The Strawberry Snatcher book

November 23rd, 2014

The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher is a classic picture book that almost didn’t make it. It took Molly Bang years to create and it was repeatedly rejected by publishers – they said it was ‘peculiar-looking’ and that ‘children won’t relate to an old woman as a protagonist’. The manuscript sat in a drawer for years, was re-worked and finally published to some critical reviews, writes Molly Bang: ‘The New York Times that said that the weird-looking characters and flashy colors were an indication that I was part of the drug culture and the detailed pictures told no real story but were merely an excuse to show off.’ Then it won a Caldecott award and everything changed. Why? It’s a one-of-a-kind, off-the-wall book, and very creepy! I love the tiny fungi that grow where the Strawberry Snatcher has trod.

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A Love Story – Pollination

November 16th, 2014

It’s the most important relationship on Earth – everything in Nature depends on pollinators and flowers getting together.

Pollination is ‘a love story that feeds the Earth.’ – Louie Schwartzberg.

For a flower to make fruit and seeds, its pollen (male) must get to an egg (female), usually in another flower – and bees do 80% of the moving. The result is a cornucopia of foods from cherries to cashews, courgettes to coffee. Our relationship with the pollinators is equally vital so let’s provide bees with a variety of flowers, clean water and spray-free gardens.

Scenes from Louie Schwatzberg’s dazzling movie, Wings Of Life:

Millions of Cats Masterpiece

November 9th, 2014

Draw to live; live to draw –Wanda G’ag

This is Wanda G’ag (it rhymes with blog) one of the finest children’s book illustrators. Her masterpiece is Millions of Cats (1928) the story of a lonely old couple who attract ‘millions and billions and trillions of cats‘. The pictures roll like waves across the pages; clouds, trees, hills and cats all swept along in the flow of the story. The black and white gives it that slightly unsettling folktale vibe. As a child I loved the army of cats drinking a pond in seconds, and the final catastrophic catscrap. Try to find her bizarre Nothing At All too, about an invisible dog.

Here’s G’ag’s biography and one of her lithographs :

Writing Sci-Fi: Infodump & Unobtainium

November 1st, 2014

I’m writing a sci-fi novel and falling into two traps: Infodump and Unobtainium.

Infodump is a when a character gives a mini lecture — telling instead of showing — such as in reply to “Tell me, Professor, how does your invention work?” Infodump can be reduced by editing out any techno-babble, and by using characters to give brief explanations only when plot demands it to move forward.

Unobtainium is a plot device such as an alien substance or a future technology. Most sci-fi has these but too often they’re used by writers to remove a plot hole; as in ‘Lucky I brought my sonic screwdriver to do this impossible task.’ (A version of: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’– Arthur C Clarke). Possible solutions are to make your ‘Unobtainium’ central to the plot (eg. give it a snappy back-story), or reduce it to a playful bit of science.

 

Brave Students

October 26th, 2014

Thousands of unarmed students in Hong Kong are currently standing up for democracy by taking to the streets. It’s often students who lead the way in peaceful protest movements:

  • 1943: The White Rose group were university students in Munich who distibuted thousands of leaflets exposing the Nazis’ crimes and encouraging people to resist. They were executed.
  • 1957: The Little Rock Nine were high school students in America who broke through the race barrier by enrolling in the local all-white high school despite threatening mobs.
  • 1986-89: University students in China protested to demand more freedom, culminating in Tiananmen Square with half a million Chinese citizens. The government crushed the event.
  • 1988: University students in Burma led massive street marches against the military rulers. The army killed hundreds but Burma eventually got free elections.
  • 2000: Students in Serbia led a non-violent protest to help oust a corrupt government.

In Zuzz with Seuss

October 18th, 2014

It was 1963, and I was terrified on my first day at school (primary!). I sat on the hard grey mat and the teacher read Horton Hatches the Egg to the class. I became so engrossed I didn’t even notice my mother slip out. That loyal elephant helped me get through that watershed day without too many waterworks. My other favourite Seuss characters were the Pale Green Pants and the Zizzer Zazzer Zuzz.  Seuss pushed the English language to the limit. Ever wonder why Green Eggs and Ham is so repetitive? Seuss only had a 50 word vocabulary list to work with, but he created a classic. By the way writers, his first book was rejected 27 times.

