Searching For Cicadas by Lesley Gibbes, illustrated by Judy Watson (Walker Books Australia) is a superb picture book about cicadas in Australia. It is told from the viewpoint of a boy camping with his Grandpa while they look for cicadas. This book is an adventure!
Congratulations on your CBCA shortlisting, Lesley and Judy, and thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords.
Where are you based and what is your background in writing/illustrating?
Lesley – I’m a NSW based author on Sydney’s beautiful Northern Beaches. My background is in Education. I was a primary school teacher for 16 years in the NSW Public School System before embarking on a writing career after leaving teaching to have a family.
My biggest influencers were my lecturers at Sydney University where I completed a Bachelor of Education. Len Unsworth, Jeff Williams and Robyn Ewing were all very passionate lecturers in children’s literature and their passion rubbed off onto me. I loved teaching, especially reading, and spent the next 16 years reading all sorts of wonderful books to my primary aged students. All this reading gave me the knowledge and confidence I needed to start writing. And I haven’t looked back since. I’m now an internationally published author of more than 14 books and a presenter at the Australian Writers’ Centre where I run an online course for adults called Writing Chapter Books for 6-9 year olds.
Judy – Thank you, Joy!
I work in my home studio in Frankston South in Victoria. Although bustling Frankston is a five minute drive down the road, our house is nestled among the trees at the edge of the Sweetwater Creek. It’s very quiet, and looking out of my studio windows I can’t see any houses. Nor can I usually hear any cars. I only feel comfortable with trees nearby, so I am very lucky to be here.
My background is that of the pathological scribbler, whose school books were always covered in drawings, many of them cheeky. I was always encouraged to draw and paint, and was even allowed to paint directly on to the walls of my father’s veterinary waiting room. (I attempted a trompe-l’œil but never finished it.)
I did an arts degree and a Dip Ed at Melbourne University after I finished year 12, choosing the essay-writing path instead of the paintbrush path. So I’m not formally trained in illustration. My instruction in book illustration came from my love of books, and from learning on the job.
I did illustration work in the conservation sphere for Greening Australia Victoria (where I met the lovely plant nerd who became my husband) and for various councils and Sustainable Gardening Australia, promoting the planting of indigenous gardens. I did some very interesting work for Museum Victoria, all of the illustration requiring extra research.
Through my samples in the Style File created by Ann James and Ann Haddon of Books Illustrated (in those days it was all on paper in a series of large folios) I got my first work for educational publishers and later I illustrated picture books and chapter books for various publishing houses. Most of my work has been with Penguin, HarperCollins and Allen & Unwin. I was excited to be offered the chance to illustrate one of Walker’s Nature Storybooks because I’ve admired this series for a few years.
Your title is Searching For Cicadas. ‘Searching’ is an active word that will involve your readers. How deliberate is your use of ‘searching’, rather than, say, ‘watching’ or ‘catching’?
Lesley – The Nature Story Book series by Walker Books is a series that promotes a love and appreciation of nature, so catching cicadas is certainly not something we wanted to encourage. Cicadas can’t be kept in captivity as they need to feed on flowing sap from live trees. Instead, the book encourages children to be active in their interaction with cicadas in a safe and respectful way that won’t hurt the insect itself. Children are encouraged to search out the cicada nymphs with a torch at dusk and watch as they split their exoskeleton casing and emerge as adult cicadas. Using the word searching draws the reader in and encourages them to be an active participant not only in the book but in the natural environment around them.
How have you shown the lovely relationship between grandchild and Grandpa?
Lesley – The best stories come from the heart and Searching For Cicadas is no exception. The relationship of the grandchild and grandfather (the grandchild is androgynous) wasinspired by my relationship with my grandmother and the wonderful times I spent in her garden in summertime. My family and I would have the loveliest afternoon teas under the big jacaranda tree in her backyard. My grandmother would come out of her kitchen with freshly baked scones, sponge cake with jam and cream, cheese and biscuits and a big pot of tea. It was wonderful, but the thing I remember most vividly were the summertime cicadas. My grandmother would tell me all about them as they whizzed and buzzed around us as we ate. I loved learning their names and finding out about their secret life underground. But most of all I loved my grandmother and the passion she shared with me about the natural world. I wanted this relationship to feature in the text to bring a warmth and heart to the story.
