Author and illustrator, Giselle Clarkson shares some insights into her new book and why she was inspired to create it.
Over the past year, when people asked my what my upcoming book was about I would struggle to summarise it. As the title suggests, The Observologist is primarily about being observant – but it’s not a mindfulness book. It’s about spiders and insects – but it’s not strictly a field guide, and it also includes seeds and lichen and bird droppings. It’s got real science, but it’s also full of funny stuff. It’s illustrated so that everything is identifiable, but it doesn’t look like a text book and doesn’t read like one either. It’s relevant no matter where the reader lives. Basically, The Observologist is everything I wanted in a book when I was young.
Growing up, almost every room in our house had a bookshelf, and they held generations of books. Pick a spine at random and it could be my great grandfather’s copies of Dickens, a catalogue of works by M. C. Escher, a slim volume of limericks by Spike Milligan, or Ursula Le Guin and Paul Jennings paperbacks bought for my older siblings. Once I was old enough to read there was an expectation that I would help myself from these shelves, and there would have been guidance if I’d asked, but I preferred to hunt for treasure on my own.
I sampled 1950s Chatterbox annuals, illustrated encyclopaedias and joke books. I read Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses with morbid curiosity. I looked up funny words in foreign language dictionaries and memorised the anatomy of a spider’s leg. I re-read Mother Goose countless times and devoured Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults a little earlier than I should have.
I particularly latched on to any comics and cartoons that were available – Hergé, Peanuts and The Far Side. If there was a joke in The Far Side I didn’t understand I would file it away in my mind until I’d finally collect a new bit of information that made it make sense – like who Carmen Miranda was and therefore why a cow with fruit on its head was funny.
I felt like I struck gold when I stumbled across a copy of Raymond Briggs’ Fungus the Bogeyman wedged between the stack of Tintins. It became an immediate and enduring favourite. As well as the appeal of Briggs’ visual style I loved feeling like I was being let in on a grown-up secret – things were just disgusting or melancholic enough to feel subversive while still feeling safe and cosy. His curmudgeonly Father Christmas also occupies a permanent part of my brain (and heart).
The family bookshelves also housed field guides for just about every species of anything we could have encountered anywhere in New Zealand – birds, trees, weeds, fish, insects. My favourites were books on seashells. I’d covet particular species and daydream about finding one on the beach one day. These became so ingrained that even now if I visit a new part of New Zealand’s coastline and see one of these shells for the first time I’m giddy with excitement and gather them up like they’re pieces of gold.
All this made for an eclectic reading list, but has undoubtedly had a lifelong influence on my writing, drawing and sense of humour. I think it explains why my own book is difficult to categorise. I work in a way that feels natural to me, but incorporates elements of comics and cartoons, field guides and encyclopaedias, a love for unusual words and a desire to never condescend to a young reader.
I hope that The Observologist becomes part of someone else’s childhood reading foundation, that the spine intrigues them and they crouch by the book shelf to read it, returning again and again as they get a little older, finding new things to enjoy each time.
The Observologist by Giselle Clarkson is published by Gecko Press.
Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation.