NNFN coordinator, Chris Routh recently had the opportunity to interview non-fiction author Christiane Dorion about her latest book Darwin’s Rival: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Search for Evolution illustrated by Harry Tennant and published by Walker Books.
Can you tell us about yourself and how you came to be a writer of books for children?
I am originally from Quebec, Canada, and have always enjoyed being in nature and writing stories. I had the idea for my first pop-up book when my son came out of school one day telling me how boring geography was. I said to another mum “I wish I could write a book to inspire children about the natural world, with a big pop up of the water cycle, an explosive pull tab of the Big Bang and tectonic plates colliding together!” Without knowing it, I was talking to the founder of Templar Publishing and a year later, my first pop-up book ‘How the World Works’ was published and translated into 13 languages!
Darwin’s Rival is quite different from the previous non-fiction titles that you have written. What inspired you to write about Alfred Russell Wallace?
Yes, very different. I came across Wallace years ago when researching another book in the archives of the Natural History Museum in London. Looking through original diaries and notebooks of Victorian naturalists, I discovered Wallace’s collections of beetles and butterflies and was blown away by the huge variety of specimens. I went on reading his travel books and became fascinated by him, not only as an extraordinary naturalist who made one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time – the theory of evolution by natural selection – but also by his adventures, his curiosity and his love of nature. I thought that a beautiful picture book about his life and expeditions could help engage children with science and encourage them to explore the world around them. We live in a rapidly changing world and I also felt that Wallace could be a strong role model for children in terms of his resilience and optimism.
Did you have a particular audience for this book in mind?
Any budding naturalist and adventurer, from 7 to 100 years old!
On your website you say that you are ’passionate about the environment and fortunate to work with wonderful illustrators and designers to make the natural world spring to life through [your] books.’ How closely were you able to collaborate with Harry Tennant who illustrated Darwin’s Rival?
It was a joy to work with Harry, as he is such a talented illustrator. We worked closely together with the whole Walker Books team. While researching the book, I provided ideas and visuals for the illustrations and would then discuss these with the team. Harry’s gorgeous images, using a limited colour palette and printmaking textures, make Wallace’s story spring to life and give the book the feel of a collector’s field journal.
Can you tell us about any experts who you consulted with during the research for the book, the sources you used and the places you visited
I was fortunate to have access to the archives of the Natural History Museum and be able to look through Wallace’s original notebooks, letters and collections of specimens. I also worked with Dr George Beccaloni, founder of the Wallace Memorial Fund, who helped to make sure that the images were accurate, from the equipment Wallace used on his expeditions to the clothes he was wearing and the species of beetle he collected.
Do you think that Alfred Russell Wallace should be given as much credit as Charles Darwin for discovering the process of natural selection and the theory of evolution outlined in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species?
Yes I certainly do! The fact is that Wallace and Darwin both came up with one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. It was a case of great minds thinking alike, as seen many times in the history of science. It’s interesting that both men were originally credited for the theory but, unfortunately, Wallace’s name was dropped later on. This is probably due to the fact that Darwin published a famous book about it!
How would you describe Alfred Russell Wallace’s character?
Wallace really inspires me as a scientist and as an individual. As well as being a children’s author, I work in education for sustainable development and Wallace was an early environmentalist, well ahead of his time. He was a humble and self-taught man, with boundless curiosity to understand the world around him. I love his positive attitude and optimism. Even when his ship caught fire in the middle of the ocean and he saw his collections of specimens go up in flames, he recalled how amazing it was to be able to observe the shooting stars in the night sky lying on his back in a small boat in the middle of the Atlantic!
When I completed the book, I had the privilege to meet Wallace’s grandson and great-granddaughter. It was wonderful to hear his grandson retelling the stories included in the book and to be given ‘full marks’ for it! And it was lovely to see the same family traits of optimism, curiosity and humility.
And finally, the main characters of this amazing story are all male, and yet I’m sure there were female travellers exploring the more remote parts of the world at the same time as Wallace. Is there anyone in particular you would like to research or write another book about?
Yes I would like to write about Mary Anning, the pioneering palaeontologist whose discoveries also changed the world. Like Wallace, not only was she a brilliant self-taught scientist, but she also showed amazing resilience, humility and scientific curiosity, at a time when women could not take part in scientific debates. It wasn’t that long ago … And children do love their pterodactyls!
Many thanks for answering my questions, Christiane. And thank you also to Walker Books for organising the interview!
Follow us on Twitter @FCBGNews #NNFN2020 #ThePlanetWeShare, and look out for Alison Leach’s review of Darwin’s Rival tomorrow (24th November) @booksfortopics