blog tour

Blog Tour: The Boy With The Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson

Blog Tour: The Boy With The Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson

Butterfly Mind Blog Tour - Victoria Williamson

We Can All Be Butterflies – by author Victoria Williamson 

‘Is it a book for girls?’

This was one of the most annoying, and surprisingly frequently-encountered questions I was asked by parents and teachers when my debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, was published last year. ‘No,’ I’d reply with increasing weariness, ‘The main characters are girls, but it’s a story that boys will be able to relate to just as much.’ After all, how can you gender human experiences such as war, loss, friendship, hope, and redemption?

This time round, with my second novel, The Boy with the Butterfly Mind, there should be no confusion for adults intent on pushing gender stereotypes and so-called ‘gender-appropriate’ products on children. This is definitely a book for boys too. We all know it is, because it’s got the word ‘boy’ in the title. But wait… It’s also got pictures of butterflies on the cover. And aren’t butterflies a bit, well… girly?

The adult obsession, or more specifically, the marketers’ obsession, with categorising everything from clothes and toys, to animals and inanimate objects as either ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’, results in parents unwilling to buy anything for their children from the ‘wrong’ section of the shop in case their child gets bullied about it in school. Girls may seem to get let off lightly in this respect – a girl with an Avengers obsession, even though all but one of the superheroes in the film are men, won’t face the same amount of taunting in school as a boy who loves My Little Pony. But this is due to a deeper bias, one that still insists that girls, and by extension anything aimed at girls, is ‘lesser’. Films, toys and products aimed at boys still have a ‘prestige’ factor that makes it acceptable, and understandable, that girls should take an interest in them too. When it comes to books, while boys are allowed to turn their noses up at stories featuring female characters as ‘girly’, girls are still supposed to empathise with male characters without expecting anything approaching equal representation in return.

According to research by the Observer:

‘Male characters are twice as likely to take leading roles in children’s picture books and are given far more speaking parts than females, according to Observer research that shines a spotlight on the casual sexism apparently inherent in young children’s reading material.

In-depth analysis of the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017, carried out by this paper with market research company Nielsen, reveals the majority are dominated by male characters, often in stereotypically masculine roles, while female characters are missing from a fifth of the books ranked.’

Children in this country learn from a young age that animals and insects in stories have a gender. More often or not, that gender is male, unless of course that character is seen as ‘pretty’, in which case it’s automatically categorised as female. Butterflies, ladybirds, peacocks and tropical birds are often gendered as female, which makes little sense when in the real world it’s usually the male of the species who has the pretty wings or the beautiful feathers.

It was interesting this summer to see children playing who hadn’t been influenced by Western marketing to the same extent. I spent four weeks volunteering as a reading assistant with The Book Bus, visiting schools in Zambia to run story and craft sessions. One of the books that proved very popular was The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and the children enjoyed colouring in butterflies to take home. At the end of the session, most of them, boys and girls, used the pipe cleaner body and tail to attach the butterflies to their hair. The boy at the bottom of this picture was the first of the children to do this, while the boy on the right had just taken his off to adjust his pipe cleaner.

Butterflies - Book Murmuration Blog

No one is suggesting these children aren’t bombarded with gender stereotypes every day of their lives, but with very limited access to electricity, television, films and books, they hadn’t absorbed the marketer’s message that butterflies are considered things that only girls should adorn themselves with. After all, in real life, a butterfly is equally likely to land on the head of a boy or a girl, so why should only girls wear them?

Gendering animals as predominantly male in the stories we tell might not seem like much of a problem, but as Jess Day, who campaigns to end gender stereotyping with the Let Toys Be Toys movement says:

“It is preparing children to see male dominance as normal, so that when women do less than half of the talking, that still feels like too much to some people. And with so few female roles, there’s also not enough space for the female characters to be multi-dimensional. I think the lack of female villains reflects a wider cultural discomfort with women who are not well-behaved and good.”

If girls and boys are to take equal roles in society – in politics, science, management, and in the home – then they have to see all of these roles as open to them from a young age. Gendering books, films, toys, clothes, and even butterflies as ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ limits the choices that children have open to them, and in turn, limits the career paths and opportunities they believe are open to them when they’re older. As adults, we can make all the difference in helping children overcome the pink and blue ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ market that surrounds them, by offering them alternatives to these limited choices.

