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