Roo is an outdoor child. We spend a lot of time exploring the great outdoors together and she is seldom happier than when she’s splashing along the hedgerows in wellies, grubbing about examining plants and bugs or grazing her way around the vegetable garden. She is also a bookworm and can reliably be found zonked out on a pile of books in her bed an hour or so after bed time.
Lately Roo has begun to express an interest in the fact that not all birds are Blackbirds or Red Kites (there are so many of the latter in the skies near us that I’ve dubbed them the Oxfordshire Pigeon). It was therefore with some excitement that I chanced across Carl Mynott’s charming children’s book ‘The Birds at the Bottom of the Garden’.
A brilliant introduction for tots to identifying common garden birds, ‘The Birds at the Bottom of the Garden’ explores the visual, auditory and personal identity of ten common garden birds through simple rhymes and eye-catching illustrations. At the back there is a guide to spotting birds (impressively still in rhyme) and boxes for young readers to tick off each bird type as they see it.
I bought it on a whim, unaware of quite how big a hit it would be with Roo. Since reading ‘The Birds at the Bottom of the Garden’ she has become obsessed with birds. She eats her breakfast, eyes glued on the garden window for a glimpse of them on the bird feeders and she is constantly showing me up by asking me to identify different bird calls. She can now also easily identify most of the birds in the book on sight (sorry Mr. Dunnock, but your kind are far and few between round here). We can now also be found most evenings hidden in a large bush at the end of the garden watching our feathered friends pop down for a quick pre-roost snack – a pre-bedtime reward for good behaviour she came up with entirely unaided and which no doubt entertains our neighbours.
Amazed at how a small, simple book could cause such a surge of enthusiasm for all things feather and flying, I tracked down its author/illustrator, Carl Mynott. As well as asking him to shed some light on how he managed to translate his passion for birds and wildlife into writing for children, Carl has also spilled the beans on parenting a ‘wild’ child, his favourite spots for a walk and some advice for aspiring authors. He’s even found time to cast his critical artist’s eye over my feeble attempts at wildlife illustrating!
I hope you find his example as inspiring and fascinating as I do and if you would like to similarly enthuse your child with a love of birds (and soon, Carl tells us, other British Wildlife Tales too), you can purchase a copy of his book ‘The Birds at the Bottom of the Garden’ here.
How did you go about becoming an author?
It happened by accident, really, and some of your other questions will help me explain how the first book came to be a reality…
What inspired you to write ‘The Birds at the Bottom of the Garden’?
Put simply, my children and our wonderful British wildlife inspired my book. I wanted them to learn about the birds in our garden, and have fun whilst doing so. They love painting and rhymes, so everything came together nicely. It was never intended to be a ‘book’, at least, not in the first place.
Lots of writers have their own special rituals or a particular place to work. What are yours?
Ha. I guess to answer that, I would have to be a proper ‘writer’. But honestly, all of my inspiration for the characters come from my time in the outdoors. For instance, this evening I was sat in a hotel garden. I spent twenty minutes watching a female house sparrow, paying attention to how she was getting the male sparrow to ‘show off’ for her. It is details like this that make me smile. When something makes me smile, I know it will work for the kids too.
You are a Dad yourself – are your kids as mad about wildlife as you are? If so, how did that happen?
Well, I guess they have no choice really. 🙂 It kind of rubs off on them. I keep three bricks upturned on the lawn, and every few days we go and turn them over, to see what’s underneath. On Fathers’ Day we found three Millipedes and spent a good while letting them crawl all over our hands, watching how their legs work and how they use their antennae. It’s just not possible to beat the inspiration that nature offers us.
What one tip would you give to other parents trying to enthuse their kids about nature?
Overcome your fears of the wriggly stuff. The kids love it all until they see that their parents are frightened of something.
I mentioned to you previously that since reading ‘The Birds at the Bottom of the Garden’ Roo has insisted on sitting outside behind the bushes watching birds every night before bed. You commented that this is not the first example of your book having such an effect. What have your other young readers been up to?!
I’ve been overwhelmed by the effect that ‘The Birds at the Bottom of the Garden’ has had on its readers. I’ve been sent photographs of children with the book tucked under their arms, out in the garden or pressed up against the windows, desperate to see the next bird arrive at their feeders. I’ve been told about kids who have identified Collared Doves, Dunnocks, and Woodpigeons, purely as a result of my book. Money cannot buy the joy this gives me.
