Author Archive

The Universe is made of stories

Friday, November 6th, 2020

Nearly all of the atoms in your body were once cooked in the nuclear furnace of an ancient supernova. – Frances Collins

The story of us began in the stars. The universe expanded after the Big Bang, forming atoms of hydrogen and helium. The atoms gathered in galaxies where they came in handy as fuel for stars. When stars died (supernova) new atoms were released – including carbon and oxygen, happily for us. By and by, over 8 billion years, planets were formed and Earth’s story began.

Photo (NASA Images): Star that exploded in a supernova leaving a ring that’s rich in oxygen.

A beautiful star-metaphor appeals to my sense that our cosmic journey has meaning:

The universe is made of stars, not atoms – Muriel Rukeyser

The /Xam San people of Southern Africa knew that humans were related to the stars in a mysterious way. The /Xan suffered a slow genocide in the 1800s but their words remain. Their stories tell us that the stars are closely connected to humans:

“The stars know the time at which we die.” –Díä!kwain, 1876

The Forces of Writing

Wednesday, October 28th, 2020

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 with the four fundamental forces of the physical world:

Electromagnetism: has infinite range, like imagination,

Weak Force: is confined to the atoms, as a writer must be confined to work.

Strong Force: holds nuclei together, as editing strengthens writing.

Gravity: keeps us anchored and has infinite range, like hope.

Read my essay, The Science of Writing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Breath of Trees

Saturday, September 19th, 2020

We breathe in O2 and breathe out CO2. But trees do the opposite: they breathe in CO2, and breathe out O2. That’s why trees are so important on the planet – we’ve pumped out too much CO2 – because they store carbon in their wood. Kauri trees can store a lot of carbon; they’re the largest rainforest trees in the world.

Photo: the ancient giant kauri tree, Tāne Mahuta (‘god of the forest’), in New Zealand.

Nature Schools

Sunday, July 26th, 2020

When truly present in nature, we use all our senses at the same time, which is the optimum state of learning. ― Richard Louv, The Nature Principle

Direct exposure to the natural world is essential for healthy childhood development. Forest schools are springing up all over the world to give children outdoor experiences. I’m a trustee for a new Nature School (in Dunedin, New Zealand) which combines creative play with skill-teaching (bushcraft, beekeeping etc).

Tree Beings Preview

Wednesday, June 17th, 2020

My new children’s book, Tree Beings is here. Trees are the oldest living things; they create rainfall, soil, and animal habitats; and trees fight climate change. Readers will get to know trees through tree science and the true stories of people who love trees. There’s the scientist who discovered how trees ‘talk’; a boy who mobilized the world’s children to plant trees; the first brave tree-hugging women; and a man responsible for trillions of tree-plantings. The foreword is by Jane Goodall and the book is beautifully illustrated by Sandra Severgnini.

What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?

Friday, May 29th, 2020

Tony Juniper’s book What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? brilliantly proves that money really does grow on trees. Nature is the basis of our economic lives and is worth $100 trillion/year to the global economy. But we use up our yearly budget of resources in about 8 months and after that we are destroying our natural capital. Juniper lists the huge benefits we get from healthy soil, plants, light, clean water, and animals, and shows it makes economic sense to care for them and respect them. Pollinators, for example, are vital for our food supply: of the 100 most important food crop plants, 71 are pollinated by bees. Juniper is hopeful we can protect the bees, for example, by planting ‘bee roads’ of flowering plants between our crops.

Everyone who has even a small garden can help with this.

what has Nature_final

The Library Inside You

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

There is a kind of library in the cells of your body. Inside each cell are tiny molecules which are digesting, healing, sensing, supporting and energising you. Most of this is done by protein molecules – there are 60,000 different proteins in the body; such as enzymes (for chemical reactions) and hormones (to send messages). We make proteins when we need them (eg. we build antibodies when we’re attacked by viruses). In his wonderful book, Our Molecular Nature, David Goodsell writes about proteins:

We must be able to build each one exactly when and where it is needed, using only the materials available in the diet.