And next time you see a see a book with ‘girl’ in the title or butterflies on the front cover, just ask ‘Is it for children?’ instead.

 

Thanks to Victoria Williamson for your beautiful article.

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Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold.

Review: The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold.

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Kathryn and her father set out into the Kielder Valley, a place with a history of music and story. Everything they see – every planet, building and animal – is on borrowed time. A great dam is under construction and the valley will soon be flooded. Only the ghosts remain, and memories of the people who once lived in the valley.

The father breaks entry into a deserted house. Kathryn plays her fiddle, her father dances and sings and the room fills with spirits. It is alive with the stories and music of long ago. Kathryn and her father move from building to building, filling each one with music for the last time.

Based on a true story told by Mike and Kathryn Tickell, this story brings to life a beautiful piece of history from Northumberland. It is a story of loss and hope. The buildings in the valley will go, but the music lives on. Art of any form is how we record our experiences, and the little girl in the story grew into a famous folk musician who has played the songs of Northumberland to international audiences.

As someone who is currently grieving, I found reassurance in the story. Places and people are taken away but we can recall their voices and messages through art.

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Levi Pinfold’s illustrations have a dream-like quality to them. They capture the illusory quality of memories alongside the vast reality of the dam. I especially love the colours in the skies. I could stare at them in the same way as real clouds.

The final pictures, of Kielder Water and the forest in the distance, are filled with life and joy and colour. It is impossible not to want to visit the area, or at the very least to find a wide, outdoor space. To explore and laugh and play.

I was lucky enough to see David Almond perform alongside Kathryn Tickell and accordionist Amy Thatcher in 2017. The performance brought music and words together to celebrate creativity and the beauty of Northern England. I left enthused. Touched. It is an evening I think of often because I felt so in tune with its messages. The Dam, too, is impossible to forget. There is something new in every reread and it offers a beautiful starting point for conversations about the past and memories and loss.

A haunting and beautiful story about the triumph of art over change.

 

Thanks to Walker Books for my gifted copy of The Dam. Opinions my own.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett

Review: D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett

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Extract:

But because everything was so smooth, and easy, and obstacle-free, I didn’t even question what was going on, or realise I was skipping into the forest as innocently as Red Riding Hood in Hoodwinked. 

Pretty dumb, really. 

The first sniff I had that something dark was going on was when I got the second act of The Isle Of Dogs. 

(D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett. P74.) 

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Synopsis:

A year on from the events of the Justitium hunt and Greer is focused on getting top marks in her final exams to secure a place at Oxford. Drama students at S.T.A.G.s are responsible for putting on the end of year play, and Greer has taken the role of director. She isn’t certain on which play to perform until an old manuscript is pushed beneath her bedroom door. It is the first act of The Isle Of Dogs,  a work by Ben Jonson hasn’t been seen in over 400 years. It also contains some striking parallels to the social division she has witnessed at STAGS.

Her decision to cast the play puts her relationship with Shafeen on hold, but it may have wider consequences too. As further acts appear, the play leads Greer back towards the Order Of The Stag, and to the place she thought she would never visit: Longcross Hall.

But why does she still question whether Henry might be there? That particular ghost from her past was supposed to be laid to rest over a year ago …

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Review:

STAGS was a triumph of 2017 which both hit the awards list and gathered a legion of fans. My first words when I closed the book were ‘MA Bennett knows how to tell a story’. My second question was ‘Did she mean to write a five-act structure?’ (The author answered this during a Twitter chat. Yes, she did, and to tremendous effect.) When it was confirmed that MA Bennett was the penname of an established writer – and one who studied Shakespeare’s work at masters level – I was not in the least bit surprised.

The influence of historical writers on Bennett’s work comes to the front of the second story, as Greer stages the first playing of The Isle Of Dogs in over 400 years.

This real play saw Ben Jonson imprisoned and almost executed, and this fact is the basis for the events of D.O.G.S. MA Bennett imagines what might have caused Elizabeth the First to react so violently against Jonson’s work in a fictional version of the play. Greer receives this a single act at a time, pushed under her door by a mysterious stranger.