Judy – Although I had a lovely relationship with my rapscallion grandfather for a few years, I sadly didn’t get to enjoy him for very long before he died.
This story echoes my relationship with my father. Indoors in the veterinary surgery masked and gowned, or sewing on the pedal powered sewing machine, or muddling about with papier mâché, or in the kitchen. Outdoors on horseback, or drenching cattle, swinging new gates (one of my favourites), dowelling together dog kennels, planting native trees, or catching tadpoles. I could watch him make things or do things for hours, with his capable hands. But he also taught me to make things and do things, and was almost infinitely patient. He genuinely seemed to enjoy having a grubby little urchin follow him about asking questions and dripping glue everywhere.
For my part, having been so loved, it wasn’t difficult to draw that kind of close parental relationship. On one page, they hold hands for moment of anticipation. More often though, the grandfather is nearby, watching the child and providing that sweet sense of security while the child explores new things, or dances down the dirt road within Grandpa’s warm orbit.
When researching, what information about cicadas did you find particularly interesting or surprising?
Lesley – As part of my writing preparation I did a lot of research. My research was a combination of facts and fiction. There was a lot of factual research about cicadas to be done but the research I loved most was reading about other people’s childhood memories. It was fascinating. Everyone had memories of collecting and playing with the alien looking cicada casings left clinging to trees.
One of my favourite researched memories was from the 1940s where a group of mischievous children spent the morning collecting cicadas and stashing them in hessian sacks. The children boarded a morning tramcar full of city workers and opened their sacks letting the cicadas fly. You can imagine the chaos! I can still hear their laughter.
Another memory came from a family in America who took their boys searching for cicada nymphs with torches at dusk in their front yard. The boys would collect the nymphs and put them in jars with a stick. During the night, as the boys slept, the nymphs would split their casings and emerge as adult cicadas. The boys would wake to discover what cicadas had hatched overnight, then they would take them outside to release them. I was fascinated by the fact that these boys searched for the nymphs and not the adult cicadas. This idea features in my text.
But the most interesting scientific fact that I came across about cicadas was that the cicada creases its ears, so it’s not deafened by its own noise!
Judy – I have to confess, I wish I had read this book as a child because I was rather hazy about the whole life cycle of the cicada! In spite of having loved finding cicada nymph exoskeletons and hooking them into my clothes as a child, I never quite worked out how they fit in with the gorgeous bright green creatures that flitted about the garden and shouted so loudly. So the whole research experience was a revelation and a delight! I still don’t believe I’ve ever seen a cicada nymph, so next summer is earmarked for some discovery.
How have you incorporated your own childhood, or other, experiences in this book?
Lesley – My memories of visiting my grandmother’s summertime garden and listening as she told me all about the cicadas that buzzed around us is the biggest childhood influence for this text. Another influence was my father’s passion for animals. He taught me a respect for nature and the creatures in it. He gave me an inquisitive, active mind for the natural world that I have passed on to my own children. An older generation passing knowledge to the next is something that features strongly in Searching For Cicadas.
Judy – I think I answered this partly, above. But apart from my time spent shadowing my father, there was also a lot of time spent lying in the middle of a paddock looking up at the sky with the rustling grasses waving around me. I liked to observe the sounds, feel the bumpy ground under me, gaze at the blue sky, notice the bird life, keep an ear and an eye out for snakes, and nothing could be better than a curious cow coming over to investigate my presence in the grass. I was definitely an outdoor, nature-loving kid.
