Tag Archives: Beetle Boy

Creeping and crawling through children’s literature – A meeting of “two cultures”

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend an unusual conference in Cambridge, “A Bug’s Life; Creeping and Crawling through Children’s Literature”.  It was unusual for me, as first it was at a weekend, second it was about insects in children’s books and third, all the other presenters and most of the delegates, were academics and PhD students from English departments.  I owed my presence at the conference as a result of my social media activities, in this case my Blog, as Zoe Jaques the organiser, had come across one of my diatribes about the lack of entomological accuracy in some insect themed books for children.  Zoe contacted me earlier this year and explained about her plans and wondered if I would be willing to contribute in my role as a professional entomologist with all expenses paid.  I didn’t take much persuading as I found the whole concept intriguing to say the least, and as an added bonus the guest author was the hugely successful Maya Leonard, author of Beetle Boy, Beetle Queen and the soon to be released, Battle of the Beetles.

I arrived at Cambridge Railway Station on the Friday night direct from France, having left Vinca at 8.45 am, to catch the train to Perpignan, then on to Paris on the TGV, then to London on the EuroStar, arriving in Cambridge courtesy of the local train, just after 9 pm.  A short taxi ride took me to Homerton College where Zoe had kindly arranged for me to stay in one of their excellent guest rooms.   After an excellent breakfast I made my way to the conference venue, following the very appropriate guide beetles 🙂

Our beetle guides

Once there I met the equally appropriately garbed Zoe and started to mingle with the delegates and other speakers, who among others, included Imogen Burt from BugLife

Zoe Jaques – the brains behind the conference, resplendent in beetle regalia.

 who opened the conference with a talk about the importance of insect conservation and the horrific and very inaccurate headlines perpetrated by the media to sell copy.  The conference programme was fantastic with a range of speakers from the Emeritus Professor, Peter Hunt, who invented the discipline of children’s literature in the UK to current PhD students such as Catherine Olver and Maggie Meimaridi with their delightfully punning talk titles, “Beeing oneself: individualism in twenty-first century fiction for teens” and “A ThousAnt plateaus”, respectively. There were a lot of puns buzzing and flying around at this conference, including a laugh-out loud presentation from Melanie Keene, “Bees and Parodies”.  We also had talks on insect scaling and cognition, fear of insects, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, racism and prejudice, and not strictly literature, a very entertaining talk by Zoe and her colleague David Whitley on the insects of Pixar animation.  My talk, not very imaginatively, was titled “The good, the bad and the plain just wrong”.  I focused mainly on the anatomy and taxonomic accuracy or not, displayed in children’s book, from the 1850s through to the modern-day.  This was a very personal selection, based on books that I had read as a child or read to my children, with a few examples from books I have come across in the last few years.  I mainly blamed the illustrators, although to be fair, some have done excellent jobs of portraying insects accurately and sympathetically.  I will be writing about this in a future post.

Maya Leonard completed the line-up with a totally Powerpoint-free extempore talk about her journey from entophobe to bestselling entophile; a ten-year journey.  A fantastic experience, if you ever get the chance to hear Maya speak, make sure you take the opportunity.

An experience not to be missed – Maya in full flow.

The “Two Cultures” in the title of this post refers to the idea of the novelist C P Snow, who at the time (1959) felt that science and humanities were two different antagonistic cultures, with science and scientists being looked down upon and scorned by those who inhabited the world of the humanities.  Put simply, Snow’s criticism was aimed at the fact that while those in the humanities felt that scientists were ignorant if they had not read Shakespeare, they did not perceive it as a failing if they were unable to state the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  This attitude may still persist in certain parts of the educated elite, in that it is seen as something to be proud of to say for example, that one is rubbish at maths, but that someone saying they have never read Jane Austen is seen as reprehensible.  This may no longer be the problem it was in 1959, although looking at the politicians wielding power in Westminster at the moment, the number of those with science degrees or an understanding of science, is lamentably low. There are indeed, as Maya pointed out in her talk, a lot of well-educated people, who know little or nothing about the natural world, entomology in particular.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about how much better educated scientists are than those with degrees in the humanities, or those in the humanities giving short shrift to the ideas of scientists.  After all this conference was all about exploring the portrayal of an important part of the natural world; Insects and their allies, and seeking the viewpoint of a professional entomologist. Hardly the actions of Luddites unwilling to engage with new viewpoints.  I too was there to learn, as well as to inform.  In fact I was very apprehensive about my presentation.  As I pointed out in the introduction to my talk, although I have given talks to a diverse set of audiences, ranging from The Brownies to the Inner Wheel I had, until then, never given a talk to a room full of professional critics 🙂 I needn’t have worried, my talk was very well-received and generated lots of very perceptive and interesting questions.