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How Bees See Us

October 11th, 2014

The honey bees’ ability to learn faces is unexpected. – ‘Good With Faces’, Scientific American

When I first started beekeeping, older beekeepers often said their bees recognised them – now we have proof it’s true. Honey bees’ brains are the size of a sesame seed with only a million neurons (we have 100 billion), but bees can learn patterns, navigate, communicate, count, tell time, measure, and memorize. Research now shows they can also recognise human faces. Bees were trained (with a sugar water reward) to identify a human face, front and side view – and after training they could instantly identify the same face rotated 30˚. Honey bees do not have distinctive facial markings, so why have they evolved this ability? It’s due to their pattern-recognition skills but I wonder if it also evolved as bees formed a close relationship with humans over the last 20,000 years. Here’s how I might look to a bee with it’s many-faceted compound eyes:

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The life of the bee is like a magic well: the more we draw from it, the more there is to draw.’ — Karl von Frisch

Sculpture At Play

October 5th, 2014

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The Forces of Writing

September 28th, 2014

Writing requires four fundamental steps:

Imagine: ‘Open your mind’ (P.D. James)

Write: ‘Put one word after another’ (Neil Gaiman)

Edit: ‘Omit needless words’ (William Strunk)

Hope: ‘Outrun the self-doubt’ (Stephen King)

The steps of writing harmonise nicely with the four forces of physics:

Electromagnetism holds our atoms and molecules together, and like imagination, it has infinite range.

The Weak Force is confined to the centre of atoms, as a writer must be confined with a story until it’s drafted.

The Strong Force holds atomic nuclei together, as editing gives the story strength.

Gravity is like hope, in that it keeps us anchored and has infinite range.

Read my essay, The Science of Writing.

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Plan Bee

September 21st, 2014

HoneyBeeCoverAll royalties from my ebook, Honey Bees, are donated to Oxfam, funding projects such as ‘Plan Bee’ which teaches beekeeping to women in Ethiopia. The Plan Bee project enables an extra 4,400 women beekeepers to increase production by using modern beekeeping methods and equipment, and so earn a living for their families. Read more about Plan Bee.

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Photo: Wubalem Shiferaw, beekeeper, Ethiopia (courtesy Oxfam).

Origin of Bees

September 13th, 2014

New genetic research suggests honey bees originated in Asia not Africa as previously thought. Bees have been around for a while: the oldest known bee is a 100 million year old bee suspended in a piece of amber (a tree resin), found in Myanmar (Burma). Ancient bees lived in trees or on cliffs – honey bees derived from cavity-nesting bees that spread out from Asia about 300,000 years ago. People discovered honey about 20,000 years ago; it must’ve seemed like a magical food in their diet of wild animals and plants. Early honey hunting was a dangerous job because bees lived in tall trees or on cliff faces. Cave paintings show hunters climbing cliffs to raid nests – imagine dangling from a vine, 150 metres up a cliff, while being stung by bees! People still do this kind of honey hunting today in India, Nepal, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Image: Rock painting of a honey hunter in Valencia, Spain (6000 to 8000BC)

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5 Books I Will Never Throw Out

September 6th, 2014

Twenty-Three Tales by Tolstoy

There is only one time that is important – Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson

Moominpappa had no idea what to do with himself, because it seemed everything there was to be done had already been done.

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A Moment of War by Laurie Lee

  I was in that flush of youth that never doubts self-survival, that idiot belief in luck and a uniquely charmed life, without which illusion few wars would be possible.

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Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

 I wouldn’t have said off-hand that I had a subconscious mind, but I suppose I must without knowing it, and no doubt it was there, sweating away diligently at the old stand, all the while the corporeal Wooster was getting his eight hours.

The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury

And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

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200 Years of Grimm

August 31st, 2014

Everything in the tales appears to happen by chance – and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated. – A. S. Byatt

One of the appeals of the 200 year old tales of the Brothers’ Grimm is how random events seem connected; as A. S. Byatt says in her excellent essay (online here). They are stories of generic princesses, simpletons, brothers and sisters who meet with good or bad ‘luck’ on their quest, yet are bound by the rules of the fairy tale world – a kind of guided randomness, but usually with a happy ending. Perhaps this is the way children see the world: capricious, a little scary, but ultimately, a hopeful place.

When I was a child I loved how the Grimm’s characters met the forces of their fickle, often gruesome, world with kindness and cunning. I’d lay in bed and listen to Danny Kaye’s brilliant reading of Clever Gretel on Sunday morning radio. The illustration above is by the great Arthur Rackham (more Grimm illustrations here).

Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.– G.K. Chesterton

A Wonder Book

August 24th, 2014

The classic picture book Calico the Wonder Horse — The Saga of Stewy Stinker by Virgina Lee Burton was published in 1941. I adored this comic-book style cowboy adventure as a child mainly because of the bad guy. Stewy Stinker is so low he steals Christmas presents from children but in the end he repents. This picture of him crying out his rottenness always made me feel sorry for him:

The word ‘Stinker’ was censored from the book in the 1940s as it was considered inappropriate for children. Burton was one of the great illustrators and the idea for Calico from seeing her sons engrossed with comic books. The wonderful design, cartoon framing and action scenes of Calico are worthy of a modern graphic comic: the flash flood and stagecoach crash are gripping highlights. But it’s that haunting image of Stewy that will stay with me.

Science and Soul

August 10th, 2014

Does the universe have a purpose or is it an accident? Scientists have divergent views on the significance of the universe. At one end of the spectrum is the iconoclast, Richard Dawkins, who sees an indifferent universe which has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose.” At the other end is biologist Jane Goodall who believes the universe is both purposeful and meaningful. In between there are theories ranging from a ‘conscious universe’ to a ‘self-creating universe’. Whatever their beliefs, at least there’s usually a shared sense of wonder among scientists…

…Read the rest of my essay, Science and Soul, here.

puppisPhoto: The remnants of supernova explosions, Puppis and Vela, birthplace of some of our atoms. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Deadly Pesticide

August 3rd, 2014

The threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.– BBC News

A new study on ‘neonicotinoid’ pesticides says that they are a key factor in the decline of bees. The study combined 800 research papers from 20 years and concluded these nicotine-based nerve poisons are also damaging the wider environment. The pesticides are systemic – the whole plant remains toxic right through to flowering – so bees (and other critters) are poisoned by pollen, nectar, and drinking water. These pesticides are widely used in NZ and even sold in garden centres. The government has not yet responded to the new study, so meanwhile, avoid these products: Confidor, Advantage, Merit and Admire (what shameless names). And remember that there are ways to deal with pests without harming bees, including organic gardening and IPM:

It is high time we returned to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – an approach focussed on minimising pesticide use, maximising the number of biological control agents, using cultural controls such as crop rotations, and monitoring pest numbers so that chemical controls only need be applied when there is a problem.– Prof David Goulson

Sci-Fi Classics

July 27th, 2014

I loved science fiction when I was a young teen – especially short stories about time travel, which usually had surprise endings. In Arthur C Clarke’s All the Time in the World, a man freezes time a second before a nuclear blast; in A Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury, the death of an insect changes the course of history. I still have my old copy of Bradbury’s Golden Apples of the Sun; the Corgi paperback cost me 65 cents new in 1970 (about the hourly rate for raspberry picking in my summer holidays). A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was a novel ahead of its time in 1960 (it was rejected 26 times by publishers). Its plot combines wormholes and angels and has a classic ending: a giant disembodied alien brain is defeated by love. L’Engle liked to tackle grand themes, as she said:

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.

Electric Bees

July 19th, 2014

Honey bees and flowers have an electric relationship. A bee in flight becomes positively charged through friction with airborne particles. Fortuitously, flowers have a negative electric charge – and naturally, positive and negative attract each other. The bee (+) detects the tug of the flower charge (-) and lands on it. Immediately two things happen. Firstly, charged pollen leaps onto the bee’s body, a bit like your hair will leap onto a rubbed balloon. Secondly, the flower loses its negative charge – this tells nearby bees that this flower has just been visited. The flower has time to ‘recharge’ itself and refill its nectary. It’s a sweet friendship: bees get food (pollen, nectar) and flowers get pollinated.

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Tintin: a perfect level of abstraction

July 9th, 2014

Hergé was a master of evoking atmosphere. Think of the house of Professor Tarragon in The Seven Crystal Balls: the building of the storm, the heat leading to the burst tyre, the gust of wind as depicted by a slender tree against a slate grey sky, the sinister mummy in his cabinet, the ball lightning, Tintin’s nightmare (image below) – such a feeling of supernatural dread evoked by a confluence of natural events.