Quite a bit more recently, I married the plant nerd who has a special interest in indigenous plants. With that has come a much greater interest in and observation of plants both great and small. So that could explain some of the plant worship evident in these illustrations.
How did you collaborate on the book – generally and with details such as setting?
Lesley = Judy and I worked quite separately on the book. The text was complete and fully edited by the time Judy saw it. So, you can imagine how delighted I was when I first saw Judy’s ideas for the illustrations. She understood completely the relationship of the grandchild and grandparent, the Australian bush setting and the magical, mysterious life of the cicada. We must have had very similar childhood experiences with nature. She was a kindred spirit!
Judy – I wasn’t in contact with Lesley directly through the process, so I’m not sure if the suggestion came from her or the publisher, but there was a request to make the leading child character into someone who could be either a boy or a girl, depending on the reader’s point of view. I think this was a nice idea.
Lesley was very open to my interpretation of the text and didn’t even prescribe a setting. I did enquire through the publisher about her reference to the old Grey Gum (a common name that can refer to various species of gum), and we decided to use this as a focal point to narrow down the setting to the Sydney region. And that led me to the Flannel Flowers mentioned below.
Lesley, is there reference material about cicadas that you drew on particularly and would like to share?
My favourite reference material was from Sir David Attenborough’s Life In The Undergrowth series where there a segment that showcases footage of the amazing cicada life cycle. You can have a look at this Youtube segment on my webpage at www.lesleygibbes.com under the heading Book Week 2020. It’s fascinating!
Lesley, how did you sort your writing into two different text types?
Searching For Cicadas was researched and written as a narrative story first. The facts about cicadas were added separately after the text was accepted for publication in the Nature Storybooks Series. The setting out of the book was then adjusted to fit the style and guidelines for this series.
Judy, which Australian plants did you particularly enjoy illustrating?
I enjoyed illustrating some of my husband’s favourites including the Wallaby Grasses and Flannel Flowers from the Sydney region, but the eucalypts and the leaf litter were the most fun for me to illustrate. The eucalypts are highly charismatic trees that create a mood just by standing there. And the leaf litter was an adventure in abstraction. I really loved making the endpapers.
Judy, how did you manage the different scales of showing the Australian bush and also the detail of cicadas?
Initially the problem of depicting the humans in contrast to the much smaller cicadas was an interesting challenge. And the towering gum trees are another scale altogether. However, that didn’t seem as difficult.
I got around these issues in a few different ways. In some illustrations I was able to draw in very close to the cicada and to drop the human characters into the background. This is the approach I took in the image featuring the nymphs travelling through the grasses towards the old Grey Gum, and also in the image that looks down from the sky on the cicadas in flight with the people lying in the grass below.
In other cases, I let either the cicada or the people own the illustration, and they would set the scale of the artwork.
The Australian landscape encapsulated the entire setting and fit in happily with either approach. Our flora is equally beautiful up close and viewed from afar, so I used layers of scenery to depict our bushland biodiversity. Leaf litter, small herbs and the bases of tree trunks are close to the viewer; shrubs and small trees are in the middle ground and tall gums are on the horizon or simply suggested in silhouette.
To you both, what is your favourite cicada, and why?
Lesley – My favourite cicada is the Black Prince. I love it because it’s part of an urban myth. When I was child, I was told that the Black Prince cicada was the most sort after and rarest of all the cicadas. I was told that if I found one and took it to the chemist the pharmacist would buy it from me for $100 dollars to grind into a potion that would cure all illness. Everyone wanted to find a Black Prince cicada and get rich. What a shame it wasn’t true. In fact, the Black Prince cicada isn’t rare at all it’s just not found in busy cities very often. It’s usually found in the she-oak tree that grows on the banks of rivers.
Judy – I must admit I’ve never met any cicadas other than a greengrocer in person, so it has to be that. It’s personal. Anyway, green is my favourite colour!
How do you present this book to children? Do you run workshops?
