Long-lasting love affair with children's books

School teacher, reviewer and now author Raymond Huber smokes his backyard beehive. Photo by...
School teacher, reviewer and now author Raymond Huber smokes his backyard beehive. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
The enormous scope for imagination in children's books has fascinated Raymond Huber since his childhood.

Charmian Smith talks to the Dunedin teacher, children's book reviewer, and now author, about his new book, Sting.

When he was a child in Christchurch, Raymond Huber's mother looked after a suburban children's library and he would sit and read.

That was when he fell in love with children's books, and he has not stopped reading them since.

A teacher and children's book reviewer, he has now written his own book for children, Sting, which combines animal fantasy, science fiction and natural history.

As far as he knows, it is the first novel to be told from a bee's point of view.

Ziggy, a feisty bee, is rejected by his hive and kidnapped for a human military experiment.

During his adventures searching for his real family, he meets bumblebees and fights wasps and killer bees.

Huber's interest in bees was sparked when someone gave him a beehive for his birthday a few years ago and he found it a fascinating hobby.

"You have to keep an eye on them to make sure they are not about to swarm, and if they are making honey, you have to take out a bit and put the empty frames back so they can fill them up again, or they run out of space.

"Over winter, you leave them some food and they form a tight ball in the middle of the hive to keep themselves warm."

While studying horticulture at Lincoln University, Huber became fascinated by insects, and found bees particularly interesting.

Recently, he discovered the United States Army was training bees to smell plastic explosives and planned to use them to recognise terrorists in Iraq, and possibly in airports.

"It really upset me to think they are going to use bees, which are one of the most valuable and incredible insects," he said.

"Bees are absolutely vital to our survival. They reckon about three-quarters of the world's food crops need pollinating insects, but at the moment bees are disappearing at a rapid rate and nobody really knows the reason."

Various theories blamed chemicals in the environment, pesticides, climate change, genetically modified crops with built-in pesticides, and even cellphone towers that might upset bees' navigation; but probably a combination of all those things stressed bees so much they became vulnerable to viruses and diseases, such as the varroa mite, that they would normally tolerate, he said.

Trying to keep a factually accurate background to his story meant much rewriting as he discovered things bees could not do, such as see the colour red.

Experts such as Prof Alison Mercer at the University of Otago, who had researched bee brains, and Prof Michael Walker at the University of Auckland, who worked on the magnetic sense animals such as birds and bees use to navigate, put him right on a few things, he said.

"In the end, I had to add a little science fiction. I had my bee swarm being trapped by a giant magnet, even if possibly it could never happen."

He also made his hero a drone, although in reality drones are useless, lazy creatures, he said.

"I wanted to make mine different, and he turns out to be different from all the other male bees and goes off to find his real family who are kind of like superbees."

At first, he wrote the story in the third person, but found it was not engaging enough, so he rewrote it in the first person, imagining himself as a bee, and seeing the world through the bee's eyes.

He also had to make the character strong and humanised in some way so readers would identify with it.

"There are actually very few books written from an animal's point of view, and I found Philip Temple's Beak of the moon inspiring when I read it in the early 1980s. It was a combination of animal fantasy and animal realism and really got you into the world of the kea."

Huber has written about 30 science and English textbooks and readers for primary school, but this is his first novel and he finds writing fiction more satisfying.

Writing textbooks made you feel as if you were recycling other people's ideas, although with changing syllabuses, there was a demand for them, he said.

Huber (51) was a social worker running a drop-in centre until he realised it was not compatible with having a young family and trained as a teacher instead.

He has enjoyed writing most of his life.

At high school and as a primary-school teacher he wrote skits and school plays, and he had even won the McGonagall prize for the worst poem, he said with a laugh.

He has also reviewed thousands of children's books through the years for the Otago Daily Times and other publications, and he now teaches part-time so he has time for his writing.

He is working on a sequel to Sting and a book about a teenager in the 1970s.

His wife, Penelope Todd, is also a writer, mostly of young adult books.

Two writers in a household was not a problem if you both had your own writing space, and you also needed to get out and mix with people and do some exercise, he said.

When reviewing children's books, he usually tries them out on the children he teaches.

"Eighty percent of the time, that's a sure-fire test of whether a book works or not. You read a book aloud, especially when it's a picture book, and you instantly know whether your audience is engaged.

"If a class of 5-year-olds are quiet and riveted by a book then burst into laughter, you've got an absolute winner there.

"There are other books you read to children that are hard to read out loud; you stumble over the words, the rhymes don't work, there's too much text on a page and it doesn't work with a class."

Adults usually bought children's books, and some books had a sophistication in the illustrations or a subtle message that children might or might not get, but which appealed to adults, he said.

His favourite children's book is probably Ian McEwan's The Daydreamer.

"The writing is fantastic, but there's a simplicity about it and incredible imagination: he puts himself into the body of a cat and a newborn baby. I think that's what I love about children's books; there's enormous scope for imagination.

"The writing is simple. You don't have to struggle with a children's book.

"I was tremendously inspired as a kid by things like The Hobbit - the hero is a small creature or small person who overcomes incredible odds. I think that is the essence of a good story, and often the plot of a children's book," he said.

"Children's novels can be read by just about any age and enjoyed. Sometimes, I'm reading them as an adult and just enjoying them as a fantastic story. If it grabs you and entertains you, then it's a good book."

Bees have long been a children's favourite.

They have featured prominently in A. A. Milne's books as something of a nemesis for the hero Pooh.

Children have been encouraged to play with them from an early age, with the help of the clacking Buzzy Bee toy, while more recently New Zealand children's television featured the well-named Bumble character, a bee with more enthusiasm than brains.

On the international stage, US comedian Jerry Seinfeld last year took the humble bee to the big screen with his Bee Movie.

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