This process is accurate because each cell has a ‘library’ inside it (called DNA) which contains the instructions to build the molecules. This amazing library is used every second of your life. DNA has 6 billion bits of information – about the number of books in a big library.

Ultimately, a single cell, when paired with an appropriate mate, can build an entirely new human being, molecule by molecule.

Using this blueprint, proteins are built in chains from smaller molecules called amino acids. Like letters of an alphabet, there are only 20 amino acids arranged to create thousands of different proteins. Some proteins last a long time, others are disassembled after a few minutes. (This allows the body to respond rapidly). The illustration shows ubiquitin, a protein found throughout your body. Ubiquitin’s job is to mark proteins for destruction.

David Goodsell is a scientist and molecular artist. View his art here and learn more about proteins here.

Illustration of Ubiquitin © David S. Goodsell, the Scripps Research Institute.

Millions of Cats Masterpiece

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020

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

Meet 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 a slightly unsettling folktale vibe. As a child I loved the army of cats drinking a pond in seconds, and the final catastrophic cat-scrap. And try to find her bizarre but cute book Nothing At All, about an invisible dog.

Seuss Friends

Sunday, March 1st, 2020

It was 1963, and I was terrified on my first day at school. I sat on the hard grey carpet 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. Soon I had other beloved Seuss friends at school including the Pale Green Pants and the Zizzer Zazzer Zuzz.  Seuss thrived on the constraints of the English language – for Green Eggs and Ham he was given a 50 word vocabulary list to work with, and created a classic. And take heart writers, his first book was rejected 27 times.

seusspants

Tolstoy Tales

Saturday, February 1st, 2020

There is only one time that is important: Now. – Tolstoy

The wisdom in Tolstoy’s Twenty-Three Tales (1903) always inspires me. These classic folk tales include: How Much Land Does a Man Need? (very little, it turns out); The Three Questions (eg. What should I do with my time?); and A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg (the power of organic gardening).

    Photo (1908): Tolstoy aged 80

L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-Gorsky

Bees See Me

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

The honey bees’ ability to learn faces is unexpected. –  Scientific American

Older beekeepers often tell me that their honey bees recognise them – now there’s research to support this. Honey bees’ brains are the size of a sesame seed with only 1 million neurons (we have 100 billion!) but bees can learn patterns, navigate, communicate, count, tell time, measure, and memorize.  They can also recognise human faces. Honey bees don’t have distinctive ‘faces’ so this ability is more about their pattern-recognition skills (I wonder if it’s also about their close relationship with humans). Here’s how I might look to a bee with it’s many-faceted compound eyes (squint to see my face!):

beeview2

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

Christmas Picture Book

Saturday, November 30th, 2019

nativityThe Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas, is my favourite children’s Christmas book. The pictures convey the humanity of the story by showing the love between Mary and Joseph, the pregnancy and birth, within a rustic setting. Oddly, it all sits well with the poetic language of the 17th century King James version of the Bible. Vivas also illustrated the wonderful book for babies,  I Went Walking.

Grimm Fairy Tales

Sunday, November 3rd, 2019

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 (read Byatt’s essay 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 – life has 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 world with kindness and cunning. I’d lay in bed and delight in Danny Kaye’s reading of Clever Gretel on Sunday morning radio. The illustration above is by the great Arthur Rackham (see more on Brain Pickings).

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

Bee-Friendly Gardens

Sunday, September 29th, 2019
  • Plant a lot of flowers – a bee can visit thousands a day
  • Plant flowers that bloom at different times in a year
  • Bees like blue and purple flowers
  • Include flowering trees – one big tree is like a meadow for bees
  • Let parts of your lawn grow long – bees love dandelions
  • Avoid using pesticides – especially near flowers
  • Put out water for bees – use shallow containers

Read: Planting for Honeybees by Sarah Lewis

Tintin in Scots

Saturday, August 31st, 2019

Dae they no ken that Tintin’s in danger?

