children's literature

Finding the little things that make our city special

…the true treasure of the City of Melbourne, metropolitan Melbourne, and any other city across Australia and the world is its nature.

A good children’s book is often seen as one that can either inspire or educate. A better one will do both. Such is the case with The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne!. Co-authored by Kate Cranney, Sarah Bekessy and Luis Mata, and published in partnership with the City of Melbourne, this exceptional book provides children with the opportunity to discover some of Melbourne’s most wonderful insects – some well-known and others less so – and will also inspire them to seek out the world of ‘little things’ that goes largely unnoticed.

Image: City of Melbourne

Image: City of Melbourne

Luis Mata describes how the inspiration to write the book came while conducting fieldwork with co-author, Kate Cranney, for the original The Little Things that Run the City project. While outside observing some of the incredible insects of Melbourne, both Kate and Luis were questioned by children and their parents passing by about what they were up to. He explains that ‘Kate and I really enjoyed the opportunity to take a break and explain to both the kids and their parents some of the fascinating things we we’re learning by observing the amazing insects that call the City of Melbourne home.’ It was these ‘…enthusiastic children and their supportive parents [who] were a true inspiration to develop the ideas that led to The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne!’.

Kate describes how '...kids love insects: spotting butterflies in the park, the sideways sway of a praying mantis, or a huddle of sawfly larvae, all rearing their heads. It’s no accident that Bugs Alive! is one of Museum Victoria's most popular exhibitions.' This is indeed something that can be easily forgotten by us adults - kids love discovering these little things in the garden or the local park, and are invigorated by the opportunity to learn more about them in an outdoor setting. 

In this special publication, Luis’ up-close photographs and Kate’s stunning illustrations provide a rare opportunity for readers to learn about and admire some of Melbourne’s wonderful insect life through both a photographer’s and illustrator’s lens. Moving from page to page, children will find themselves learning fantastic facts about the little things of our city. From the mesmerising hunting techniques of the Garden Praying Mantis and the ability of Long-tailed Sawfly larvae to turn leaves into skeletons, to the unassuming beauty of the Bush Cockroach and, my personal favourite, the sneaky breeding tactics of the alluring Checkered Cuckoo Bee, this book is packed with information that’s presented in an incredibly digestible format.

The Garden Praying Mantis is often a difficult species to spot, as they're generally camouflaged within their surroundings so as not to be seen by predators. This also enables them to sneak up on their own prey.  Image: Luis Mata

The Garden Praying Mantis is often a difficult species to spot, as they're generally camouflaged within their surroundings so as not to be seen by predators. This also enables them to sneak up on their own prey. Image: Luis Mata

The book has already been used by schools and children’s outdoor education groups like Leap into Nature, as detailed in a recent Wild Melbourne article by founder Christina Renowden. Kate tells me that ‘...kids are taking the book outdoors, into parks and gardens, and using it as a mini-field guide. We think that’s wonderful! Kids are using the book as part of ‘bug detective’ games – running about, trying to find the 30 insects in the book, and drawing other insects that they find. For Sarah, Luis and I, getting more kids into nature is a fantastic outcome!’

When I asked Luis if the book could also be enjoyed by adults, he assured me that they had ‘…planned the longer stories that go alongside Kate’s illustrations with both children and adults in mind.’ All three authors ‘…are thoroughly convinced that the amazing insects that live in Melbourne have something to say to everyone regardless of their age.’

But appreciating Melbourne’s insect biodiversity isn’t just about admiring their looks and behaviour. Luis explains how ‘insects are a fundamental component of nature in our cities’, especially when it comes to ecosystem services such as pollinating flowers and keeping plant pests at bay. Arguably, these insects are part of what makes Melbourne such an impressive city and allow both visitors and those that live here the chance to appreciate life on a smaller level.

I think Melburnians and Australians should consider themselves incredibly lucky to live amongst such a beautiful variety of amazing, unique insects. I’m particularly captivated by the rich connections that Indigenous people in Melbourne and Australia have with insects and other non-human animals – I treasure every Boon wurrung insect word that the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages provided for the book.

We often hear of children already being fascinated by the little things from a young age, such as the insects in their own backyards. This is an interest that sometimes seems to dissipate with age, and so a book like this will hopefully do wonders for those kids who want to retain that interest, or motivate those who are yet to develop it. Luis believes that as parents, it’s important to ‘keep providing… opportunities to remain in contact with nature and to keep highlighting the positive aspects of insects…’ throughout children’s lives. Adults are often guilty of dismissing native insects as nuisances, but it’s important to remember that for children, these animals can be the most fascinating part of enjoying the outdoors and that what we may see as pests are actually vital role-players in our local ecosystems.

This book is really the first of its kind and will hopefully result in other, similar children’s books with a focus not just on Australian wildlife in general, but local wildlife. As co-author Sarah Bekessy explains, we need to do more to make our Australian cities ‘unique’. Cities around the world are becoming more and more alike, and embracing local biodiversity ensures that we don’t lose what is special about Australian places.

The book is already being used by children in school or during outdoor education activities.  Image: City of Melbourne

The book is already being used by children in school or during outdoor education activities. Image: City of Melbourne

This unique book will hopefully allow both children and adults to engage with the insects around our city, enhancing the public's appreciation of the biodiversity that makes Melbourne special. Co-author Sarah Bekessy's son is pictured here dressed as a 'fluffy bum' (the nymph stage of the Passionvine Planthopper) at the book launch.  Image: Sarah Bekessy

This unique book will hopefully allow both children and adults to engage with the insects around our city, enhancing the public's appreciation of the biodiversity that makes Melbourne special. Co-author Sarah Bekessy's son is pictured here dressed as a 'fluffy bum' (the nymph stage of the Passionvine Planthopper) at the book launch. Image: Sarah Bekessy

As demonstrated by the minuscule Melburnians described in this book, there is much to love about our insect biodiversity alone. Imagine the possibilities if we extended this to all groups of animals, plants, fungi and made it clear to both residents and visitors that these are what make our home extraordinary. Sarah hopes that readers see the book as ‘a beautiful, compelling piece of work’ and describes the feeling of readers declaring their excitement when spotting the illustrated insects with their own eyes. As she tells me, ‘it’s all stuff that you can actually see yourself’ – again, the idea of what’s local is ever-important.

Finally, I asked Luis whether he had a favourite insect featured in the book. For him, it was the Blue-banded Bee. The photograph used to illustrate this species in fact marks the moment when Luis first saw this unusual bee during the Melbourne Bioblitz in 2016. He tells me that he will ‘…never forget how exciting that moment was, seeing those extraordinary, beautiful blue bands contrasting sharply with the alternate black ones. And the agile, graceful way the bee flew from one flax-lily to the other – a truly amazing experience!’ This is hopefully a joy that more Melburnians will share after learning to recognise our city’s distinctive insects using this remarkable book.

Luis admits that his favourite insect featured in the book is the Blue-banded Bee, this photo marking the moment when he first saw the species in the wild. The book explains how this beautiful insect uses a head-banging technique called 'buzz pollination' to collect pollen, and that the Boon wurrung word for bees is 'murnalong'.  Image: Luis Mata

Luis admits that his favourite insect featured in the book is the Blue-banded Bee, this photo marking the moment when he first saw the species in the wild. The book explains how this beautiful insect uses a head-banging technique called 'buzz pollination' to collect pollen, and that the Boon wurrung word for bees is 'murnalong'. Image: Luis Mata

You can download the eBook edition of The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne! at this link, or purchase a hard copy edition at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens gift shop or the Melbourne Museum gift shop


Rachel Fetherston - headshot.png

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.


Banner image of a Brown Darkling Beetle courtesy of Luis Mata. 

Landscape of conflict

I knew every nook and cranny of the tea trees along the dunes and every trail and bike track through the bush. I understood the weather patterns like they were part of me. The big westerlies that pushed up the swell, the southerlies that brought the chill up from Antarctica and, in summer, the northerlies that blew heat down off the inland.
— The Road to Winter, Mark Smith

It’s been years since a virus wiped out the majority of Australia’s population. In Angowrie, a fictional town on Victoria’s Surf Coast, teenager Finn has survived almost entirely alone, save for the company of his dog, Rowdy. With a hidden stash of supplies stockpiled from ‘before’ and a thorough knowledge of hunting and fishing, Finn has made it through two years of isolation. After the catastrophe of the loss of everyone he knows, he has finally got into the rhythm of survival.

