with familiar, falling back on experience, looking for links between things, and seeking out pattern and meaning.  – Joel Levy, A Bee in a Cathedral

Science abounds in comparisons: a greenhouse to explain global warming; a cat in a box to illustrate a paradox; and Kepler’s clockwork solar system. One of my favourites compares quantum physics to jazz and general relativety to a waltz:

General relativity is like Strauss — deep, dignified and graceful. Quantum theory, like jazz, is disconnected, syncopated, and dazzlingly modern. – Margaret Wertheim, Physics’s Pangolin

Photo: Shrödinger’s Cat in a super position

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Winter Beehive

January 13th, 2016

In late autumn most of the male bees (drones) are pushed outside the hive to die – the female worker bees can’t afford the honey to feed them all.
 In winter, the large bee family huddles together in a tight ball which traps the heat of their bodies. It’s amazing that even when it’s way below zero outside, bees can keep the cluster at around 95˚F (35˚C). To adjust their temperature, bees vibrate their wing muscles and constantly change places with each other within the huddle. This close cooperation means bees can control the temperature and survive in almost any climate. Bees eat their honey in winter and on the odd fine day they fly outside to poo, as is their hygienic habit.

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Thirteen Clocks

January 3rd, 2016

The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber, is 60 years old and retains its brilliance. I can still recall whole sentences from when it was read to me as a child. This fairy tale parody, about a prince who performs impossible tasks to save a princess, uses every trick in the English language, including invented words ( ‘squtch’ and ‘zickering’). Look for the Ronald Searle illustrated version which has a bonus story, The Wonderful O, about a pirate who tries to ban the letter ‘o’. Here are some choice Thurber sentences:

Thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets.

Time is for dragonflies and angels. The former live too little and the latter live too long.

A peasant in a purple smock stalked the smoking furrows, sowing seeds.

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Bee Christmas

December 19th, 2015

Honey is a symbol of grace – a gift freely given by honey bees – and saints were known as ‘Divine Bees’ because they often led lives that expressed grace and love. Saint Nicholas was born about 280 AD into a rich family, but when his parents died he used his great wealth to help the poor and sick, giving them gifts in secret. He became a bishop and because of his beliefs he was imprisoned by the Roman Emperor, Diocletian. Today Nicholas is the Patron Saint of Greece and possibly the model for the gift-giving Santa Claus. Honey is given as a gift to children on St. Nicholas’ Day.

A painting of St. Nicholas (1294):

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The Genesis of Science

December 10th, 2015

We should not write them off as superstitious primitives.– James Hannam

Gods_Philosophers_295It’s a myth (turned cliche) that science and faith have always been at odds. The book, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam, shows how the church supported the genesis of science. Medieval universities were church-sponsored and ‘natural philosophy’ (as science was called back then) was a core subject. European thinkers drew on ancient Greek and Islamic texts to develop scientific principles that we still use today. Hannam debunks the myth of the ‘Dark Ages’: for example, people knew the Earth was round; the Christian church did not routinely persecute scientists; there were many inventions, from clocks to spectacles; and early Islamic scientists discovered how the eye functions and invented surgical instruments. (Essay on Science and Soul).