Despite the cinematic quality of Hergé’s stories, Tintin’s true home is in the comic book medium. He occupies a space at a perfect level of abstraction, real enough to evoke our world, pared back enough to activate the imagination. – Hugh Todd

Read the whole the interview with comic artist, Hugh Todd: My Dinner With Herge

 

Sylvester and Steig

July 1st, 2014

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig was banned in 1969 in many states because it depicted police as pigs (even though they were kind pigs). The brilliantly absurd plot has Sylvester the young donkey trapped inside a boulder while his parents search frantically for him. It’s about a child’s fear of separation – Steig’s version of his favourite book, Pinocchio, about a boy trapped in a piece of wood. The ending is typical Steig: the child reunited with loved ones in with hugs and tears. When he was 15 years old, young William ran away to sea after an argument with his father:

When I finally got home, my mom and dad hugged and kissed me and we all cried. We were a very emotional family.

Read an essay about Steig and his books.

Books Are Old Friends

June 22nd, 2014

Books are sensory objects – they have a pleasing look, a comforting smell, a grainy feeling, a reassuring weight. The best-loved ones are battered, dog-eared, coffee-stained, inscribed. You can lend a book, read it everywhere, stow it anywhere, hide treasures in it.  A book carries memories with it, locked into untold brain networks by all the experiences you had when reading it:

And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it.― Cornelia Funke (Inkheart)

A book works at my speed, comfortable and slow, faster when I want it to be, then slow again. Many of my books are old friends.– Jack Lasenby (interview here).

When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic. And for this serious task of imaginative discovery and self-discovery, there is and remains one perfect symbol: the printed book.– Julian Barnes

Jane Goodall – Reason For Hope

June 16th, 2014

Jane Goodall’s memoir, Reason For Hope, is certainly that – her life is inspiring. It covers her childhood in wartime England; her revolutionary studies of Tanzania’s chimpanzees; and latest development work via her Goodall Institute. The most moving chapters relate the death of her husband and how she found spiritual support back in the jungle. The writing is honest, sometimes poetic, and the science is simply conveyed. I like the way she integrates science with her beliefs (which embrace several traditions). Here’s a link to a fine interview with Jane Goodall; and a few quotes from her 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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More Than Honey

June 10th, 2014

We fill our lives with honey and wax.. giving  humans the two noblest things, which are sweetness and light. – Jonathan Swift, 1773

candleHoney bees provide us with many fascinating products apart from honey: wax, propolis, and pollen. Beeswax (made in the bees’ bodies) has oodles of uses, including in polish, cosmetics, jelly beans, artists’ media, dental floss and even for cleaning up oil spills. It’s a favourite for candles because beeswax gives off a sweet scent and a lustrous, smokefree light.
Propolis is the bee’s cleaning product – a sticky, germ-killing gum which they collect from plants. It’s used to plug cracks and keep the hive walls clean. Propolis fights infection in humans, especially in the mouth. Pollen is rich in protein and vitamins for the bees; but humans eat it too. The boxer, Muhammad Ali, ate pollen, which may explain his famous saying, ‘I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’.

Strength To Love

June 6th, 2014

Martin Luther King Jr.’s book of sermons, Strength To Love, was written during the Civil Rights struggle (several written in prison). King’s poetic style was aimed at a live church audience – you can almost hear the “Amens” after each sentence. But his words remain relevant 50 years on as he encourages people to be forgiving, non-violent, and non-conformists; and to confront militarism and inequality:

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together…

Expenditures for defence have risen to mountainous proportions. The nations have believed that greater armaments will cast out fear, but they have produced greater fear.

Through non-violent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

Capitalism must undergo continual change if our great national wealth is to be more equitably distributed.

All life is interrelated. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.

Here’s King’s anti-war speech, made shortly before he was shot. (This recording later got a Grammy for Best Spoken Word):

 

Tibet in Comics

May 31st, 2014

Old Tibet was once the essence of the mystical in Western eyes: with tales of mysterious Shangri-La and the yeti; the remote Himalayas; the serenity of Buddhism and its Dalai Lama. This essence has influenced many comic stories, such as wartime hero, Green Lama (1945), who got his strength by reciting a peaceful Buddhist mantra. Tintin (1958) experienced the power of Tibet when led by a vision to find a lost friend – even the Dalai Lama praised Tintin in Tibet.

Old Tibet was no paradise but, sadly, the culture is fading fast. China invaded in 1950 and destroyed 6,000 Buddhist monasteries; and in 1959 the Tibetans rose up and thousands died. There’s since been a long struggle against the occupation – some Tibetans want independence, others (like the Dalai Lama) would settle for religious freedom and some autonomy.