But when a girl shows up on the beach one day, his world shifts again. Rose is a ‘Siley’ – an asylum seeker – on the run from the gang of Wilder men who’ve held her captive. She’s one of the few women untouched by the virus, along with her sister, but the two of them have become separated in the course of their escape. When Rose is incapacitated by an infected wound, Finn sets out to find her sister, Kas, and bring her back to Angowrie.

Image: Text Publishing

Image: Text Publishing

Image: Text Publishing

Image: Text Publishing

As for the wider situation, the reader knows only what Finn knows. On the cusp of adolescence at the time the virus strikes, Finn is aware only of the quarantine, the resulting chaos, and the personal tragedies that ultimately leave him alone in a ghost town. It’s hinted that the virus was somehow linked to global warming, which manifested in extreme weather and tidal changes, but the focus of the story is on the here and now: Finn’s struggle to navigate a once-familiar, sparsely populated landscape where some are simply trying to survive and others to take control.

The author’s love for his environment clings to every word of Mark Smith’s description. Though his prose is sparse, the details he calls attention to paint a vivid picture. Finn, his protagonist, is intimately familiar with the flora and weather patterns of the coastal town he has always called home. He notes the ways that the tides and seasons have changed in preceding years; he uses them to his advantage, and prepares meticulously for what’s coming, in order to keep going.

Yet what grounds Finn most of all is surfing. The passages in which Finn takes to the water have an almost meditative feel. This pastime, totally unrelated to survival, reminds Finn that he is human; and as a character, it is a powerful means of connection with the reader. A typical Aussie even in the face of adversity, Finn is called to return home throughout the series by the promise of good surf.

Every ten metres or so there is debris blocking our way. The bush is eerily quiet – the wind hardly stirs the leaves, as though everything is finding its breath again after the storms.

 

In the second book of the series Finn must travel away from home again, into the eponymous Wilder Country, where a gang of men holds sway over a rural inland region. In a world where fuel has become scarce to the point of nonexistence, all ground must be covered on foot, on horseback, or by bicycle – if you can find a horse or a bike. No journey feels insignificant when the cracked remains of main roads must be avoided and trails must be carved out through bushland. We see the changing landscape through Finn’s eyes as he moves away from the coast and up into the hills.

Both landscapes and seascapes play important roles in Finn's journey.  Image:    Jeremy Bishop  on  Unsplash

Both landscapes and seascapes play important roles in Finn's journey. Image: Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

The story moves so quickly it’s worth pausing for breath once in a while to soak up the imagery. In an author event at the Kyneton children’s bookstore Squishy Minnie, Smith mentioned that he’d cut much of the description down to the bare bones to suit a younger audience and quicken the pace, but in several places I found myself wishing I could read those unedited passages and see more of this world through Smith’s eyes.

It’s a vision of the near future that’s made all the more frightening by the ring of truth that all good dystopias hold: a tinge of familiarity and possibility, even when the story itself pushes those possibilities to the extreme. At this point in time the publication of the third book in the Winter trilogy is yet to be announced. It’s safe to say, however, that following the pattern of the series so far, we can expect this cast of tough young characters to face their greatest challenges yet in this feral Victorian landscape – and perhaps get a glimpse into the state of the wider world.

Purchase your copies of The Road to Winter and Wilder Country from Text Publishing.


download 2.jpeg

Alex Mullarky

Alex is a writer and National Geographic Explorer who combines her love of the environment, adventure and animals in her work. She has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Arts and is training as a veterinary nurse. She is Publications Sub-editor for Wild Melbourne and Remember the Wild.

You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra


Banner image courtesy of Amy Mackay on Unsplash

Discovering the World of Alison Lester

At our beach, at our magic beach, we swim in the sparkling sea…

Alison Lester’s Magic Beach is one of those childhood books that was read so many times that now, when I revisit it, the words come back to me like an old favourite song. Not only am I filled with nostalgia over the familiarity of the words and pictures, but also that classic Aussie childhood experience of summer days spent at the beach.

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    ‘We swim in the sparkling sea’ from  Magic Beach  by Alison Lester (Allen & Unwin, 1990).

‘We swim in the sparkling sea’ from Magic Beach by Alison Lester (Allen & Unwin, 1990).

My mum is a children’s book designer, and has worked with Alison for many years – Magic Beach was actually finished on our dining room table while I was crawling around underfoot. Now that I’m all grown up, I caught up with Alison to have a chat about her books, and that indescribable feeling of connectedness to nature that she so expertly captures.

