Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths (CSIRO Publishing)
Author Julie Murphy and illustrator Ben Clifford write about their non-fiction book for children, Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths for Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords blog.
Author Julie Murphy writes about Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths:
Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths follows a year in the life of a mountain pygmy-possum. Having cared for mountain pygmy-possums in my former job as a zookeeper, I thought this species would make an ideal subject for a nonfiction picture book. Obviously, it is a ridiculously cute creature! But it also has a quirky life history – for example, it’s the only marsupial that hibernates under snow during winter. Plus, it’s only found in one very small region of Australia, it’s not very well known by the general public and, tragically, it’s also critically endangered.
The other star of this book, bogong moths, are also endangered. Besides their intrinsic value, they are a crucial food source for the possum. Without their high-fat feast of moths in the summer, the possums cannot put on enough weight to survive their winter hibernation.
In addition to the animals, Tiny Possum also features people living along the bogong moth’s migration route, who turn off their unessential lights at night to help the moths reach their resting place in the mountains, where the possum lives.
By describing relationships between moth, possum and people, the story lets children passively soak up concepts such as food webs, the interdependence of species and how we can help to solve environmental problems.
I thought a narrative story would best engage children by making them care about the main character, Possum. But you only need to take a look at the cover to see that Ben Clifford’s illustrations do most of heavy lifting on that! My favourite illustration shows Possum exposed to an icy wind, with squinting eyes and ruffled fur. It’s delightful!
I incorporated elements of danger, such as a potential predator, variable food supply and icy alpine conditions, to not only inform readers, but also hopefully immerse them in drama to keep those pages turning.
It’s always tricky choosing which facts to include. I was sad to leave out the true story that the mountain pygmy-possum was first described from fossils, and believed to be extinct until a live animal popped up in a ski chalet in 1966. I think that’s fascinating, but it simply did not fit into Tiny Possum’s story. Fortunately, the book’s back matter caters for children (and adults) hungry for more, with extra information and links to further learning.
My background in zoology can be useful in understanding the piles of scientific information I need to sift through for research. But if I don’t understand something, or can’t find an answer to a specific question I have, I reach out to an expert researcher in that field. More often than not, they are very generous with their time and knowledge, for which I’m very grateful.
My writing style varies to suit each project’s topic, approach and reading age. In Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths, I was aiming for a lyrical style with emotion and tension. I hope you can get a sense of this on the opening page:
Blink and you’d miss her. Flitting between moonlit boulders, barely bigger than a mouse, she’s a mountain pygmy-possum…and she’s on the hunt.
With any children’s book about endangered species, it’s important to inform young readers while giving them hope. In Tiny Possum’s back matter, readers discover two programs run by Zoos Victoria – the Lights Off program and Moth Tracker citizen-science project – through which they can get involved to help save bogong moths and (by extension) mountain pygmy-possums.
I hope, through all my books, to encourage children to become lifelong readers, learners and conservationists. They are the bright, shining future.
Illustrator Ben Clifford writes about Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths:
I grew up in a suburb of Hobart, Tasmania down a cul-de-sac by the bush. During the night wallabies had dinner on the lawn while possums danced across the tin roof. From the surrounding hills kookaburras and black cockatoos woke us to begin a day of exploring the local creek, climbing trees or riding our BMXs on bush tracks. We used our hands, minds and what we found.
Rainy days saw a visit to the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery. Back then, displays included local stuffed wildlife to observe and touch – the wiry Tasmanian devil, prickly echidna, fluffy owl feathers and the lush, dense fur of a platypus. Upon returning home the drawing pad came out in front of the T.V., alongside the family dog ‘Daisy’ as she lay in front of the heater thumping her tail on the floor. Hours of drawing ensued thanks to my parents’ infinite supply of paper.
Now, nothing has really changed so illustrating Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths was a natural progression from the similar subject matter I witnessed as a child and the drawings I made in my school books.
The narrative of this book is a time line or a ‘year in the life’ of facts following the mountain pygmy possum through the seasons featuring her chores, nesting, feeding. The surrounding habitat is almost another character so research into flower and fauna was a delight. Although not mentioned in the text it adds a few facts to explore. My way to display the time of year are the use of anemones, snow sprinkled snow gums and the billy buttons we see on the cover.
Complex textures are also on show from moss covered boulders, branches, and the twisted leaves, sticks, and moss of the mountain pygmy possum’s nest – all things we may recognise in an Australian backyard.
The main bulk of spreads are double page illustrations. The book diverges from this twice to ghostly floating images, both when the pygmy possum enters a hibernation state during the winter months.
Once the mountain pygmy possum is established with her appealing eyes and fuzzy fur a problem ensues – the bogong moth (or lack of). In order to survive hibernation in its habitat of the Australian Alps a feast of these moths is critical. But, unfortunately human activity is distracting these moths every year from finding their way to the mountains where the pygmy possum is waiting to eat them for dinner. Without these moths it is unlikely the possums will survive and so their numbers are in decline. But the story shows what people can do as a community from the family home to prevent the mountain pygmy possum reaching extinction, and gladly it doesn’t take much effort.
This book, compared to my previous work, has a more linear approach to the subject using natural wildlife activity and colours. Other books I have illustrated have delved more into the idea of imagination and fantastical subjects: The Wildlife Winter Games, The Wildlife Summer Games (both written by Richard Turner for Starfish Bay) and my first – Elliott’s Rainbow Heart (written by Laura Wallbridge for Empowering Resources). The book with illustrations most similar to Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths would be Elliott’s Rainbow Heart. Although not implied in that story I made the lead character (a Chameleon) set in Madagascar, again researching the trees, flowers and fauna.
Aside from illustrating picture books, painting is also another outlet for me. Texture is key, something I enjoy putting into both books and paintings and keeping the subject matter wild and natural.
The 32 pages of Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths finish with an overview of diagrams and further efforts on how to contribute keeping this creature away from extinction.
Thank you Julie and Ben for describing your creative input into Tiny Possum and the Migrating Moths. Your book will no doubt raise awareness of the endangered status of the mountain pygmy possum and the bogong moth. It will also guide young (and older) readers in how to help, as well as giving us hope for the future of these creatures.