Dances With Bees

May 25th, 2014

The second most complex language on the planet. – Professor James Gould

We communicate with the alphabet; honey bees are the only other creatures we know of that use symbols. Their dance moves describe where to find flowers. When a bee finds a patch of flowers she goes home and dances in the hive for her sister bees. The dance shows the other bees both the direction and the distance to the flowers. The direction is told by the angle of the dance: for example, if the bee dances straight up the honeycomb it means ‘fly straight towards the sun’.
The distance to the flowers is told by waggling. Each waggle of the abdomen means a set distance: eg. one waggle might mean 50 metres, so 10 waggles = 500 metres to fly. A faster waggle dance means the flowers have plenty of nectar.
Bees dance in the dark – the audience receives instructions through touch, sound, smell, and taste (nectar).

Photo: Sarah Anderson

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Children’s Playground Rhymes

May 20th, 2014

Iona and Peter Opie were the Brothers’ Grimm of the 1900s. Their great contribution to English cultural history was the fabulous book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren; an epic collection of children’s rhymes, riddles, superstitions, jeers, tricks and customs, garnered from interviews with thousands of children in the 1950s. Today’s children are perhaps not the ‘savage tribe’ they were then but many of these rhymes persist in the playground today. Here are some subversive gems from the Opie’s collection.

Pinch-me, Punch-me, and Steponmytoes,
Went down to the river to swim,
Two of the three were drowned,
Who do you think was saved?

Old Mr Kelly,
Had a pimple on his belly;
His wife cut it off,
It tasted like jelly.

When the war is over Hitler will be dead,
He hopes to go to heaven with a crown upon his head.
But the Lord said, No! You’ll have to go below,
There’s only room for Churchill, so cheery, cheery oh.

Same to you with knobs on,
Cabbages with clogs on…

God made the bees
The bees make the honey;
We do the work,
The teacher gets the money.

Scab and matter custard,
Green snot pies,
Dead dog’s giblets
Dead cat’s eyes.
Hard boiled snails, Spread it thick
Wash it down with a cup of cold sick.

 

 

5 Ways To Spark Reading

May 14th, 2014

1. Have lots of books available.
Access to books is the key – children in homes with books stay at school 3 years longer than those without (books help children learn). Love your local library!

2. Read aloud.

  • start a book together and let the child finish it,
  •  read to a pet,
  •  have a family readathon.

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

3. Find the best books.
Use guides such as The Reading Bug by Paul Jennings, or best books lists.
Few children can resist books such as

4. Match books to children’s interests.
Whatever they want to read – comic books, science, or ghosts – they probably need it. Librarians love to help you find the right book.

You need a top story. You need a subject that interests a child. And you need something that they can read. – Paul Jennings

5. Interact with books.

  • write to the author,
  •  dress up as characters,
  •  create book artwork,
  •  write a book.

Beehive Surprises

May 9th, 2014

The first human-made beehives (clay and straw) date back 3000 years (to Israel). For centuries beekeepers melted the wax comb to extract the honey, forcing the poor bees to rebuild the comb every time. Then in 1851 pastor Lorenzo Langstroth designed a hive like a filing cabinet that could be used over and over. Young Mary Bumby introduced honey bees to NZ in 1839, bringing them on a ship from England. Today, over 3000 Kiwis are beekeepers, mostly hobbyists. Our parliament building is shaped like a straw hive called a skep. Skeps were enlarged by adding layers called ‘ekes’ – hence the saying ‘to eke things out’. Bees thrive in our cities but Council rules say that bees are ‘inappropriate in residential areas’ – but in many countries beehives are now kept in city parks. Now that our feral bees are extinct we need more city bees to pollinate our home gardens. Photo: apiary in a public park in Paris.

Oscar Wilde’s Best

May 3rd, 2014

It’s really, really heartbreaking. But for some reason you want to read it again and again. It’s an extraordinary love story. It really is exquisitely written.– Michael Morpurgo

Almost every Sunday morning as a child  I’d listen to Oscar Wilde’s short story, The Happy Prince (1888), on the radio and cry into my pillow so my brother nearby wouldn’t hear. A statue being stripped of his gold to feed the poor seems an unlikely plot for children. I didn’t understand all of the lyrical language back then but I suspect the story shaped my attitudes to compassion and authority figures. Today I can see it’s also a touching story about two needy characters; and I like Wilde’s ideas about true happiness:

The living always think that gold can make them happy.

Listen to that original radio version read by the mellifluous Robert Morley. Still makes me cry.