Alison grew up in South Gippsland, and many of the places visited by the characters in her books are based on real places, particularly in that area of the state. For instance, Magic Beach is based on the beach at Walkerville.

‘It does have bits of different places – there’s no jetty at Walkerville,’ says Alison. ‘But mostly that’s Walkerville.’

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       Noni the Pony goes to the Beach  by Alison Lester (Allen and Unwin, 2014).

Noni the Pony goes to the Beach by Alison Lester (Allen and Unwin, 2014).

I’ve since visited Walkerville Beach, and despite the lack of castles, princesses and smugglers, it does have a beautiful variety and seclusion to it that makes it special. As Alison puts it: ‘It has a bit of everything.’

‘Of all the books, Magic Beach is one of the least translated and I think it’s because the way we visit the beach in Australia is different to how others do it. We tend to go to the beach and really revel in the sand and the sea.’

Wilsons Prom – ‘that area where the mountains meet the sea’ – also features largely in Alison’s stories, and her psyche: ‘Often I’ll do something completely unrelated, and someone will mention how it reminds them of the Prom, even though I didn’t mean it to. It’s very subconscious.’

Her grandfather, father and uncle were some of the last to hold grazing rights for the Prom, and her family would visit every Sunday for a picnic.

We grew up thinking that it was our place, I think everyone feels like that about the Prom.

Nature is an ever-present backdrop of Alison’s books (‘I would never do a book that’s set in the city’), and they all celebrate the connection between people, and their connection with the natural world.

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    ‘… alone in the moonlight…” from  Imagine  by Alison Lester (Allen and Unwin, 1989).

‘… alone in the moonlight…” from Imagine by Alison Lester (Allen and Unwin, 1989).

‘The natural world is the best thing,’ says Alison, as our conversation turns to how her books – and children’s books in general – can help connect people to nature.

Alison talks about how encouraging kids to get out into nature and drawing what they see can really push them to notice the world around them, and by noticing things, they can come to appreciate it. She thinks that by showing her characters out in nature, she can help her readers feel more closely linked to the natural world.

‘You’ve got to get people familiar with it, because if they are unfamiliar with it they can find it quite scary, and so they don’t relate to it. If they feel they belong in it and it’s theirs, and that leads them to care and not chuck rubbish into it. It’s all those little things that make a difference at the end of the day.’


Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at @ecology_ella.

 


Banner image: ‘Droving on the beach’ from My Farm by Alison Lester (Allen & Unwin, 1992).

Nature's Vibrancy: Exploring the Art of Marc Martin

In December last year, Australia celebrated the 100th Anniversary of May Gibbs’ Gumnut Babies. Gibbs was considered an early environmentalist and ever since the publication of her now iconic stories, nature has been a recurring theme in the literary aesthetic of Australian children’s books.

These days, there is a silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) majority who believe that the younger generations no longer immerse themselves in the world of bookshops. Although not completely untrue, it seems a very different story when you work in one – children push past parents to pull books off shelves, curling up on the floor to discover another world in the pages of a book. This is quietly reassuring to someone like myself who learned so much about nature and the outdoors through my Jacqui French, Alison Lester and Jeannie Baker books, and who now works in the book trade – in spite of those moments when forlorn adults drag their kids kicking and screaming out of the store.

I believe many young Australians are lucky to have access to such a vibrant literary community that produces writing for all ages and types. In particular, Love Oz YA has developed into a national movement promoting the Australian young adult genre, and there is still a huge variety of children’s picture books being published here, written by Australian authors – a fact that should be especially celebrated in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature.

An example of some of the beautifully coloured artwork featured throughout  A River .  Image: Marc Martin

An example of some of the beautifully coloured artwork featured throughout A River. Image: Marc Martin

Author Marc Martin knows Melbourne well, and his vibrantly illustrated children’s books manage to capture both the dreamy and everyday of the natural world, as well as its overwhelming potential to evoke curiosity and excitement in even the youngest iPhone users and TV watchers.

Primarily an artist, Marc’s work ranges from private commissions to webpage design to the incredible forest mural that covers one wall of the newly opened Readings Kids in Carlton. In particular, though, his books present the opportunity for both children and adults to take a piece of his art home with them, to be shared and enjoyed over and over again on blustery Melbourne afternoons, or outside enjoying the natural environment that Marc so beautifully depicts in his work.