As I type this, I have just had to get up and chase the squirrel off the bird feeders for the sixth time today… I’m all for teaching my toddler that sharing is good but the squirrels didn’t get the memo yet. Any tips for discouraging squirrels from single-handedly destroying the birds ‘ seed containers before I make them into mittens?!
“The squirrels didn’t get the memo yet” What a fantastic turn of phrase! It’s said that birds don’t notice very hot chilli powder but squirrels hate it, so add some to your bird feed. That’s one way of dealing with them. You can also get excellent advice on deterring squirrels from the RSPB. Pop over to their website and search for ‘squirrels’.
Another way is to keep chasing them off. They’ll get the message after a few years. Honest!
What other tips do you have for encouraging birds to the garden all year round?
Feed them with wild bird seed mixes, half apples, fat balls, mealworms. Plant dense shrubs if you can, leave a small area (or the whole garden) to go wild, and put up nest boxes of different kinds. It’s possible to keep a tidy garden that is still attractive to wildlife, you just need to be a bit creative.
You are also an illustrator – has drawing always been something you have enjoyed?
Absolutely, although I never really considered myself any good. I just carried on drawing and painting, and enjoyed it immensely. The rest came naturally. I found my own style.
Roo loves your illustrations of birds and it looks like they must have been a lot of fun to draw. Which is your favourite?
You see, I knew you would ask that. I have a soft spot for Miss Blue Tit and my Collared Doves, despite the Swift being my favourite actual bird from the book.
What tips do you have for children trying to draw wildlife?
Part of what I do around the books is to show children how easy it is to draw birds the way I do. If they can draw circles, semicircles, triangles and rectangles then they can draw most of my characters to a fashion. It’s difficult to convey in words but if you take a careful look at my illustrations, you’ll see what I mean.
What about parents…do you recognise this bird? Is there any hope for me?!
It’s a Robin!!!! And that is a perfect example of what I try to do. I keep my illustrations simple, focussing on the key features of the birds themselves.
Rumour has it you enjoy a good walk in your spare time – where are your favourite spots for a family ramble?
In truth, there’s nothing my kids like more than a trip around our local community wildlife area. My youngest is just three, so long distance rambles are a bit beyond him just now. I live in West Suffolk, so there are a few treats I have up my sleeve which lend themselves perfectly to papoose and kiddy walks. The first is a papoose walk, and is the Three Churches walk from Moulton, Suffolk. I can’t begin to tell you how delightful this is for a Suffolk walk. It has history, flora, fauna, variety, and far reaching views.
The second, actually there are two, are linear walks, and both follow the line of ancient earthworks dating back to the saxon era. One is the Devil’s Dyke, starting at Ditton Green and ending at Reach, Cambridgeshire. The other is calked Fleam Dyke, and is also a linear which runs parallel to The Devils Dyke, and is rich in wildlife also. I like the walks because they require absolutely zero navigation skills, being linear. They are real treasures.
Are there any more ‘British Wildlife Tales’ in the pipeline?
Oh, yes indeed. I’m half finished with a book that will be called something along the lines of ‘The Birds Beyond the Hedge’. There are at least another five titles that I have planned, all of which will help young children and their parents to connect with nature, and not necessarily bird life. The third book, for instance, will be called ‘What’s in the Woodpile’ and will feature insects, molluscs and and mammals. Life doesn’t stop at birds!
Finally, they say that every one of us has at least one good book inside….what advice would you give to closet writers and wannabe authors?
Simply, just do it! But perfect it as many times as you can, and get your VERY best friends to critique it. They’ll be honest. Listen to every bit of feedback that you are offered and make changes, if you are happy with the suggestion. If you aren’t, then ponder it for a day or two, and then make your decision. Don’t let emotion get in the way. That said, if you have a very clear idea of what you want, and the critique doesn’t match it, stick to your guns and go for it. It’s your book. If it doesn’t sell, who cares? At least you can learn from it!
Have you read your children an inspirational children’s story? Are you a secret writer or illustrator? Leave a comment and tell me about your favourite book! Don’t forget too that this week’s #wildlifewednesday linky is also now open so join up your posts about wildlife, exploring nature with kids or the great outdoors on the linky below!