I learnt a lot in the course of the day, not least the difference in how much can be read into the attitudes of the author and the subliminal messages that go unnoticed by the child reader, or as in my case, the adult reader, but are picked up and debated by those trained to absorb more from what they are reading than is actually on the printed page.  Although a great fan of Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series I had never taken on board the symbolism inherent in, for example,  A Hat Full of Sky’ until I heard Catherine Olver’s excellent talk on the symbolism of bees and hive minds in what I now know as YA (Young adult) fiction.  Similarly, until pointed out to me by Sarah Annes Brown during her talk on “Insects – a liberal litmus test?” the possibly racist and stereotypical portrayals of the characters in George Selden’s A Cricket in Times Square had completely escaped me.  I obviously spend too much time stressing out over the biological and anatomical aspects of the insect characters 🙂

The other thing that struck me very strongly was the difference in way in which language and PowerPoint was used by the speakers.  Biologists (and I think most scientists) are taught that the ideal slide should have no more than six bullet points and that under no circumstances should a slide be filled with a single block of text.  It this came as a surprise that we were asked on a number of occasions to spend a couple of minutes reading and digesting the contents of a slide filled from top to bottom with a quote from a book or paper.  I was also struck by the difference in the language used, “contextualise” and “narrative” being the two most common examples of words that are rarely uttered at an entomology conference.  That said, I confess that I used the word narrative several times in my own talk, but only one of my slides contained a quotation 🙂

The conference was an entertaining, educational, enjoyable and exhilarating experience and I am very grateful to Zoe for allowing me to take part in it.  I think the “Two Cultures” have a lot to learn from each other and Zoe is to be congratulated on having the idea and the perseverance to bring the project to fruition.  I very much look forward to future collaborations with her and others from the world of humanities.

And there were appropriate cakes 🙂

If you want to see the Tweets associated with the conference check out #bugznkidzlit

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Will Lucretia Cutter reign supreme? Beetle Queen – the latest sensation from M G Leonard

beetle-queen

https://www.chickenhousebooks.com/books/beetle-queen/

Laughter, tears, joy, horror and shock; what an emotional roller-coaster of a book.  From the gurgling stomach of a much-loved uncle to the charred rim of a once beetle-inhabited cup, Maya Leonard’s latest installment* of beetle-inspired fiction will grip and hold you spell-bound from the moment you start reading.  This is a book you won’t be able to put down, it will get in the way of everyday life, and will, depending on when you begin to read it, obscure your dinner plate or breakfast bowl.  Be warned, those of you who are moved to tears easily will definitely need a box of tissues or a large handkerchief close by.

It is very hard to write a review of this enthralling and fast-moving book without giving away too many spoilers, so I am going to limit myself to unstinting praise and a very brief synopsis of the plot to give you a flavour of what to expect 🙂

Metamorphosis is the name of the game. Lucretia Cutter has a devious plan, but Darkus, Bertolt and Virginia are on the case. Novak thinks that Darkus is dead, Bartholomew Cuttle is acting very strangely, Uncle Max is a tower of strength and Mrs Bloom reveals hidden depths. We learn more about the early days of Darkus’s parents and their interactions with the then Lucy Johnstone and meet some other entomologists.  Yellow ladybirds act as spies and assassins for Lucretia Cutter, and we travel to the film Awards in Los Angeles via Greenland with our resourceful trio, Uncle Max and Mrs Bloom.  Lurking in the background, the evil cousins Humphrey and Pickering provide comic, albeit distasteful relief.  All this leads us to the dramatic finale, where much is revealed including some parts which will especially amuse all the boys (old and young) 🙂

The shootout at the Film Awards ceremony where the evil Lucretia spectacularly reveals her hidden attributes, Novak performs gravity-defying feats, and giant motorised pooters come into their own to help our intrepid trio and their grown-up allies overcome the evil hordes, makes me think that one day we will be seeing Darkus and his friends on the silver screen.  There are of course great supporting roles by Baxter, Marvin, Newton and Hepburn, and do remember to brush up on your Morse code 🙂

This installment of the story ends at Christmas and the presents our heroes receive tell us that our next stop is the Amazon!

This book, like the first will definitely help bring the wonders of entomology to a wider audience.  Maya Leonard continues to be a worthy ambassador for our discipline, and I am extremely grateful that she has opted to use her undoubted talents to publicise insects and entomology so well.  Thank you Maya.

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*If you haven’t read the first installment in this thrilling trilogy I can thoroughly recommend it.

