Interview: 12 Curly Questions

October 13th, 2021

An interview with me and some nicely-gnarly questions from Kids’ Book Review (love that apostrophe!)

A Love Story – Pollination

September 5th, 2021

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 seeds and fruit, its pollen (male) must move to an egg (female), usually in another flower – and bees do most of the pollen-moving. The result is a cornucopia of foods from cherries to cashews to coffee. Humans’ relationship with pollinators is also crucial, so let’s provide bees with a variety of flowers, clean water, and poison-free gardens.

Louie Schwatzberg’s Wings Of Life:

The Little Prince

August 8th, 2021

The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a fable about a pilot who crashes in the desert and meets a wise child. It’s one of the world’s most translated books (in 250 languages) and it has parhaps the most intriguing sentence in all of children’s literature:

What is essential is invisible to the eyes.

What is ‘essential’? Is it truth, love, spirit, mystery? These are the questions the story evokes. Saint-Exupéry was a pilot who also wrote great adventure books (eg. Wind, Sand and Stars ).

Le+petit+prince+-+First+edition+cover++-+1943

5 Perfect Endings

July 10th, 2021

A great final sentence can offer hope, provoke a smile or trigger a shiver. At its best, it encapsulates the whole literary work. Where are these great last lines from?

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer – Charlotte was both.  (children’s novel)

“Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.” (short story)

He found his supper waiting for him – and it was still hot.” (picture book)

“All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe.” (poem)

“From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” (non-fiction)

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” (adult novel)

Picture: Tenniel’s borogroves (Victorian Web).

From Seuss To Smaug

May 30th, 2021

Five years old, terrified on my first day at school. I sat on the mat and the teacher read Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr Seuss. I was so engrossed I didn’t notice my mother slip out. Horton the faithful elephant helped me get through that day.

Six years old, and absorbed in a cowboy adventure, Calico the Wonder Horse by Virginia Lee Burton. Gripped by this image of the Stewy Stinker crying in remorse for his wickedness – aware of my own failings perhaps.

Seven years old, and Tintin was my role model for courage and integrity. His stories introduced me to sci-fi and humour, history and politics.

Eight years old, and The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster opened the world of word-play to me.

Nine years old, and I devoured Willard Price’s books – pulp adventures with erupting volcanoes, balloon rides and killer anacondas. I wanted to write books as exciting.

Ten years old, on the ultimate journey with a small hero facing the monstrous Smaug. The Hobbit kindled my imagination more than any other book. It was, as Tolkien said,

‘an escape to a heightened reality- a world at once more vivid and intense.’

Here’s the 1966 version that I once owned, with a cover drawing by Tolkien (link to all Hobbit covers).

The Phantom Tollbooth – Love Of Words

April 10th, 2021

More than any book I read as a child, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (who died recently),  gave me a love of words – it puns them, pushes them, and plunders their meaning. It’s overflowing with inventiveness: the man who is short, tall, thin and fat, at the same time; an orchestra that plays colours; a city that disappears because nobody cares. And I love the illustrations by Jules Feiffer, such as the faceless timewaster, The Trivium, who has this message for writers:

What could be more important than doing unimportant things? … There’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.

The story is about a child’s quest to overcome boredom. It’s told with imagination, wit, and wisdom — what more could you want in a children’s book?

 I had been an odd child: quiet, introverted and moody. Little was expected from me. Everyone left me alone to wander around inside my own head. When I grew up I still felt like that puzzled kid — my thoughts focused on him, and I began writing about his childhood. – Norton Juster

Flannery O’Connor On Writing

March 11th, 2021

Fiction should be both canny and uncanny. – Flannery O’Connor

One of my favourite short stories is Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find – it certainly has a powerful ending. Her stories can be dark but there’s always a redemptive thread in them. O’Connor wrote despite the pain of lupus which ended her life at the age of 39. Here are some of her thoughts about the writing process (from Mystery and Manners):

If you want to write well and live well at the same time, you’d better arrange to inherit money.

When I sit down to write, a monstrous reader looms up who sits down beside me and continually mutters, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it.’

Fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust, and if you scorn getting dusty, then you shouldn’t write fiction.

There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the fiction writer can hardly do without and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting to the point at once.

The artist uses her reason to discover an answering reason in everything she sees.

The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s severity.

Tree Beings poem

February 6th, 2021

Trees

Green warriors of the planet:

cleaning the air

filtering water

soaking up CO2

Green skin of the planet:

building soil

making rain

home to wild creatures.

Green beings of the planet:

oldest, tallest living things

sustaining each other

grounding us.

Simple Pleasures

January 2nd, 2021

Digging new potatoes, running on the beach, fresh bread and honey,  smelling sweet peas, walnuts!

Simple pleasures act as nodes of amplification of the astonishing in our everyday lives. – James Le Fanu

Rosehips on Skippers Walkway

Dr Jane Goodall

December 3rd, 2020

Jane Goodall has had an extraordinary life. As a child she’d sit up her favourite tree and dream of living like Dr Dolittle and Tarzan. Her dreams were realised when she lived alone in the rainforest, getting close to chimpanzees. Her work in the 60s changed the way we see animals. Jane has since travelled the world, fighting for Nature; and her organisation Roots and Shoots empowers young people to care for the planet.

She writes about her love of trees in the foreword of Tree Beings:

When I was deep in the forest I knew a sense of peace and felt a strong spiritual connection with nature.  It was from the forest that I learned how everything is interconnected, and how each species of plant and animal has a role to play in the rich tapestry of life. In this book, Raymond Huber shares with us the inspiring stories of some very special people who have not only raised awareness about the importance of trees and forests, but fought to save them.

Read her memoir Reason To Hope, it’s an uplifting story.

The Universe is made of stories

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

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.

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The Breath of Trees

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

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

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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’.