Behind the Pages with Nic Gill
Nic Gill has always loved wildlife and nature. She grew up on a small farm in Tasmania surrounded by animals, and now lives in Hobart with Nimbus (a three-legged rescue cat), an unruly mob of bantam chickens, a family of intrepid ring-tailed possums, Zorro the Border Collie X Springer Spaniel (owl detection dog in training!), and her human partner, James.
Nic is also the author of a book written for children (though loved by adults too) called Animal Eco-Warriors: Humans and Animals Working Together to Protect Our Planet. It tells the stories of the incredible animals and their equally inspiring human companions, who are working together to protect our world.
In June, Nic will be presenting a workshop about these amazing animal eco-warriors at the Greenwich Book Festival (external link) in London. Ahead of her appearance at the GBF we’ve asked Nic to tell us about her inspiration and the impressive array of animals she met while researching this book.
Why did you decide to write this story for children?
I’ve always been a bit of a story hoarder, and a lover of animals to boot. I’ve also worked in invasive species management and environmental science fields for the last 20 years, which has meant I’ve met a lot of interesting people as well as working animals. I’d been collecting unusual stories involving animals for a while, not with any particular plan in mind, just stockpiling random news clips – miniature hippos found roaming in the Australian outback, dogs that could predict when their owners were about to have epileptic seizures, bees being trained to fly through wind tunnels for aircraft manufacturers…Then the idea hit me and I began to scrawl down all the stories I could think of involving animals using their unique talents to help humans solve problems.
I initially started off with the idea of a book in five parts, called “Animals Vs. The Apocalypse”. Each section of the book was to feature animals working with humans to take on one of the four traditional horsemen (War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death). I also took the liberty of inventing an extra horseman, Ignorance, which I considered an enabler of traditional pantheon of apocalyptic horrors. In each section, I planned to write about animals using their special skills to work alongside humans: dogs that sniffed out survivors of conflict in war-zones; cats who could sense when their diabetic owners were about to become hypoglycemic; dolphins who chose to cooperatively fish alongside people for generations; and rats that could sniff out tuberculosis. I had this ridiculously long table of contents, stuffed with great animal stories, but that really couldn’t have been fitted into a book that was less than 1000 pages long. Fortunately, I received some great advice to focus on my area of expertise, and so I turned my attention to writing about animals working to help the environment!
What aspect of the science did you think would be most appealing to children and why?
I thought children (and people in general) would be amazed by what are effectively “animal super-powers”. Whether it be dogs’ super sensitive noses (they can smell fingerprints!), elephant seals’ super-deep sea diving skills, or goats’ abilities to digest pretty much anything of the plant persuasion, most people can’t fail to be impressed at what over-achievers animals are. I also found the stories of animal intelligence to be particularly fascinating and overlooked.
What was the biggest challenge in writing for children?
For me, I think the biggest challenge when writing Animal Eco-Warriors for children, was the same one I often encounter when writing science for adults – finding a way to present technical details in a way that doesn’t overpower the stories. This can be particularly tricky if you’re talking about a topic where there’s jargon specific to the topic that you can’t really avoid. I discussed this issue with my editors, and we decided the best way to address this without breaking the flow of the stories was to include a glossary in the back of the book, that readers could turn to if they needed. Hopefully, if the stories are good enough, they can pull the reader over rough patches in comprehension, so that they still get the general gist of what’s being described.
What sort of response have you had from children?
I’m told that the length of the chapters has made them popular as bedtime stories – I like to think of children falling asleep dreaming of detection dogs and greedy, weed-guzzling goats! The dog stories seem to be most popular amongst children, which I was a little surprised by, as dogs aren’t particularly exotic, but I suppose a lot of kids have dogs, and in reading the stories of the eco-warrior puppies, perhaps they can imagine their own faithful hounds off having important adventures!
I recently ran into a colleague who has a keen interest in biosecurity, and he told me that for Book Week, he and his child did a re-enactment of a story from Animal Eco-Warriors! They recreated the scene where Bonnie the airport biosecurity beagle catches a whiff of some smuggled sausages in a wheelie suitcase. The man trundling the suitcase realises he’s been spotted, and starts to run, but Bonnie is too quick, racing after him and leaping onto the fast-moving bag, riding it like a small furry jockey through the airport! Apparently, this high-stakes airport chase was re-enacted at school, complete with a wheelie suitcase and a stuffed badger toy standing in for Bonnie – I just wish somebody had filmed it!
Nic Gill will be presenting a workshop about these amazing animal eco-warriors at the Greenwich Book Festival (external link) in London in June.
In Animal Eco-Warriors Nic Gill shines a light on some of the amazing animals and their human colleagues working together to make our world a better place. You can purchase a copy of the book here!