Creating picture books

Author Bren Macdibble interviews Emma Reynolds about her new picture book.

Hi Emma! Can I just say Amara and the Bats is a bit of a debut masterpiece. It’s a picture book that’s a visual feast, and it’s also a heartwarming story packed with information that’ll have kids examining it more closely and reading it again and again.

This book is basically about a young girl’s adoration of bats and encroachment on bat habit. You are also the illustrator as well, so can we talk about the illustrations first off.

I adore the colour palette you’ve chosen, the colours are very natural shades of burnt orange, greens, aqua, yellows, browns and midnight blues. I particularly loved the evening scenes when the colour palette is limited to midnight blues and oranges. They’re scenes in the dark but they really pop! Later in the book purple and sky blue also appear. Can you tell us more about your colour palette?

Thank you so much Bren! I really appreciate your kind words.

Yes the colour palette was very important – I worked with three distinct colour palettes. The daytime palette of light browns and orange with highlights of red, turquoise and yellow. The night time palette of dark blues and oranges to show the moment when the sun is setting and bats appear – this was used throughout the book, even when the characters are not outside. And lastly, the green palette that appears later in the book, where nature is shown flourishing and bursting into life.

The illustrations of Amara have her looking a little like her favourite animal. Her cute little ears stick out and when she runs around pretending to be a bat, it seems like her long black hair is a cape or wings. Was that on purpose?

Yes it was, well spotted! I like using character features to help show how they’re feeling – for example when Amara is sad, her ears droop down a bit, and her hair lies more flat. When she is excited, her ears prick up and her hair almost grows as if caught by a Ghibli-style gust of wind in excitement.

There’s bonus marks for endpapers, we all love endpapers, but yours are helpful too with lots of friendly bat faces showing the features of different bat species and their names. Throughout the book, the bats all look really friendly. Is this an attempt to counteract the spooky Hollywood vampire-type portrayal of bats or is a reflection of your love for bats?

Thank you! I loved spending a lot of time drawing the endpapers. Honestly, bats ARE cute, and if you compare my illustrations to some real life photographs, especially in the endpapers, they are pretty accurate to real life. So, it was important to show everyone how cute bats really are, and to see them up close, as we never really get to experience this as we mostly see them flitting past quickly at night time. The whole book is about myth-busting, both through sharing facts, and showing how cute bats really are, and how vital to all life on earth.

How far is the character of Amara from Emma the real person?

Haha this is a very good question. Honestly, I actually did run a fundraiser with my best friend Lucy when we were nine to sponsor an endangered animal back in the 90s. We made logos and everything. This book is my whole heart, and a lot of people have told me they can tell when they read it. Which is really so special to me. There is so much of me in many aspects of the book, especially Amara.

What is one astounding bat fact that a bat enthusiast like Amara might know?

Bats are amazing pollinators, and so much of the food humans eat relies solely on pollination from bats, such as: 70% of the tropical fruit that humans eat, cocoa, and agave which makes tequila!

The dedication is “This book is dedicated to all people fighting to protect our planet,” and when it’s big companies doing the polluting, buying up land and building housing estates, and our governments refuse to install limits to protect our environments or to mandate the use of green energies, we all feel very small and unable to influence anyone. I imagine children who want to stand up for their environment can quickly feel overwhelmed, so what I really like about this book is Amara, who was sad about the loss of forest and local bats near her new home, focussed on one thing she could do. She spoke up for one solution and that rippled out into her new community and it got done. Is this a strategy for children who may be feeling anxiety around our environment, one cause, one step at a time, be active?

Yes, this was intentional. There is a scene in the book where Amara feels devastated and overwhelmed because so many things need fixing and she’s just one person. She curls up on the bed and squeezes her eyes shut. It was important to me to reflect this feeling of overwhelm and grief that myself and so many people especially young people are dealing with – climate anxiety. We cannot fix everything ourselves, but what we can do is pick a cause we really care about, start locally – think globally, and this can absolutely make a huge difference for our bats. I did this myself, I chose a cause I really care about, and made it my mission to use my skills to communicate about bats, and I look forward to using my book as a learning tool and in community outreach going forward, to directly help with conservation and rewilding.

I love that Amara was new to the community but she made friends through her cause. I was also fascinated by the idea of bat houses, I’d never seen that before. In Australia we have a lot of bats and flying foxes and they often overwhelm city locations and sometimes need to be relocated. Are bat houses a common thing in the US or the UK where you live? Should bat houses be in people’s back gardens or is it best to entice them to a nice patch of wilderness?

Yes, so in the US and UK we don’t have flying foxes AKA megabats, as they only live in tropical locations. We have microbats, which are smaller and have different needs. If you have a suitable garden or a house where you can install a bat box/house high enough up by the eaves, you can absolutely install one! It’s super important to be a responsible cat owner and keep your cat inside around sunset, especially in the summer months when baby bats are out (disclaimer: I LOVE cats, but it’s so important to care for wildlife. Cats don’t really eat bats, but they will play with them and the bacteria in cat saliva from injuries can sadly kill bats.)

In terms of installing them in the wilderness, it’s best to join your local bat group or get in touch with your local bat charity, who will most likely already have a scheme in place to install bat boxes/houses and their expertise will know the best places for them. Bat boxes/houses must be built to spec, or be purchased from a certified vendor. There is more detail on this in the back of the book!

What is the one greatest bat myth that you would like to bust wide open right now?

Bats contract rabies far less than other animals. Less than half of 1% of all bats may contract the disease, and you’re more likely to get rabies from a dog or cat.

And of course, the widespread misinformation about covid-19, summed up here by world renowned bat expert Merlin Tuttle. It’s so important we share these facts, as the biggest threat to bats is misguided human fear. Bats harbour no more viruses than other animals.

What exactly are the effects on our environment when bat habitats are lost? How are bats beneficial to our ecosystems?

Bats are beneficial in so many ways – they are the world’s natural bug repellent, eating harmful insects like mosquitos and eating crop-destroying insects saving farmers billions every year. Worldwide they are also pollinators as I mentioned above, and some flying fox species are seed dispersing ‘Keystone Species’ – without them the whole food chain would be affected, and entire ecosystems could collapse. Bats are also fantastic indicators of a wider ecosystem’s health – see the Bat Conservation Trust for more info on this.

Your book is an important asset to keeping the conversation going on protecting environments to a new generation. Do you hope that just like Amara’s mother and teacher helped her on a path to effective change, parents and teachers who read this book will find inspiration to help concerned children?

I absolutely hope so! There are so many ways people can get involved at the back of the book inspired by Amara’s journey, and I truly hope that this inspires kids, families, teachers and bat fans of all ages to get involved and see and protect bats in the wild J

You can find out more about Amara and the Bats here, and learn more about Bren’s book Across the Risen Sea here.

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the End of the World. She is also a Creative Writing lecturer, freelance editor, screenwriter, and the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League. Her upcoming release is Green Rising, a climate change thriller. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide, been translated into five languages and shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. The Last Beginning was named one of the best LGBT-inclusive works for young adults by the Independent. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2021. She teaches creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands, providing creative writing courses to children through the Spark Young Writers programme.

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