Books of Nature: Nicola Davies and the Story Space of the Imagination

I recently had the privilege and pleasure of talking with zoologist and author, Nicola Davies, creator of an impressive range of information and non-fiction books for children about animals, the environment and nature. The  interview was punctuated with laughter, confessions and confidences, and full of thought-provoking, complex ideas and passionately-held beliefs. Davies described herself as the youngest child of ‘older-than-average’ parents; since her next sibling was a decade older, she was essentially an only child. Her father was a keen gardener so she spent much of her childhood alone in large gardens looking at animals and plant life. It was a solitary childhood filled with dreams and imaginings and deeply connected to the natural world. The ‘aloneness’ of her childhood gave her the ability to be on her own as an adult, both as a wildlife researcher and as a writer.

After qualifying as a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, she spent time in Canada on an uninhabited island studying hump back whales. Unlike young people today, Davies said she had no career plan. She went to the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol and got a job as a researcher, and later, as a presenter on The Really Wild Show while intermittently spending time studying sperm whales for the World Wildlife Fund. Davies always had an ambition to write, but initially was intimidated by the amount of titles available. However, writing scripts for the show came easily to her, and gradually her confidence grew. While acting as a scientific consultant, she found herself writing a text that was accepted by UK children’s publisher Walker Books. Big Blue Whale, illustrated by Nick Maland, was published in 1997, a time of significant and personal change for Davies. Being an author, working with children and discovering her own talents was the beginning of a new life.

 

So many titles have followed, including Bat Loves the Night, illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies, White Owl, Barn Owl, illustrated by Michael Foreman, Ice Bear, illustrated by Gary Blythe and winner of the UK 4 – 11s’ Book Award, Just Ducks, illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino for the Walker Nature Storybooks Series- formerly the Read and Wonder Series, the Silver Street Farm series about children who help in a city farm and the Uncover & Discover series, illustrated by Marc Boutavant. Davies’ most recent books include a quartet of books about habitat conservation, The Elephant Road, The Lion Who Stole My Arm, and the upcoming Manatee Baby and Walking the Bear, which will both be published in August.

As a presenter of The Really Wild Show during the 1980s, Davies communicated with huge television audiences. However, as a writer, she feels her talent is to be able to speak quietly and intimately to one child within the magical connection between writer and reader. In this context, I was reminded of something children’s literature critic Peter Hunt once said at a conference: what really mattered in children‘s literature was ‘what a particular child got from a particular book at a particular time’.  Davies agrees; she vividly remembers the intensity of her reading experience as a newly fluent reader, and says that the books she read in her early childhood really ‘shaped my soul’. Books take the reader into worlds beyond their own, and open up new horizons. Again, I’m reminded of a quote from James Britton: ‘We never cease to long for more lives than the one we have; in the role of reader, we can participate in an infinite number’.  As we spoke, Davies was preparing to speak at an illustration conference in Swansea about how the spaces of story allow one to put imaginary things and imaginary perspectives together with things in the real world, giving different insights in the arts and sciences.

Davies feels strongly about the importance of furnishing the child’s imagination through books. She feels that several centuries of bad times are coming in environmental terms and therefore it is important that the child’s interior space be enriched with ideas that will sustain them from the difficulties of the exterior world. Whenever she speaks to children, she talks about the power of words. Interestingly, she often writes about characters who are ‘voiceless’ and disempowered. Words are the way we share ideas and change the inside of someone else’s head. There is an example of this in The Elephant Road when the young protagonist, Wilen, ‘finds his voice’ and speaks to his village about the proposed destruction of their forest. As many of her books are narrative non-fiction, we discussed the importance of non-fiction as a way of packaging and communicating facts in a way that is audience appropriate. Davies feels that children’s non-fiction is experiencing a kind of crisis because of the argument that non-fiction books are no longer needed due to the web and online sources – an argument she feels is nonsense. She argues that all of us who know about children, their books and their literacy should ‘fly the flag’ for non-fiction.

Davies advocates for the power of narrative as a container for all sorts of information, be it the life cycle of an eel or the evil of human nature as in the Grimms’ fairy tales. Narrative non-fiction is the way we exchange information. It gives context to our reading, creating what Davies calls a ‘psychological backpack’. In her recent fiction books, The Elephant Road and The Lion who Stole My Arm, unusual terms or words are explained at the bottom of the page. There is also background information on organisations such as the Wildlife Trust of India and the Niassa Carnivore Project in Mozambique. In the Nature Storybooks series, fiction and non-fiction are integrated on the one page in different fonts.

Regarding the importance of illustration and design, Davies is always involved in the choice of illustrator for her books. She sends the text to her editor then they have a meeting with designer and look at work of various illustrators and decide on one. Davies has final veto and will often have a vision of the atmosphere of the book and know the illustrator the text will suit. For example, she knew the humour and inventiveness that Neil Layton could bring to Deadly, Talk, Talk, Squawk and other titles in that series. First Book of Nature, a book of nature poetry, is illustrated by Mark Hearld who holds a MA in Natural History Illustration. They have many visual references in common. Although thought of his work did not shape the story, Davies kept the style and tone of his illustrations in mind while she was recently completing a picturebook with him.

 

 

 

While reading Deadly and Talk, Talk, Squawk, I was struck – yet again – by the absolute wonder of nature. A quote at the end of Deadly- ‘Humans are the ones who can make choices’- reminded me about our responsibility to the planet on which we all live and on which we depend. As Chief Seattle said, ‘We did not weave the web of life.

We are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves’. For example, The Elephant Road, set in the Garo Hills in North India, begins with elephants damaging Wilen´s village as they pass from one forest reserve to another. Increasing urbanisation in the area is turning elephants from their usual paths and bringing them into conflict with villages. When Grandpa dies it is left to Wilen to convince the villagers of the ‘road’ to the future. Davies feels passionately about climate change and over-population. We upset nature at our peril and need to restore the balance as natural systems are overloaded because there are too many people. If climate change becomes a very definite reality, our known system of agriculture becomes unpredictable and therefore problematic.

Davies has strong views on anthropomorphism in picturebooks and does not like ‘Disneyfied’ versions of animals. She is critical of animal characters in clothes, although she does make an exception for Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and EH Shepard’s works. I put it to her that animals in picturebooks act as ‘distancing agent’, allowing young children to explore emotions safely. She replied that animals in books for young children can exist in another level of existence which is a not quite real nor quite a made up world, somewhere between what is real and inner thoughts and reflections. She believes that animals signal opportunities in stories where there are limitless possibilities, and says that reading of science fiction has a similar function for older readers. In a blog entry entitled ‘Animals as Individuals’, Davies wonders how to ‘make human beings feel a connection with the natural world’. She suspects that the best way to do this is through fiction. As she says in her blog: animal fiction brings ‘two characters – one human and one not – into a relationship that cuts every reader straight through the heart’.

For example, in The Lion Who Stole My Arm, the protagonist Pedru loses his arm when he is attacked by a lion. It is only when, through involvement with a local Carnivore Research Station, the lion ‘wasn’t just “lion”. It had a name. It was one of Puna’s cubs, Anjani’. Only then does his hatred turn to positive action; he starts to see Anjani as having a life that’s as important to him as our individual lives are to us. Davies sent the book to the director of the Carnivore Project and was delighted with the reply: ‘You have told our story’.  Davies hopes that her books create awareness about important issues of environmental care, and that they also delight children. There is a line in the primary school curriculum that emphasises the ability of children’s literature to satisfy ‘the child’s sense of wonder and natural curiosity’. This, Davies’ books certainly do!