 

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Bridging the gap – ENTO’16 at Harper Adams University

A couple of years ago, while attending a Royal Entomological Society Council meeting, I rashly volunteered to host ENTO’16, the annual meeting of the Society, at Harper Adams University*.  I confess, I did have a bit of an ulterior motive.  We entomologists had only been based at Harper Adams University since 2012 and I thought it would help with publicizing our new research centre and postgraduate courses in entomology and integrated pest management.  Once this was approved by Council I let my colleagues know that I had ‘volunteered’ them and also approached entomologists at our two nearest universities, Keele and Staffordshire and invited them to join our organising committee.  As this is about the event and not the administrivia, I will not bore you with the description of how it all came about, apart from mentioning that we chose as our theme, the Society journals to celebrate the 180th anniversary of RES publishing.

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As a result of a poll of society members, we decided that the last day of the conference would be all about Outreach.  The morning session was devoted to talks for the delegates and the afternoon was open to the public and members of the university.  The Open session began with a talk by M.G. (Maya) Leonard, best-selling author of Beetle Boy, followed by exhibits and activities in the exhibition hall**.  In the spirit of outreach, we also persuaded our three plenary speakers to agree to be videoed and livestreamed to YouTube.  Their excellent talks can be seen by following the links below.

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“How virulence proteins modulate plant processes to promote insect colonisation”

Saskia Hogenhout – John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqPH_h3xHoQ

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“The scent of the fly”

Peter Witzgall – Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1PUxQGoAzE

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“Citizen Science and invasive species”

Helen Roy – Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford, UK

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_Kyw2WeVC4

To make decision-making simple, we only ran two concurrent sessions, and hopefully this meant that most people did not have to miss any talks that they particularly wanted to hear. The conference proper began on the Tuesday, but about half the delegates arrived the evening before and enjoyed an entomologically-based Pub Quiz. The winning team perhaps had a slight

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Preparing for the influx – student helpers in action

advantage in that most of their members were slightly older than average.

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The winning Pub Quiz team sitting in the centre of the picture.

We felt that the conference went very well, with all the journals well represented, although getting systematic entomologists to speak proved slightly more difficult than we had anticipated.  The student speakers were terrific and the talks covered the gamut of entomology.  The venue, although I may be slightly biased, was agreed by all to be excellent and provided some superb photo opportunities.

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Main venue glinting in the morning sun

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Andy Salisbury enjoying the early morning view at Harper Adams University

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The RES President, a very relaxed Mike Hassell, opens the proceedings.

Other highlights were the two wine receptions, the poster session and the conference dinner at which Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, who apparently has an inordinate fondness for beetles, received an Honorary Fellowship.

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Sir Paul Nurse on hearing that he is to receive an Honorary Fellowship.

The old cliché goes that a “picture paints a thousand words” and who I am to argue, so I will let them tell the rest of the story with the odd bit of help from me.

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A fine example of synchronised beard pulling

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Happy Helpers

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All the way from Canada

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Only at an entomological conference

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Entomologically themed fashion

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Bang-up to date topics

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Ambitious themes

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one of our former-MSc students making an impact

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Impeccable dress sense from Session Chairs!

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Prize winning talks

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and posters

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Punny titles

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Enthusiastic speakers

I was reminded by Jess that I scolded her for not knowing enough entomology when I conducted her exit viva in my role as external examiner for the zoology degree at UCL 🙂

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Engaging authors

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Proud to be Collembolaologists

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Smiling faces (free drinks)

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Good food and drink (and company)

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Cavorting ceilidh dancers

 

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Phone cases to be jealous of

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Joining Darwin (and Sir Paul Nurse) in the book!

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and for me a fantastic personal end to the conference!

And finally

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Post script

As it turned out, 2016 was a fantastically entomologically-filled year for Harper Adams.

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we hoste the RES Postgraduate Forum in February which I reported on earlier this year, and of course we also

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hosted the fantastically successful EntoSci16.

 

Credits

The Organizing Committee

Andy Cherrill, John Dover (Staffordshire University), Rob Graham, Paul Eggleston (Keele University), Simon Leather, Tom Pope, Nicola Randall, Fran Sconce and Dave Skingsley (Staffordshire University).

The Happy Helpers

Ben Clunie, Liam Crowley, Scott Dwyer, Ana Natalio, Alice Mockford and Aidan Thomas

Music 

The Odd Socks Ceilidh Band

Wine Receptions

Harper Adams University and the Royal Entomological Society

Financial and Administrative Support

The Royal Entomological Society, Luke Tilley, Lisa Plant, Caroline Thacker and Megan Tucker.

