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Brilliantly, Beautifully Beetle Filled – The Beetle Collector’s Handbook

A book to hold and cherish – it is a very tangible experience

According to the frontispiece, Bartholomew Cuttle got this book when he was 9 years old and it passed into his son Darcus’s keeping when he was 13, I’m guessing at the end of the Beetle Boy Trilogy.  At round about the same age as Bartholomew (I was 8), I pinned my first insects and discovered the Dr Dolittle books, both events that shaped my life significantly, engendering as they did, a life-long love of Nature.

 

If someone had given me Maya Leonard’s latest offering, The Beetle Collector’s Handbook then, and not now, I would have been over the moon and have immediately rushed off to read it cover to cover in one sitting, which is pretty much what I did, and, how I felt, when it arrived in the post at work a couple of weeks ago 😊 As you may have guessed from the above, I am a great fan of this, the latest outing by Maya Leonard.  Despite the frontispiece, the artificial but subtle signs of aging and loving usage, and the connection with the Beetle Boy novels indicated by the fictional, annotations*  by Darcus and his friends, this is not a work of fiction.

Fantastic Silphid with extra annotations

Neither is it a text-book or a manual.  So, what is it exactly?  It’s instructional, educational and, very importantly, fun.   So, what do I mean by instructional.  I have, for example,  written about the history of the Pooter which I consider educational, whereas, The Handbook shows you how to make your own, hence instructional.

 

Everyone needs to know how to make a Pooter

Keeping proper records is very important.

 

Also instructional is the advice on how to record your observations.  In terms of education, you are regaled with salient facts and figures about a number of beetles, albeit only a tiny fraction of those that have been described by entomologists, but that in the words of the author are  “..the species of beetles that I think are the most surprising, beautiful and impressive…”

Stag beetle, I particularly like the fact that many of the illustrations show you the actual size of the beetle.

Maya, or should that be the fictional author, Monty Leonard, has shunned traditional taxonomy-based listing and instead presented the beetles in a playful grouping of shared traits, skills or appearance, so fun and educational.  What really makes this book something very special is the quality of the illustrations by a very gifted young artist, Carim Nahaboo.  I can’t praise them enough.  Buy the book and enjoy them in their high-quality format and not via my poorly photographed versions.

The Great Diving Beetle – marvellously life-like

 

This is a book that all primary schools should buy, two copies at the very least, one to subtly place in the library area and the other for use by the staff member tasked with encouraging their pupils to appreciate the wonders of Nature. I also think that secondary schools should invest in a copy or two.

I suspect that not all the fans of Darcus & Co will read this cover to cover, but those that do, will, I am sure, end up studying entomology, perhaps on the new Zoology & Entomology BSc at Harper Adams or on our MSc course 😊

Thank you, Maya, for yet another very enjoyable read.  May you long continue to enthrall audiences, young and not so young, with your tales of beetles and their deeds.

M.G. Leonard (2018) The Beetle Collectors’ Handbook, Scholastic Children’s Books, ISBN 978 1407 18566 8

 

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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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