We caught up with water vole expert turned children's author, Tom Moorhouse - author of the delightful 'The River Singers', to find out more about he challenges of turning your work as a scientist into an appealing book for children and about his writing life.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Ooh, that's not a fair question. There are far too many great books to choose from, and I'm too fickle to pick one all-time favourite. I go through moods, both with music and books, where I'll listen to a band or read an author obsessively and then move on. I frequently go back to them, though. So I end up with a sort of mental short-list of books and songs I've loved and which form a pool that I return to time and again.
So, caveats in place, one of my favourite children's books is A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin. I recently re-read it and was amazed that even now, when I'm (what passes for) an adult, it still grabbed me and dragged me along for the ride. It's great escapism, as all good fantasy books should be.
What is your favourite children’s book as an adult?
Oops. I think I may have just answered this question. I always used to get this wrong at school: read all the questions before answering. Tsk. But I also recently read Skellig by David Almond, and thought it was great.
Why did you start writing for children?
I was always surprised when people read my stories and said Oh, it's a child's fable, isn't it? or If you're writing for children, you probably should revise such-and-such a bit because it's a bit dark. It was odd, because until The River Singers I never deliberately sat down to write a children's story, but they often seemed to come out that way.
So I suspect that the way I write just lends itself to children's writing, and it was inevitable. But I still never feel like I'm “writing for children”. I'm writing for me, and for the story I have in mind. Seriously, I think that's the only way of doing it – because if I'm not writing the book I want to read, who else is going to read it?
What is your favourite aspect of writing for children?
I love the way children approach books. They just launch into them. If a book grips them they devour it, and otherwise it ends up on the floor (i.e. the rejects pile). In that sense they're great critics, because you get an entirely honest reaction. A book is either amazing or irrelevant. And as an author that's brilliant, because if they love the book then you've really made a connection. And if they are bored by it then it's their honest opinion and you can't argue with that.
Adults make things a lot more complicated. I could point at the Dan Brown phenomenon. People often say that they read his books with guilty pleasure, suggesting that their enjoyment is actually somehow beneath them. So you end up books that are criticised by people who go on and buy the sequel. That's weird.
What do you think makes children’s books so inspirational?
It's the connection I mentioned. Writing a book means taking a lot of your own experience of life, the way you look at the world and the things you have learned, and mixing them all together into a story. You hold them up saying This is what I think about things – what do you reckon? Especially as a child everything you read and hear contributes to the way you see things, and think about things. And if you love a book then it can really influence the person you are trying to become. What more can you ask?
What made you want to write this book?
I had been set the challenge of writing a book from my experience as an ecologist. Water voles were the perfect animals for an adventure story – they live in a beautiful world and nearly everything that happens to them is life threatening. I spent so much time working in the places they live that I already knew their world inside out. Writing the book was a real joy because I got to share with people the things I'd experienced.
Are you now preparing yourself for lots of questions from young people who might want to see a water vole?
Yes, and sadly the answers are not easy. What I'd like to tell them is that fifty years ago (and for the ~10,000 years before) they could have gone to almost any river, stream or lake in the country and seen water voles swimming. The sight would have made them happy but not been all that unusual, because they'd have seen it the last time they were by a river.
Telling children that they have lost out on a wonderful experience because two generations of adults got things wrong, and because the current generation can't get its act together, isn't something I really want to have to do.
So I'll probably just say that water voles have become very rare, but there are still a few places you can see them. If you find one of those places, you can leave a bit of apple on the bank by the water. And, if you're lucky, and sit very still, a vole will steal up to the apple and sniff it for a bit. Then it will grab it and scarper.
What simple advice can you give to young people who want to help water voles?
Ah. Tricky. In this case there is no simple advice. It's not like we can leave out extra houses for water voles, or give them mink-proof jackets or something. Which isn't to say we don't know how to safeguard their future, because we really do.
It requires a national campaign to eradicate the non-native American mink. (Conservation means tough choices. Having water voles means not having mink.) We could do it in about five or ten years and then we could stop. And water voles, I guarantee, would return to nearly all the places they've been lost from.
But mink eradication would cost tens of millions of pounds. Sure, this is nothing like as much as a single jet fighter, but society, for some reason, tends to want jet fighters more than water voles.
So my advice for young people is this: go for walks as often as possible. Get wet, have fun, climb mountains, see woodlands, go swimming. Dam a stream and make your mother exasperated with your constant muddiness.
Really, really enjoy yourself out there. Because if you love being outside (and there's so much to love) then one day you might be able to speak up for how much fun it can be. And that might just be enough to prevent our wild places and animals being lost through pure apathy.