Every act draws her deeper into a world she thought she had left behind.

New characters keep the series fresh. The de Walencourt twins, Cass and Louis, are difficult to read – are they different to the rest of their family, or does the same privileged ambition run through their veins? Ty Morgan a complete star. She’s the new ‘outsider’ to the gilded world of S.T.A.G.S, but she’s sure as heck not going to be made an outsider by the established trio. Ty’s storyline challenges everything readers have come to expect from black characters in secondary roles. Think just about every half-term film from the late 90s or early 2000s. Think about the stereotype of the black best friend. Ty smashes that role to smithereens. There’s also a new staff member whose motives are hard to figure.

D.O.G.S did everything I hoped for. It wasn’t a repeat of S.T.A.G.S, but it built on the themes of social division and an ingrained class system and developed our knowledge about the Order Of The Stag. It brought back familiar locations but allowed us to explore them in new ways, and from new angles. D.O.G.S is as addictive and compelling as its predecessor. MA Bennett sure knows how to write stories which bite.

 

Thanks to Readers First and Hoy Key Books for my gifted copy of D.O.G.S. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone

Review: Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone

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Extract:

The dust around Casper shifted and seemed to glitter in the half-light and it was then – in that hushed moment – that the Extremely Unpredictable Event occurred. 

The key Casper was holding now looked altogether different. Without the layer of dust covering it, he could see that it was not simply a dull lump of metal anymore. It was silver and in its base there was a turquoise gem, which was glowing. 

(Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone. P23.) 

 

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Synopsis:

Casper Tock is allergic to adventure. He lives by a timetable and believes in solid evidence and facts. It is the shock of his life when, first he stumbles into the magical world of Rumblestar and then he is told it is his job to save the world.

Utterly Thankless has lived in Rumblestar all her life. She’s a bottler-in-training, learning to contain the magic which creates weather. Life hasn’t been the same for Utterly since the terrible thing which she refuses to talk about.

Now the evil harpy Morg is awakening and her magic is once more a threat to the magical Unmapped Kingdoms. Can Casper, Utterly and their dragon friend Arlo work together to save the world from Morg and her Midnights?

A magical quest from the master of fantasy Abi Elphinstone.

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Review:

A harpy trapped in a void, a magical grandfather clock and a series of secret worlds where the weather is produced and sent to Earth. No writer should be able to pull all that off in one story, but Abi Elphinstone does so not only with ease but with apparent relish. She’s the kind of storyteller who seems to have a magical bag full of ideas which she ties together into brilliant narratives.

Rumblestar is the first book in the Unmapped Chronicles series, although the prequel Everdark was published on World Book Day. It helps to have read this, as the events of the story are referenced, although it is not strictly necessary.

Landscape always plays a part in Elphinstone’s world, from the Scottish Highland forests and rivers of the Dreamsnatcher trilogy to the icy lands of standalone novel Sky Song. For the first time, Elphinstone has invented her own lands to great effect. The Unmapped Kingdoms are where weather is invented. Each land is responsible for a different weather family, and Rumblestar is where the weather is processed and transferred to the world we know. Casper Tock’s world.

Rumblestar felt like something from Diana Wynne Jones. It is both a place where people live and work, and it is also the central part of a magical system. Reading this story made me feel as if I’d had my eyes shut to an important truth about our world, or maybe just that I should be searching for magic hidden just out of sight. This is the kind of story which makes readers believe that life is big and incredible, and that imagination is a powerful asset on our journey.

There was also an environmental message – one desperately needed given the current crisis. This was not invasive but it is important for readers to start thinking and caring about our world.

A book which is part fairytale and part breathtaking adventure. Another hit from Abi Elphinstone which will leave her readers dreaming of magical worlds.

 

 

 

Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Q&A with Emma Read, Author of ‘Milton The Mighty’.

Q&A with Emma Read, Author of ‘Milton The Mighty’.

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About Milton The Mighty 

Milton is a little spider with a big problem. 

