Saturday, 26 October 2019

Creepy-Crawlies and other Insects


Creepy-Crawlies and other Insects
Trevor Agnew looks at some nature books

Eekily Sneakily (2019)
Anne Hunter, ill. Dave Gunson 
New Holland, pb, 32 pp, NZ $25
ISBN 978 1 86966 503 6

Bumblebees Have Smelly Feet (2019)
Rachel Weston
Weston Books, pb, 32 pp, NZ$19
ISBN 978 0 47348 296 1

Wildlife of Aotearoa (2019)
Gavin Bishop
Puffin, hb, 64 pp, NZ$40
ISBN 978 0 14 377251 4

I am constantly amazed by the unusual facts discovered by the writers of New Zealand nature books for young people.

I didn’t know that ladybirds can eat over one hundred aphids a day. I was ignorant that all the hard-working, pollen-collecting honey bees are female. I was unaware that worms don’t have hearts, but their blood vessels pump automatically. I never knew that the Maori word for cicada is kikikihi (although it certainly sounds just like the noise that male cicadas make when they vibrate their tymbals). I’d never even met the word tymbals before but I know now that male cicadas have two of these drum-like features, one on each side of their abdomen.

You can learn a lot while reading nature books.
You can also have a lot of fun.

Take the three nature books listed above. They’re all different; they’re all full of remarkable facts and they’re all about aspects of our very own wildlife.

Sometimes we’re silent, sometimes we speak.
If we surprise you, you’re sure to say “eeek!”
The picture book, Eekily Sneakily, is a celebration in verse and picture of some of New Zealand’s smaller creatures. Anne Hunter has written 13 charming (but also scientifically accurate) poems about everything from the cave weta (tokoriro) to the daddy-longlegs spider (pungawerewere).
Dottily, spottily, little beetle bug,’ is the beginning of the lady bird’s poem, while the ‘Eekily, sneakily’ of the title refers to the skink (or grass lizard or mokomoko).

Dave Gunson, who created the superb full colour illustrations, also shared the design work with Sara Lindberg. The resulting layout of the pages is highly attractive. Down the left-hand side of each double-page spread, the creature is displayed at life-size. (The cave weta takes up most of the height of the page, whereas, on other pages, there is room for three monarch butterflies, five praying mantises or 89 tiny ladybirds.) Each right-hand page has an example of one of Gunson’s specialities: a blown-up magnified portrait of the creature. The stick insect becomes dragon-like, the gecko rears from the foliage like a dinosaur and the cicada is a jewel box of iridescent greens.  The colours are one of the most striking aspects of Gunson’s pictures; not just the technicolour praying mantis and the crimson ladybird but also the charmingly pink worm and the starling red of the frog’s long tongue.  As a long-time skink admirer, I think that the elegantly mottled scales of the skink justify its use on the cover.

For young enthusiasts who want to know more – a tautology -  there are three pages of  Fascinating Facts: factual information about the various creatures (as well as a guide to some handy reference books).  For example the cicada poem refers to the ‘chirrupy, chattery’ sound of the cicada ‘made when boys vibrate their tymbals all day’. The Fascinating Facts section explains that the male cicada has two tymbals, which are ‘a drum-like part on each side of his abdomen’.
Maori names are given for all the creatures, from pi honi to kahuku.
Eekily, Sneakily is a perfect combination of science and the arts.

I was enchanted by Rachel Weston’s attractive little bumblebee book right from the moment I read its title, Bumblebees Have Smelly Feet. They do, too. On page 8, I read about the ‘oily, smelly footprint’ which bumblebees leave on each flower they have visited, thus warning other bees that the nectar – ‘their liquid candy’ - has already been collected.

Bumblebees are the jumbo jet planes of the insect world.’ Rachel Weston has a prose style that really captures the interest of young readers. ‘One bumblebee can do 50 times the work of one honeybee. The bumblebee is a super-duper pollinator.’’

Every aspect of bumblebee life is introduced in this book: anatomy, eyesight, life-cycle and reproduction. There are also plenty of interesting ideas such as an experiment replicating the bumblebee’s ‘buzz pollination’ with the vibrations of an electric toothbrush on a tomato flower. If you find your kids freezing tonic water, blame Rachel Weston and the UV experiment on page 15.

Bumblebees Have Smelly Feet is well-illustrated, with a wide range of handsome colour photographs of bumblebees in action.  Deborah Hinde has provided some elegant and amusing bee illustrations, as well as slipping three funny forgeries into the Bumblebee Family Photos (pages 30-1).
The lively information provided, as well as the resources at the back of the book, make this readable volume an ideal addition to primary school classrooms and libraries. There is a really good index, a set of useful websites and a page of Learning Activities.  The Glossary is also excellent; for example, Dumbledore is an ‘old English name for bumblebee’.

Be warned: the book also contains full instructions on how to obtain and set up a box colony of bumblebees.

Only Gavin Bishop would have had the brilliant idea of using an adventure story about five eels to provide a framework of continuity for a massive account of the wildlife of New Zealand.   Wildlife of Aotearoa is a huge (37cm by 28cm) hardback volume, with 29 double-page spreads. (This is a similar format to his magnificent 2017 companion volume, Aotearoa the New Zealand Story.) I have had the great good fortune to see the original illustrations for both books – boast, boast – and their quality, originality and design excellence makes both books masterpieces.

 The first show-stopper in Wildlife of Aotearoa is the front endpaper, showing a giant squid (ngū-nui) in an intricate tangle of pink tentacles against the inky depths of the Pacific. It’s such a striking picture that it’s only later that you spot five tiny eel larvae in the corner, the first of thousands, all making their way south towards their tūrangawaewae, Aotearoa.  
Their names are, of course, Tahi, Rua Toru, Wha and Rima.   Turn to the back endpaper and – an eel’s lifetime later - we see a mass of eel larvae, the offspring of Rua and Tahi, beginning the same journey. In between these two events, the eels (and the readers) are given a complete overview of New Zealand’s original animal occupants, the impact of successive arrivals of humans, and their associated creatures from the kiore to the koi carp. Changes to the habitats of coast, forest, wetland and hill country are all sketched in, complete with expected outcomes and unexpected consequences.  Special pages follow themes, such as Te Mau Huna a Tāne: Life in the Bush after Dark, where the kiwi is surrounded by other night-loving creatures, from bat to bat-fly, pūriri moth to morepork, each with its own informative note. In a nice graphic touch, the moon, far above, is from Gavin Bishop’s picture book Kiwi Moon (2005)

In fact, Wildlife of Aotearoa is rich with grace notes from other Bishop titles, such as the symbolic figures of the Maori gods on page 28, with the tears of Ranginui and Papatūānuku forming the rain and streams which sustain the forests.

There are plenty of challenges facing our wildlife and Bishop handles these well. The fate of three of the longfin eels (an endangered species) is starkly symbolic. Wha is trapped as food for a local hapu, Rima is killed for dog-tucker and Toru becomes ‘wholesome wild protein’ in a tin of pet food sold in the U.S.A. Conservation and pest-reduction efforts are also well-handled, making this a challenging and positive book.

 This is a book full of insights; one to return to, again and again. Each time a page is turned a new discovery is made. Just think about the significance of Gavin Bishop’s Dedication, which is to the seabirds of Aotearoa: ‘Their massive decline tells us all is not well with Tangaroa. Their future is ours.’

Trevor Agnew  27 October 2019

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