His most recent publication, Lots, portrays the immense diversity of life on Earth through detailed illustrations of a variety of locations, whilst some of his previous works – A Forest and A River – depict the beauty and vulnerability of natural places, conveying a sense of admiration and protection of the environment from which we can learn so much.

I was recently able to interview Marc about the inspiration behind his books and the importance of bringing nature into stories and the everyday, so that we can better appreciate it.

Was there something in particular that inspired you to create your picture book A River?

The idea for A River came from a desire to tell a story about connectedness to land and environment. It’s also about the power of imagination and encouraging an awareness of the world outside of your own locality.

As a Melbourne local, do you think our own Yarra River can provide the same adventure that the child in your story experiences?

Sure. The Yarra is a great place to explore and connect with nature, especially for people who live in the city. If you hire a rowboat at the Fairfield boathouse and go up stream a few hundred metres, you quickly get a sense that you’re no longer in the city. Being on the water and having that connection to the river can be transportive, it’s an experience that forces you to slow down and take stock of your surroundings, and a good antidote to our usual fast-paced, urban lives.

In your book A Forest, I noticed similar themes to the story of Dr Seuss’ The Lorax. Are there any artists, authors or works of fiction that have particularly inspired your own work?

My influences always change. Right now I’m probably more interested in painting and contemporary art than anything else – David Hockney, Peter Doig, Fred Williams and Adrian Ghenie are a few painters I like. In terms of picture books, Jennie Baker’s Where the Forest Meets the Sea was very influential growing up - I just loved her use of collage and the lushness of the illustrations. Studying graphic design also gave me an appreciation for modernist art and design, so Ray and Charles Eames, Bruno Munari, Saul Bass and Charley Harper are some of my favourite designers.

'Maatsuyker Islands' was a piece of Marc's artwork featured in Newswrite Magazine.  Image: Marc Martin

'Maatsuyker Islands' was a piece of Marc's artwork featured in Newswrite Magazine. Image: Marc Martin

In what ways do you think art has the power to teach and encourage a deeper appreciation of the natural world?

Everyone interprets the world in different ways, but art has the power to unify and give pause for reflection. In that way, art can encourage discussion about various issues (whether that be politics, society, culture or the natural world) and thus help us understand the complexities of the world that little bit better.

A commissioned piece from Chronicle Books titled 'The Hunt'.  Image: Marc Martin

A commissioned piece from Chronicle Books titled 'The Hunt'. Image: Marc Martin

Your new book Lots explores the diversity of life on Earth. Was it intentional for you to include information about local wildlife in each place, or is this just an incidental aspect of the diversity of every location?

I think that just happened by circumstance. Some places like Antarctica or the Galapagos have more of a wildlife focus because there’s either less humans or a greater diversity of wildlife, whilst some pages focus more on people and cultural practices, like Paris or Cairo, because those places tend to be more human-centric.

Is there a reason why so much of your work focuses on wildlife and natural landscapes? Why do you think it is important to highlight the relationships between cities, people and the natural environment?

Most people live in urban areas where there’s no connection to land or environment - we often detach ourselves from nature, we ‘go bush’ or explore ‘the wilderness’ as if it’s something that’s apart from the world we live in. I think it’s important to remind people that we’re part of the natural world, that we’re part of an interdependent ecosystem of living things.

Marc's work often demonstrates a particular focus on bids, as shown by this piece titled 'Plovers'.  Image: Marc Martin

Marc's work often demonstrates a particular focus on bids, as shown by this piece titled 'Plovers'. Image: Marc Martin

Can you recall a particular experience in nature that inspired you in your work?

Maybe not one particular experience. I’d say taking a year off in my mid-twenties and travelling around allowed me to see some pretty amazing places. Some of my favourites were Angkor Wat in Cambodia - I loved the giant trees reclaiming the ruins - and the jungles of Borneo, the grassy plains of Mongolia, and vast valleys in Ladakh.

Finally, is there a particular green space in Melbourne or Victoria that you especially enjoy visiting?

The Bellbird Picnic Area in Yarra Bend Park is a great place to see flying foxes as they take off each night. It’s easy to get to on a weeknight after work, and watching (and hearing) the entire bat colony slowly wake up and take flight on the banks of the Yarra at twilight feels pretty special.  

You can find more information on Marc Martin’s books and artwork on his website.


Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.


Banner image courtesy of Marc Martin.