When a piece of viral internet content names Milton as a killer, his life is in danger. This is not helped by his house human’s phobia, nor with the arrival of Felicity Thrubwell and her plans to annihilate spider-kind. 

Helped by his eight-legged friends and young human friend Zoe, Milton begins a campaign to clear his name. 

Milton The Mighty is filled with humour, determination and creepy-crawly fun. My full review will be available on Monday 3rd June 2019, but suffice it to say I loved the book. A lot. The characters learn that even the smallest of us can make a big difference. It reminded me of the books which were my very favourite as a child. 

I was delighted when Emma Read agreed to take part in a Q&A. Her answers offer a wonderful insight into the inspiration for her story, and the ways in which it grew as she wrote. Thank you, Emma, for your time. 

 

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Q&A with author Emma Read:

 

You wrote about something you’re scared of. Why did you do that?

That is a very good question and one I asked myself a lot as I was researching spiders from behind a cushion! I was originally pondering unwanted fame, such as being misrepresented on social media, or in the press. Once I’d created the character of Milton I fell in love with him and felt compelled to tell his story, despite his leggy-ness!

 

Did your feelings change as you wrote?

They really did. The more I learned about spiders, their incredible skills and beauty, I grew to love them. They are vitally important to our ecosystems and, besides having an intrinsic right to exist, they have the potential to improve human lives too. They really are teeny super-heroes!

 

Milton’s trouble begins with a piece of viral web content. Milton and Zoe also use the internet to help with their campaign? Why did you decide to include the human web in a story about spiders?

Web puns aside (although they do come in handy!) I wanted to help young children begin to understand that the internet is a powerful tool which can be used for right or wrong, depending on the user. So there’s a cautionary tale in there, amongst the humour and action! Also, Milton and Zoe have a message to share and what better way to do that than making connections, just like a spider-web.

 

Felicity Thrubwell’s vendetta against spiders is partly the result of a bad childhood experience. How do you think bad experiences can shape our behaviours?

Experience is how we learn – in childhood it shapes our brain, influencing the adults we become. It’s a huge subject! Animal phobias are apparently common following a negative experience as a child, and do affect behaviour. As a full-blown arachnophobe I would check the room before going to sleep, and simply not sleep in a room where I had seen spider.

 

What are your favourite facts about spiders?

I have loads! But here are three which are pretty cool: Spiders have blue blood; spiders live in every habitat on earth, except Antarctica; the average web of a garden spider contains about 30 metres of silk – that’s as long as a blue whale!

 

I first heard about Milton when you were shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award. How much did the story change between that time and publication and what were the major changes?

The first change was that Chicken House wanted more – hurray! The heart of the story remains, but Milton now faces additional peril at the hands of dastardly pest-controller, Felicity Thrubwell, a mishap with some rather naughty (and a just little bit deadly) cousins and a Spider-calla-friendship-istic-expi-arachnid-ocious finale! The manuscript which shortlisted for BCNA grew with the help of my amazing editors, from around 13K, ending up at roughly 30K. So there’s a lot more fun and excitement (and running and screaming!)

 

Zoe is ridiculed when she stands up for what she believes in. Do you have any thoughts for people who have experienced the same thing?

This element of Zoe’s story was inspired by a young Canadian called Sophia Spencer, who was bullied at school for liking bugs. She went on to co-author a paper in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America after support for her went viral on social media. It can be so hard to be different, especially when you’re young – I know, I yielded to peer-pressure when I was a child and gave myself a phobia of spiders that lasted decades. But what I say to my kids is: ‘If someone wants you to change you to suit them, and it feels wrong, then it probably is. Speak your own truth – whether you do it loudly or quietly, is up to you’.

 

blog tour · Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Blog Tour: Q&A with Kathryn Evans, author of Beauty Sleep.

Blog Tour: Q&A with Kathryn Evans, author of Beauty Sleep

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About Beauty Sleep

What happens when you wake up and find that forty years have passed? Do all sleeping beauties live happily ever after?

9781474954877-beauty-sleep-fc-wipIt was supposed to be the perfect solution. Laura was dying. The only chance to save her was to freeze her until medical science progressed enough for her to be cured. 

How would it really feel to wake up and find that forty years have passed? Laura not only deals with the trauma of building a new life. She is left with the mystery of her old one. 