Lesley – I absolutely love presenting this book to children. It generates so much discussion. I have lots of interesting large photos and facts about cicadas to share and of course plenty of cicada casings to look at. I love listening to children’s memories of cicadas and sharing cicada memories of my own. And because I’m a teacher at heart I love comparing and contrasting the narrative and factual text types explored in the book. Teachers and librarians can book me through The Children’s Bookshop Speakers’ Agency.
Judy – I haven’t made many school visits until now, except at my children’s schools. However, I will be joining Creative Net Speakers Agency soon to commence school visits. My approach includes drawing with the kids, and Searching For Cicadas lends itself nicely to a creative activity around leaf litter and our natural environment. I also love to talk about storyboarding and to get the kids responding to a text.
What impact has being shortlisted for the CBCA Eve Pownall award this year had on you or this book?
Lesley – I love the Children’s Book Council of Australia and celebrating Book Week with children. As a teacher it’s been part of my life for a long time. So, to be shortlisted and have the acknowledgement of the Children’s Book Council for a job well done is very satisfying and humbling at the same time. The great thing about being a shortlisted author is that lots more people read your book, write you fan mail, send you photos of amazing school displays and dress up as your character. I wonder if there will be any cicadas in this year’s Book Week parades. I hope so!
Judy – Having never been shortlisted for a CBCA award before, I’ve been surprised at the number of requests for information I’ve received! It has been lovely to see how so many teachers and librarians have embraced this book and thrown themselves into using it as a teaching aid both on-line and in schools.
Could you both tell us about some of your other books?
Lesley – I have written more than 14 books for children. Some of them include Scary Night, a CBCA honour Book 2015, Fluke Whitley Award Best Young Children’s Book 2018, the hilarious chapter book series Fizz and the beautiful poetry anthology A Boat Of Stars, where I have 12 poems featured, edited by Margaret Connolly and Natalie Jane Prior.
Judy – I’ve done quite a few books with Frances Watts over the years. Our picture book Leonard Doesn’t Dance was released at almost the same time as Searching For Cicadas and, like all of Frances Watts’ books it has lovable characters, humour and makes subtle and wise observations about relationships. We made Goodnight, Mice! together back in 2012 and it won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award and has proven a long-lasting favourite with families.
What are you writing or working on now?
Lesley – At the moment I’m working on a new picture book called Dinosaur Dads illustrated by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall and published by Scholastic. It’s a rollicking, rhyming, romping, stomping dinosaur Fathers’ Day book for young children due for release in August 2021.
What have you been reading that you would like to recommend?
Lesley – I’ve been making my way through the CBCA Shortlisted Books for 2020. I absolutely love the middle grade novel The Thing About Oliver by Deborah Kelly. It looks at the younger sibling of an autistic brother called Oliver. It’s a fantastic book to read to Years 3 and 4 in the classroom and is sure to generate a lot of discussion about autism and how it impacts siblings.
Judy – This year, I’ve taken a fancy to working my way through our Vintage Classics shelf and so far I’ve loved discovering Christopher Isherwood for the first time, reading Goodbye to Berlin and A Single Man. I fell in love with the opening paragraphs of Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and though it was initially a little hard to get into the rhythm of the formal style, I found I was enriched by that read and ultimately I loved it. Then I read and enjoyed E M Forster’s A Room with a View.
I’ve had lots of children’s and YA pleasure this year too, with highlights being several of Steven Herrick’s books (they were all good), Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, although I’m not sure if that’s children’s fiction or not. It probably doesn’t matter. It’s so good.
How can your readers contact you?
Lesley – My readers can contact me through my webpage at www.lesleygibbes.com
Here you’ll find out about all my books and find some great activities to do with Searching For Cicadas for Book Week 2020 as well.
Searching for Cicadas is part of the acclaimed Nature Storybooks series, published by Walker Books. It is an excellent addition to this series, with high quality and engaging words and pictures.
Thank you for your generous and insightful responses, Lesley and Judy, and all the very best with this book and your future work.