Q&A interview with Branford Boase Award shortlisted author and editor of Beetle Boy
M. G. Leonard’s debut Beetle Boy was edited by Rachel Leyshon and Barry Cunningham of Chicken House. The judges loved Darkus - ‘a strong central character’, and added: ‘the relationships are really well built’; ‘the beetle device is very good and certainly entertaining’; ‘I learned something from it’.
Have you always wanted to be a children’s writer?
It didn’t occur to me that I could be a writer of any kind until recently. When I was a child, I was not able to grasp the rules of written language. I performed woefully in written exams at school because of my messy handwriting, my bad spelling and the absence of grammar. However, I knew the power of stories because I loved to read, and so I got heavily involved in theatre and dance. The performing arts gave me confidence in my storytelling and taught me that Shakespeare hadn’t gone to university, never punctuated his words, which had fluid spellings and yet he is the one writer I never tire of. I became excited by the idea that I could write, I just needed a subject and to try. I hadn’t realised I was writing a children’s book when I first set out to write Beetle Boy, but I knew my protagonist had to be a child because the story requires him to have an open mind and to not have decided how he feels about beetles.
Tell us about the inspiration for Beetle Boy?
Fear and wonder were the inspiration for Beetle Boy. I have been excessively afraid of creepy-crawlies all my life, considering them to be terrifying, dirty and disgusting creatures, but while researching for a short story I discovered the Wikipedia page about beetles. I was startled to discover that beetles have two pairs of wings. I had not known they could fly. I realized my ignorance about beetles, and all insects, was extreme and wondered if that was related to my fear. I began talking to my friends and discovered that, despite being one of the hardest working and essential creatures in our planets ecosystem, not many people know a lot about beetles. Inside us, we all have a pendulum that swings between biophilia (seeking connections with the natural world) and biophobia (fear of the natural world), and I went from being frightened of beetles to being fascinated. I noticed that in most Western literature insects are represented negatively, as a sign of ominous events approaching or as an accomplice to a villain, and I become determined to write a new narrative that would show how wonderful beetles were, that they were the good guys, and introduce children to the vocabulary that would enable them to understand what they were looking at when they see bugs in their own gardens.
What was it like working with Rachel and Barry on the book?
It was an utter delight working with Rachel and Barry. Together they are the perfect editorial version of good cop/bad cop. Barry charges your batteries with positive enthusiasm for the story, concerns himself with the overview of the book (as part of a trilogy) and the title and then wields the sledgehammer to big structural elements and extraneous characters, whereas, Rachel holds your hand and quietly walks you through every line, gently asking questions and interrogating the work.
What would you say was the best bit of advice they gave you?
The best bit of advice they’ve given me is, to always work the narrative so that the children are the active characters. Grown-ups should never take the power or action from the children.
What’s your favourite scene in the book, or which bit did you most enjoy writing?
There is a battle at the end of the book. It’s children and beetles versus villains. It involves an arsenal of poo and thousands of beetles. It was a challenge to write, because of the numerous species, and characters, and it required repeated editing to ensure clarity and entomological accuracy, but readers love it and so do I.
What made Beetle Boy stand out as a manuscript when it first arrived?
It’s an utterly child-focused story, and in the beetles we have both a new kind of superhero pet and important ecological message.
What were the main elements you worked on editorially with Maya to help her make her book even better?
Deciding which POVs to use when, emphasising the children and their friendship, and making sure the beetles shone.
What would you say is the hardest thing for debut authors when working on their manuscripts?
To let go of some aspects of the story that have been there from the start, when the story is evolving in a different way through the editorial. (Though Maya herself never struggled with this aspect – she is a ruthless self-editor!)
Is there a single piece of advice you would give to would-be children’s authors?
Be prepared for multiple drafts! And keep thinking of your readers.
Thanks to M. G. Leonard and Barry and Rachel for answering our questions.