If teenagers being frozen in time sounds like the stuff of sci-fi, you’ve missed the news stories about cryonics. It is now possible – for a large fee – for a body or a brain to be preserved until such time as the condition which killed it can be cured. There is no evidence that this will be certain. However, in 2016, a teenage girl’s dying wishes to have her body preserved made headlines. 

These kind of news stories open up a whole series of ‘what ifs’ which lead to stories. What if a girl in a similar situation didn’t know who she had been? What if some of her family were still alive? 

The questions raised about the ethics of the companies offering these services also provide rich material for storytellers.

I was delighted to be offered an opportunity to ask Kathryn Evans some questions and her answers have made me desperate to finish the book. Thanks to Kathryn for your time, and to Jessica at Usbourne for arranging this opportunity. 

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Q&A with Kathryn Evans

Was your story inspired more by Sleeping Beauty or by scientific progress?

I guess its scientific progress – I wanted to tell a story that looked at how change in modern life impacts on young people. By having Laura traverse two time periods while she was still a teenager, I was able to do that in a unique way. Cryogenics and the Sleeping Beauty story are just an obvious fit to me.

 

 How did you research Laura’s experience of returning to society forty years from when she went to sleep?

Have any real-life experiences come close to this? I did a lot of research into amnesia but there really wasn’t anything comparable to Laura’s experience. There are stories about people recovering from comas but their lives after the miracle of recovery are rarely documented in the public sphere. I used my own experience of the 1980’s and projected how I’d feel if I hadn’t lived through all the changes that have happened but was suddenly presented with them.

 

How do you imagine being a teenager at the point of going to sleep would shape Laura’s experience?

As a teenager, you expect to have your whole life ahead of you and suddenly, that door closes, and you don’t have any idea if you’ll survive beyond the next hour. It was so sad writing those scenes – not just because of Laura’s fears for herself but her for her little brother too. The one thing she did have was hope – hope that they’d be woken up. As she says, it was that, or die.

 

Fairy tales often have a darker element to the story. What is the darker side of Beauty Sleep?

Without any spoilers? That’s a hard one to answer – let’s just say I thought a lot about how good citizens could stand by in a holocaust and watch their friends and neighbours be victimised. About how we can ignore the harm that comes to others for our own benefit as long as we don’t have to see it in front of us. About how easily we learn to ignore the suffering of others if it’s an inconvenience to us.

 

With the chance to live again, Laura loses her old life. How much of our identity is formed by the people and places around us?

It’s everything – she’s suddenly rootless but she learns that to throw down new roots and that some of those tap into memories. Memory is a powerful way to hold onto people you’ve physically lost.

 

Aside from personal things like family and friends, what would you miss most if you woke up in the future? 

Aside from friends and family, it would depend on the world I woke up in. In a world without books, it would be books. In a world ravaged by disease, it’d be antibiotics. In a world with a climate damaged beyond repair it would be balmy spring days and birds singing and polar bears on ice caps. This is the problem with asking a writer a ‘what if’ kind of question, my brain is now in overdrive!

 

Q&A arranged as part of a promotional blog tour. Opinions my own. Thanks to Usborne Books for arranging this and for sending a copy of the book.

Middle Grade Reviews · Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Blog Tour: Q&A with author of ‘The Dog Runner’ Bren MacDibble

The Dog Runner

About The Dog Runner

The crops have failed and there isn’t enough food left to feed everybody alive. Food is at a premium, sold to the wealthiest for extortionate prices. Food parcels aren’t coming in as often as they once were. 

Ella and Emery are starving in the poorer part of the city. Emery’s Mum lives in the countryside where people are trying to reintroduce indigenous crops to the land. The children want to reach her, but to do that, they must cross vast areas of dry land. 

The only way their plan might work is with the help of their dogs. 

I was delighted to be offered the chance to ask author Bren MacDibble some questions about her story. Her debut nobel, How To Bee, was a big favourite of 2018 and I was particularly impressed by how she turned serious topics into compelling fiction. 

Thanks to Bren for your time and to Liz Scott for organising this opportunity. 

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Q&A with Bren MacDibble

Food production and land management play an important part in The Dog Runner. Why did you decide to write about these themes?

I’m very interested in where our food comes from and how we treat our environment, so when I wrote a story where a couple of kids take a dog cart across Australia, I made their reason for doing it to flee a famine-ravaged city, and it seemed natural to me, to take on a common threat to our food-security, which is wheat fungus, and expand that in my famine. We seem so disconnected from our food sources these days that we don’t understand how food is produced or the threats to our food from disease, lack of landcare or climate change. Australia is in a particularly strange place where we have a dry climate but we grow European foods, and yet the Aboriginal Peoples were growing and cultivating different grains, grinding flour and baking bread 600 years before the Egyptians. There is a wealth of knowledge and grain types that have previously been completely ignored, but which could be vital to our future as the planet warms.

 

What kind of books did you read to write this story? Was there anything you learned about for this first time?

I read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, (a children’s version of that came out recently), also The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage, both of these books talk about life and land use and land care before Australia was colonised. I was delighted to learn about all the methods of sustainably harvesting food: Fish nets that let the small fish through, and only killing large male kangaroos, and how the many peoples would travel to take advantage of seasonal harvests, like the protein-packed baked bogon moths.

 

The acknowledgments section mentions that you travelled as part of your research for The Dog Runner. How did this shape your work?

Yes, I received a travel grant from the Neilma Sidney Travel Fund. It was so good to visit the rail-trails and land the children travel across on their journey. Just to feel the heat and see the amazing colours of the dirt and study the plants other than grass that grow there, trying to imagine what that landscape would look like with even less vegetation. I also visited a mushroom tunnel, and a grassland regeneration project, and got to see sled dogs in action. Honestly, you think you know a little bit about a topic but when you visit people and talk to them, you learn so much more.

 

Ella and Emery travel across the land with the help of their dogs. Do you have any strong feelings about animals in children’s fiction? What is important when you write animal characters?

It’s easy to make animal characters too human, especially dogs who love to interact with humans, and one of these dogs is super smart, but I think it’s really important to show dogs being dogs. They have their needs and their limitations, they can supportive when the kids are down, or unpredictable and cause problems. Above all, the kids are ultimately responsible for the health and care of the dogs. They have to keep them safe and fed, and it’s a big responsibility in this book. Dogs are family, even when they’re naughty, and their needs can’t be ignored.

 

Ella’s Dad says that the people who survive extreme circumstances, such as a global food shortage, are the ones who learn to stand on their heads. Can you tell us a bit more about this idea?

He says when the world turns upside down the first ones to walk on their heads will survive. It’s a bit of an odd saying… but then he’s a dad, and we all know with Dadisms it’s the intent behind the saying that’s important. What he means is you have to be prepared to change immediately to suit the world you find yourself in. You can’t cling to your old ways and expect life to go back to normal. Survival is ultimately about being resourceful and thinking creatively about how to solve new problems. This is why it’s important to raise creative kids in an ever-changing world. Creativity may be the most important thing we can encourage in our kids, building, exploring, getting out in nature and just playing is super creative.

 

The book ends with a note of hope and makes references to seed banks. What could readers do now to care for the planet and support diverse food sources? 

 If you can source food that is produced without use of fertilisers and pesticides, buy this organically produced food as the land, insects and surrounding waterways are less damaged by natural processes, and you will encourage growth of this organic market. Eat what is grown locally and what is in season, learn some new recipes if you have to. If you eat meat, eat less red meat. Save beef for special occasions. Plant wildflowers, let grass grow long and have a few wild places for bugs, don’t spray weeds (dig them out by hand or put salt and boiling water on them if they’re in pavers) to keep the insects and bees healthy. Limit waste, especially plastic waste, and walk, cycle or take public transport more often.

 

Author Bio:

Bren MacDibble was raised on farms all over New Zealand, so is an expert about being a kid on the land. After 20 years in Melbourne, Bren recently sold everything, and now lives and works in a bus travelling around Australia. In 2018, How to Bee – her first novel for younger readers – won three major awards downunder and arrived in the UK. The Dog Runner, her second children’s novel, hits the shelves on 2nd May.