The Derk IsleThe Derk Isle is the first Tintin book to be translated into the Scots language (which is over 1000 years old and is still spoken) and it works a wee treat. Familiarity with the original, The Black Island (1938), adds to the fun but most readers will easily understand the Scots (it’s best read aloud). Among the delightful phrases: ‘dinna fash’ (don’t worry), ‘whit a scunner’ (what a nuisance), and ‘blackbelickit’ (drat). Snowy becomes Tarrie (terrier) and the Thompson twins are Nesbit and Nesbit.

“He’s a fair wunner, is wee Tarrie. There’s no a dug like him for snowkin efter crooks!”

“Oot ye get! An nae joukery-pawkery, mind!”

5 Books I Will Never Throw Out

Saturday, August 3rd, 2019

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.

moominpappa

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

  If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so.

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.

goldenapples

Life-Affirming Steig

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig is a picture book about a child’s fear of separation; it won the Caldecott Medal in 1969. The brilliantly absurd plot has Sylvester the young donkey trapped inside a rock while his parents search frantically for him. It’s Steig’s version of his favourite book, Pinocchio, about a boy trapped inside 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 more about Steig and his life-affirming books.

Reading is Empathy

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

Far from being a means to escape the social world, reading stories can actually improve your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings. – Keith Oatley (The Psychology of Fiction)

That master of imagination, J.R.R. Tolkien, said that fantasy “offers not an escape away from reality, but an escape to a heightened reality”. When we read any fiction we enter an imaginary world, but it’s the characters that we attach to most of all. When our emotions are triggered by the characters, that’s when we get an understanding of real life relationships. Children develop empathy for others from about 4 years old – and hearing and reading fiction enables them to walk in another’s shoes. Another great reason for reading to children!

While reading, we can leave our own consciousness, and pass over into the consciousness of another person, another age, another culture. – Maryanne Wolf

Picture from a book about feelings: Bravo by Philip Waechter

Wonderland Insects

Thursday, May 2nd, 2019

Insect reality is more outlandish than any fantasy:

  • The snowy tree cricket is also a thermometer. Its rate of chirping will tell you the air temperature: count the number of chirps in 7 seconds and add 4˚C.
  • The silk moth wraps itself in a single thread up to 2 kilometres long.
  • Cicada membranes produce sound louder than lawnmowers with their amplifying air sacs.
  • The wings of a biting midge beat at 1,046 strokes  per second.
  • The tiny minim ants ride on top of leaves carried by their big sister leaf-cutter ants, protecting them from parasitic flies.

Read Extreme Insects, by Richard Jones (photo gallery.)

This extremely beautiful stick insect visited our house:

More Than Honey

Friday, April 5th, 2019

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

candleHoney bees give us golden gifts as well as honey: wax, propolis, and pollen. Beeswax (made inside bees’ bodies) has oodles of uses, including in food-wrap (goodbye plastic!), polish, jelly beans, artists’ media, dental floss and cleaning up oil spills. It’s a best for candles because it gives a sweet scent and a lustrous, smokefree light. Propolis is the bee’s cleaning product – a sticky, germ-killing resin they collect from plants. It’s used to plug cracks and keep the hive healthy. 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 motto: ‘I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’.

Strength To Love

Friday, March 1st, 2019

Martin Luther King Jr.’s, Strength To Love, was written during the Civil Rights struggle in the early 1960s. King’s stirring style was aimed at a live church audience and you can almost hear the “Amens” after some sentences. Many of his political statements were censored by the publisher at the time, but almost 60 years later his words remain powerful and relevant. King encourages people to be forgiving, non-violent, non-conformists; and to confront militarism and inequality in society.

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.

Marvellous Munro Leaf

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

Ferdinand (1936) by Munro Leaf is one of the most influential children’s books because of its simple but powerful theme. The tale of a bull who likes to smell flowers instead of fighting was seen as a pacifist text at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Ferdinand is a reflective character who chooses to be himself rather than follow an aggressive crowd-mentality.

No wonder the book was

Munro Leaf also wrote books which reflected the stricter child-raising style of his time. 3 and 30 Watchbirds (1941) condemns children’s behaviours such as shoe-scuffing, primping, mumbling, moaning, fidgeting, sassing and wasting food. Some of it’s in the spirit of war-time frugality, but some is just plain excessive!