Publicity

Adreen Hart-Rule and the Marketing and Communications Department at HAU

AV Support

Duncan Gunn-Russell and the HAU AV Team

 

*I am sure that this had nothing to do with the excellent wine that the RES always provides at lunch time 🙂

**We were somewhat disappointed by the low turn-out for the afternoon session.  We had publicised it widely but obviously not widely enough 😦

 

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Baxter Saves the Day – Beetle Boy – a tour de force by M G Leonard

Beetle Boy front

Beetle Boy, Chicken House Books, Paperback  ISBN: 9781910002704  £6.99

 “The sad fact is, that the number of insect is in decline. As we destroy their habitats, so we destroy their species, but we desperately need them. If all the mammals on the planet were to die out, the planet would flourish – but if all the insects disappeared, everything would very soon be dead.”

Not that I am biased, but any book that has the above in it gets my vote. Joking aside, this is a real gem of a book.  Although aimed at a younger audience than me, I found this a fascinating book.  I read it in one sitting, on the coach returning from a visit to the entomologists at the Natural History Museum, in company with the MSc Entomology students from Harper Adams University; a very appropriate setting.

Darkus, whose father, Dr Bartholomew Cuttle, a closet entomologist and the Director of Science at the Natural History Museum in London, has disappeared in mysterious circumstances, is one of a pair of unlikely heroes who help make this story the tour de force it is. The authorities believe that Dr Cuttle suffered some sort of breakdown and has walked away from his responsibilities.  Newspaper headlines ensue and the distraught Darkus, who remains convinced that his father has been spirited away or worse, now regarded as an orphan by social services, as his mother died four years earlier, is sent to an orphanage where he receives an unfortunate hair-cut.  Fortuitously, three weeks later, his eccentric Uncle Max, a somewhat unconventional archaeologist, returns from Egypt and Darkus is allowed to move in with his Uncle, who houses him in his attic, where he unknowingly meets his best friend to be, Baxter, and the adventure begins.  You will have to excuse this breathless introduction, but all this happens in the first sixteen pages!  What a roller-coaster of a read.

Next he is sent to a new school, (the worst nightmare for those of us of a nerdish persuasion) where he is befriended by two odd-balls, the lanky Virginia and the small, pale, bespectacled Bertholt.  We have school bullies, beetles with more than a dash of humanity mixed in, an evil businesswoman with a dark past and even darker secrets, a beautiful heiress thrown in for good measure, very odd neighbours, a secret den, evil henchmen, poison gas, death, destruction, entomology, successes, setbacks, laughter and sadness but a happy ending.  This is a story with something for everyone.  This is what my father, if he were still alive, would have called a rattling good yarn and I would agree with him wholeheartedly.

This is a hard book to describe without introducing spoilers so I am not going to give away any more of the plot than I already have. Imagine a mix of Swallows & Amazons, Stalky & Co*, the Famous Five, Five Find-Outers and Dog**, Artemis Fowl and any other of your favourite young detectives/adventurers that you can think of, and you will get somewhere close to imagining what a gripping read Maya Leonard has produced.   Beetle Boy owes nothing to any of these books, I only use them to illustrate, that in my opinion, this book is destined to join the classics.

It is of course the beetles that really make this book stand out from the crowd, and in more than one way, the fore edge of the book is decorated with beetles; beetles inside and out, what more can an entomologist ask for?

Beetle boy fore edge

Maya Leonard is a superb ambassador for beetles; they form an integral part of the story working in partnership with the human protagonists. She also subtly introduces the wonderful diversity of the beetle world to the non-initiated.  How many books can mention tiger beetles, powder post beetles, blister beetles, bombardier beetles, rhinoceros beetles, titans, stags, harlequins,  Goliath beetles and dung beetles and keep the plot moving along at a breath-taking pace.  Outside an entomology text book I don’t think I have ever come across so many beetle references.   Not only has Maya Leonard mentioned the beetles by name, she has managed to endow them with believable personalities but in a very unsentimental way, although that said, there is a very tragic scene near the end of the book.   I have been a professional entomologist for almost forty years and, yes some of what happens in this book might not be entomologically feasible, but the story carried me along on waves of excitement and totally enthralled and enchanted me and that is what matters.  I liked this book very much.  In fact, I was so excited about this book that I couldn’t wait for an appropriate grandson’s birthday so sent it to their mother, my daughter in Australia, for her birthday, and suggested that she could make it a family readathon 🙂

Maya Leonard, on the behalf of entomologists everywhere, I salute you. Roll on the sequel.

Dung beetles ZSL

The wonderful dung beetle sculpture at London Zoo.

Postscript and notes

Did I say that I really liked this book 🙂

*Rudyard Kipling’s fictionalised account of his school days at the United Services College – coincidentally, the character based on Kipling, is nicknamed Beetle! Well worth a read and in my opinion, possibly the inspiration for Frank Richard’s Billy Bunter books.

**Less well-known than the Famous Five, but I actually liked them better 🙂 http://www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk/five-find-outers.php

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