BURNING FLAME

Written by root. Posted in IN PERSON

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Published on April 28, 2016 with No Comments

Author and zoologist Nicola Davies is in Brunei to inspire every child through her books and stories.

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Tell us briefly how you made that transition from zoologist to children’s author.
I was doing a PhD at Bristol University studying bat feeding ecology when I realised that I didn’t want to be an academic … I wanted to spread the message about preserving nature to a wider audience. So I joined the BBC natural history unit, based a few 100 metres up the road from the Zoology department. I became a researcher and a presenter and began to write scripts. I learned so much about writing through writing for TV programmes.

What are the challenges of relating the science of zoology to a younger audience when you write books on nature?
To explain something in a very simple way, you have to REALLY understand it. So often I’ve started to explain something and then realised it wasn’t straight in my own head. Second, you have to accept that you may not be able to explain everything to a very young child, that your job is to get them interested, to leave them wanting to find out more for themselves. Of course all children in my experience seem to have an innate desire to learn about nature, so I have the easiest subject in the world to write about – and the BEST.

How do you approach your writing – subject matter or inspiration to write first?
The two are inseparable. Even when I’m writing fiction the inspiration for the story will come from something, however small, in the real world. Nature is not just a list of facts – it has a deep meaning for human beings, woven into our hearts and minds. So with any natural history subject there will be an emotional, psychological thread that I can pull out to make a poem, a story – a narrative that keeps my readers engaged.

With so many topics on environment and the world to choose from, how do you narrow your theme down for a book?
It’s hard. There are always ideas jumping up and down in my head insisting that I write about THEM next, like attention-seeking children. But one always just comes to the front naturally. Often I find one subject whilst researching another, and there are many stories I want to tell but haven’t found the time.

The Web and TV (Nat Geo, Nat Geo Kids) are great sources for learning about nature and the environment. How do you see your books continue to benefit children today?
Often people assume that the internet is a substitute for children’s non-fiction. This is nonsense! First of all the internet is not filed like a library, nor does it have a librarian. There is no way for children to find the best most reliable, most age-appropriate resources. Second, most child-orientated websites are pretty poor (although this may change in time) in terms of content and quality of writing. Third, websites are not narratives, they are lists. Lists are fine but narratives are what give facts meaning and make them assimilable for us all, not just young readers. Narrative non-fiction is an incredibly powerful medium for learning, not only information about the world, but about how to communicate. Fourth, with regards to TV and wildlife documentaries, I love these of course but watching a movie or TV is very passive, and research shows that passivity is not a way to develop intellectual capacity and to learn. Reading is in its essence an interactive activity, and also intensely individual and personal. Every child engages with a narrative in an entirely individual way, so they absorb the information the narrative delivers in a personal and enduring fashion. In other words, reading narrative non-fiction makes the facts stick better.

You will be in Brunei this month. Can you share with us what we can expect from your talks and workshops with Jerudong International?
The wonderful thing about working with children is that it’s unpredictable! I don’t plan exactly what I’m going to do because every group of children is different and has something unique that they bring to our interaction. All I can say is that I’ll be sharing stories about the natural world in lots of different ways and encouraging and helping children to find their own voices as writers.

Having travelled the world and meeting children from all over, what are the commonalities you have found in them?
I’ve never ever met a group of children anywhere who, when I asked the question ‘raise your hand if you like animals?’ didn’t instantly stick their hands in the air.

What are some of the lessons you’ve taken away from your young audience?
So many things! That the least likely child, the child the teacher warns you never says anything, will be the one who contributes the best line to class poem. That children’s desire to learn and to imagine is like a flame that always burns. That there may be a child in every audience who may grow up to be a zoologist and I have to make sure what I say fans the flame of their curiosity.

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