Grammar Can Be Fun is slightly more tongue-in-cheek and warns children against slack language such as “gimme, wanna, gonna, and ain’t”.

Tintin: a perfect level of abstraction

Saturday, January 5th, 2019

Hergé was a master of evoking atmosphere. Think of Professor Tarragon’s house in The Seven Crystal Balls: the building 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 – 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

 

5 Ways To Spark Reading

Saturday, December 1st, 2018

1. Have plenty of books available.
Access to books is the key – books help children learn. Love your local library!

2. Read aloud.

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

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.
Children can’t resist great books, such as:

4. Match books to children’s interests.
Whatever they want to read – comic books, science, or monsters – 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.

Wells, Welles, wells

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched…

So begins The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, but some did believe it 80 years ago on Halloween in 1938. Orson Welles’ fake news report based on the 1898 novel tricked many people into thinking it was a real invasion, if not by the Martians then by the Germans. The radio broadcast was scarily realistic (listen to a clip here).  The 120 year old novel is hugely influential  in giving the world extraterrestrial consciousness and opening narrative wells that produced countless sci-fi stories (although it does have a few racist attitudes of its time). H.G.Wells once met Orson Welles in this interview. 

Picture by Alvim Corréa, 1906 edition.

Honey Bee Dance

Sunday, October 7th, 2018

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 movements. When a bee finds a patch of flowers she goes home and dances for her sister bees. The dance shows the other bees both the direction and the distance to the flowers.

Direction: told by the angle of the dance. For example, if the bee dances straight up the honeycomb it means ‘fly straight towards the sun’.
Distance: told by waggling. Each waggle of the bee’s body 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.
Remember that bees dance in the dark! The audience gets the message through touch, sound, smell, and taste.

 

 

Tolkien’s Writing

Monday, September 3rd, 2018

Stories tend to get out of hand– Tolkien

Reading Humphrey Carpenter’s wonderful J.R.R. Tolkien – A Biography.  The story of his early life and evolution of his stories is fascinating. Some quirky influences on Tolkien’s writing:

  • The toddler Tolkien attacked by a terrifying tarantula in South Africa (1895)
  • Tolkien’s teacher trained his dog to lick its lips with the command “smakka bagms”
  • His fellowship of young writers which is broken by the Great War
  • The inspiration of the Kalevala mythology of Finland
  • A ‘nasty’ holiday on which he wrote a poem about a slimy cave creature named ‘Glip’
  • His friendship with C.S.Lewis, on whom he based Treebeard’s ‘hrooming’ voice

lotr

Link to all the Lord of the Rings covers.

Lore and Language of Children

Saturday, August 4th, 2018

Iona and Peter Opie were like the Brothers’ Grimm of the 1950s. Their fabulous book was The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, an epic collection of children’s rhymes, riddles, superstitions, jeers, and customs, garnered from interviews with thousands of English children in the 1950s. Many of these rhymes and tricks persist in the playground today. Here are some 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.

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!

 

 

The Happy Prince – Wilde

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

It’s really, really heartbreaking. But for some reason you want to read it again and again. It’s an extraordinary love story.– 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 Wilde’s lyrical language back then but the story shaped my values concerning wealth, poverty, and authority figures:

“The living always think that gold can make them happy.”

Listen to that radio version read by Robert Morley.

Outside Over There

Saturday, June 9th, 2018

That touch of reality in a child’s life is a child’s comfort. The child gets the sense that this person who wrote this book knows about me and knows the world can be a troubling, incomprehensible place. Maurice Sendak

Outside Over There is my favourite Maurice Sendak picture book –  –  nobody else combined the real and the unreal so well. It’s a  tale of separation and siblings (that features a creepy ice baby) and is both haunting and comforting.

Sendak’s books can be exuberant (In the Night Kitchen), spiritual (Dear Mili), and funny (Pierre, a cautionary tale). I like his vision of atoms dancing to form molecules from the first book he illustrated (when 19 years old), Atomics for the Millions:

sendak-atoms