Saving the Spotted Handfish with Dr Gina Newton
The Spotted Handfish is famous for two reasons: walking on its ‘hands’ (pectoral fins), and for being the one of the first marine fish in the world to be recognised as critically endangered. Now restricted to a small marine area off Tasmania, the handfish has faced a series of compounding threats, including invasive seastars, pollution and climate change. But importantly, there is hope.
Dr Gina Newton is a marine biologist and former National President of the Australian Marine Sciences Association. In her beautifully illustrated picture book Hold On! Saving the Spotted Handfish, she takes children into the undersea world of this quirky little species, and explains how scientists are stepping in to help save them.
We asked Gina to tell us where she gets her inspiration from, and why the Spotted Handfish story needed to be told.
Did you always want to be an author? What made you start writing?
I have a vivid imagination, and I started writing and illustrating stories and comics at age six, that’s when my family emigrated from England. I’ve also always loved animals and nature. When I was ten, I joined the fledgling Australian Wildlife Protection Council and started a petition to save the kangaroo, and another to ban the importation of elephant ivory!
After deciding I didn’t want to be a veterinarian, I studied to be a marine biologist and zoologist. In my work as a scientist there was always lots of writing to do – things like reports and papers and presentations! This helped my writing skills to develop. But I only thought about being a published author after I had my own children and was immersed in the world of children’s literature again. This started a yearning to be creative, but this time to combine it with my science background. Nearly all of my story ideas and books are related to wildlife and environmental themes, both fiction and non-fiction. I am passionate about helping children to understand and get excited about Australia’s unique animals.
What books did you love as a child?
When I was really young, I liked Little Golden Books, especially The Poky Little Puppy. Next, I liked reading mystery adventure stories and fairy tales from foreign lands. Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five were favourites. I was also fascinated with outer space, so I started to read science fiction quite young. I also enjoyed the Peanuts comics – I just loved Snoopy and I was forever drawing him and making up my own comic strips.
Every night I read in bed before I went to sleep. Some books that made a lasting impression on me were: The Ten Tales of Shellover by Ruth Ainsworth; The Animals Came in One by One by Buster Lloyd-Jones (about a vet); White Boots by Noel Streatfeild (I took up ice-skating in my teens); and, Bel Ria: Dog of War by Sheila Burnford (warning, it’s a tear jerker!).
Your latest book is about the Spotted Handfish. What inspired you to write about this species?
When I had my own children I revived my love of story, and saw a way to combine my scientific interests and creative writing. I undertook a Master of Science Communication and my thesis was about communicating science and conservation through children’s literature. The first version of the story in Hold On! Saving the Spotted Handfish was used as part of that thesis – over 15 years ago. At that time, I worked in marine science and fisheries, and I knew the scientists that were researching the Spotted Handfish. I recognised the potential for an intriguing scientific story about a charismatic prehistoric creature, and I had access to lots of information as well as anecdotes from some of the researchers’ diving experiences and encounters with this little fish. I developed a soft spot for the Spotted Handfish and I knew it was a perfect ambassador for marine conservation – especially the little critters that are threatened. I’ve since done further research and updated the story, although not a lot has changed. The Spotted Handfish still needs our help.
What do you hope young readers will take away from your book?
I hope that some of my passion about Australia’s unique biodiversity will rub off on young readers. There is so much wonder in nature and so much that we don’t know about yet, that is, until someone takes the time to show us. I believe children’s books are a great way to bring nature to children, and to the community. A children’s book can stimulate kids to consider new concepts, and to ask questions about the world around them. I hope that Hold On! Saving the Spotted Handfish will introduce kids to an incredible Aussie fish they never knew existed before, and hopefully gain some understanding about its life and the threats it faces. Importantly, this story is one of hope – of how science stepped in to help save a species that was heading for extinction. I have a dream to make the Spotted Handfish a household name in Australia, not just in Tasmania where it lives.
Do you have any tips for aspiring children’s authors?
Authors are a bit like detectives. As well as writing, they must also do a lot of research and investigation to come up with ideas and information. I enjoy the research as much as the writing – there are so many exciting discoveries to be made along the way.
Some tips for aspiring children’s authors are:
- Have a unique and intriguing topic or concept to begin with. Use a cracking good hook within the first few lines.
- Have a story arc in mind – how it starts and how it might end – for both fiction and non-fiction.
- Within your target readership, use a variety of language and sentence length, with just a few harder words; use a glossary for information books.
- Words and illustration/images should be complementary and add another layer to the story.
- Make it fun for yourself and the reader.
- Attend related conferences and events – network.
- Be determined, resilient and believe that you can achieve your goals – even if they take 15 years!
The book can be purchased from our website or through your local bookstore. Teacher Notes are also available to download free from our website.