Q&A with MG Leonard

MG Leonard photographed by David Myers

M G Leonard, the author of the best-selling Beetle Boy series, has also written a companion guide Beetle Boy: The Beetle Collector’s Handbook (Scholastic, 2018), which is designed to provide the facts behind the stories. We are delighted that M G kindly agreed to answer our questions about this beautifully illustrated non-fiction title:

  1. When did you first develop a passion for Coleoptera?

In about 2010 I noticed my research into beetles had begun to change my head – from fearing insects to becoming fascinated by them – but I can’t claim to have developed a passion for them until 2016, when I finally got up close and personal with live beetles of a variety of species. I held my first Atlas beetle and Hercules beetles and was genuinely bowled over by how lovely they are. It was also in 2016 that I got my pet rainbow stag beetles, and truly fell for their charms.

  1. Will you tell us about some of the books about beetles or natural history that are on your own bookshelves?

I have a number of beautiful BBC hardback books by Sir David Attenborough, a favourite being Life in the Undergrowth, as well an older, well loved, The Amateur Naturalist by Gerald Durrell. I have shelves of beetle and invertebrate books, from field guides, to A Dictionary for Entomologists by Tim Williams, but two favourites are The Book of Beetles, edited by Patrice Bouchard, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles by Evans & Bellamy. I also have a prized collection of first edition Jean Henri Fabre books from the early 1900s, by favourite being The Sacred Beetle and Others, not to mention the original The Young Beetle Collector’s Handbook by Dr E Hofmann from 1908.

  1. Can you explain the warning on the back of the book which suggests that by opening the book the reader will begin a journey of discovery which is also a journey with no end?

I have spent well over a decade learning about beetles, and I have barely scratched the surface of all that there is to be known, and I have no concept of just how much more humans have to discover about this amazing creature. Max Barclay, who has written an afterword in my book is the Head Curator of Coleoptera at the Natural History Museum, he has studied them all his life and is acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost experts and even he says his ignorance is more vast than his knowledge. In the short time I’ve been studying beetles I have come to realise how little we know about the tiny creatures that keep this world turning, which is why this journey of discovery will never end.

  1. Why did you decide to write in the voice of Monty G Leonard?

When I thought about how I might write this book, I was faced with three choices. The first was to write one of those sound-bitey fact books that are graphic and punchy, however I’m very much in love with the old-fashioned natural history books which have a narrative and romantic illustrations. I find it hard to remember facts I’ve read when they aren’t in some kind of a story. My second choice was to write the book in my narrative voice, but I would immediately begin apologising for my short-comings and the fact that I was scared of insects for a lot of my life (see my afterward) and not a qualified entomologist. My final choice was to channel all the wonderful entomologists I have met into a character, but I didn’t want to trick anyone that the narrator was a real person, so I thought Monty was a lovely role to inhabit to write the book and of course his name betrays that he’s me in character.

  1. Was it a conscious decision to create a more traditional information book with a greater emphasis on the text than the images? How much were you involved in the design process?

This book is exactly how I dreamed it would be. I have been involved in every single step of the process. At the beginning I sat down with my wonderful editor and others at Scholastic and told them about this amazing invertebrate illustrator Carim Nahaboo, whose work I’d seen on the wall of every entomologist I’d visited but had never met. They agreed to approach him. I brought with me a bag of old books from the early 1900s and my Gerald Durrell book and spread them out on the table and explained what I wanted to do with the handbook. At every juncture I thought they would say no, but they didn’t. Instead, they painstakingly worked tirelessly to help me make the book I dreamed of making. I can’t tell you how lucky and privileged I feel to have created this book. I will always be grateful to Scholastic and in particular my editor Linas, who has championed this book.

  1. Seeing someone else’s annotations in a book can be irritating, but in this case it makes the reader feel that they’re reading along with Darkus. How do you think this might affect the reading experience of anyone who isn’t familiar with the Beetle Boy books?

I hope that the annotations won’t irritate those who haven’t read the Beetle Boy books, rather whet their appetite or arouse their curiosity. I find when I do school events my presentation lands well with children who like fiction and children who like fact books. I hope this book might be a bridge to get each group experimenting with the other type of book, and of course for the real fans it provides a layer of insight into the characters and the beetles, completing their collection.

  1. A very strong message permeates the book – can you tell us about that? 

Children really care about the environment and conservation, but it is hard for a child to know how they can help protect a lion in Africa. However, anyone can walk outside and get involved with local conservation if they start with insects. You don’t even need a garden. Just because insects are small, it doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of attention and protection. If every human being on the planet were to simply vanish, beetles would be better off. If every beetle on the planet were to vanish, it would only be a matter of weeks until human beings began to die, because we depend upon them to recycle dung, break down dead animals, pollinate plants and do a host of other jobs essential to the ecosystem. Let’s protect their habitats and species, so they can keep making this planet a habitable place for us.

  1. Which natural scientists do you most admire?

Sir Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace are two of the greatest natural scientists ever to have lived and I am fascinated by them, as they were fascinated by beetles. It is impossible not to admire, and I quite frankly adore, Sir David Attenborough. I have sent him ever book I’ve written and he always replies. What a gentleman he is. I also greatly admire Max Barclay at the Natural History Museum and Sarah Beynon, both entomologists of note who have taught me so much and contributed generously to my projects.

Many thanks to M G Leonard for these fascinating and insightful answers! The Beetle Collector’s Handbook is published by Scholastic. The novels Beetle Boy, Beetle Queen, Battle of the Beetles and Revenge of the Beetle Queen are all published by Chicken House.

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