The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Peculiar Pairs in Nature by Sami Bayly
A hat-trick for talented natural history illustrator Sami Bayly who has her third book, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Peculiar Pairs in Nature commended by the CBCA awards in the Eve Pownall non-fiction category.
Her two previous books, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Ugly Animals and The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dangerous Animals were Honour Books in the awards and have won other significant awards. Her new work The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Peculiar Pairs in Nature (Lothian Children’s Books) is already a CBCA Notable, and will no doubt also be shortlisted.
Thanks for speaking to ‘Joy in Books’ at PaperbarkWords, Sami.
Are you having a well-deserved rest after publishing three such significant and, no doubt, time-consuming books within a few years? What are you doing now and what will you be illustrating and writing next?
At the minute I am actually working hard on my next book series. I got to enjoy my break during the middle of 2021, so my holidays are a little out of whack when compared to most jobs! But I do prefer to always be working on something, as I feel a little lost when I am between jobs.
I am super excited for this next series to be published however, as I will be exploring a different style to my previous illustrated encyclopaedias. Aiming it towards a younger age demographic and having it be in a picture book format, with a playful cross between fiction and non-fiction. I will be meeting some very unusual creatures across the globe who will be sharing their evolution stories.
What in your background has led you to creating these excellent books?
I like to think that it is a combination of many strange elements as well as a variety of hobbies/interests that have led me to not only being who I am today, but also helping me reach my dream career.
I grew up on a small property in Port Macquarie with many different pets, including dogs, fish, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, snails, yabbies, miniature ponies, donkeys and cows. My mum is also an artist, and would spend countless hours painting larger than life portraits of our pets and other flora and fauna that would decorate our walls. I knew from an early age that being creative was in my blood and I was encouraged to explore it.
When it got to HSC time, I discovered a degree called a Bachelor of Natural History Illustration at the University of Newcastle, which was a wonderful blend of art and science, and I enrolled in that. After being successful with my application, I took a gap year and moved to Morpeth before starting the degree. I never looked back.
It was because of this degree that I was able to explore my artistic skills and see my full potential. I entered the book industry 4 years later with a distinctive style and mission to shine a light on misunderstood creatures.
Could you please select one animal (or pair) from each of your books and briefly explain why it is ugly, dangerous or a peculiar pair?
There are so many to choose from! So I will go with some of my favourites.
Ugly Animal: The Marabou Stork
The marabou stork is a wonderful example of why the definition of ‘ugly’ really doesn’t correlate with the natural world. These birds live in Africa and are like vultures, as they eat carrion (dead animals). Their feathers have dropped out of their heads over time to help conserve energy, because if they had a full head of feathers they would need to clean them thoroughly after each messy meal. Without them, they just dry their heads in the sun and the blood/animal remains crust off.
Their long beak helps to reach into the large carcases and their large chin sacs help them to make a loud, guttural croaking sound which helps them attract a mate.
To top it off, they also poop down their own legs, as it acts as a disinfectant (from all of the germs they are around) and also cools them down.
Dangerous Animal: The Blue Dragon
The blue dragon is small, but packs a punch! This sea creature is a nudibranch or a type of sea slug, and they reach just 2 centimetres long.
They float upside down in the ocean to keep them camouflaged from predators both above and below (known as countershading), and have the ability to sting.
This ability however, is actually from feasting on the notoriously stinging jellyfish, the blue bottle! By eating their stinging cells, they retain the ability to sting themselves.
This is just one of many reasons as to why you should never explore rockpools without being incredibly cautious.
Peculiar Pair: The Amber Snail and the Green-banded Broodsac
This peculiar pair is parasitic, and if you know me, you will know that parasitic partnerships are my favourite kind!
The amber snail glides along grass blades and other surfaces like a typical snail, but on an unlucky day it will glide along some bird poop and ingest it into its body via its foot (the part we see on a snail that helps it move). Inside of some birds’ droppings are the eggs of a parasite known as a green banded-broodsac, and as it develops it slowly makes its way up to the eyestalk and begins to take control of the snail’s brain. It tells the snail to travel up to the highest point it can so that it can alert predators nearby that want to eat it. The parasite pulsates its green coloured body and lures in birds from far away, all the while still in the eye.
After eventually being eaten by a bird, the snail’s story is over, but the green-banded broodsac is still alive in the bird’s digestive system. In here it can now complete its life cycle and shed more eggs that will go into the bird’s poo and be ingested by an unsuspecting amber snail. The parasitic partnership repeats all over again.
What illustrative process do you use for your creatures?
I am a traditional artist, meaning that I use watercolours and white gouache to create my illustrations. In order to do this, I will sketch out the animal first on some cheap paper and then transfer it carefully on to my watercolour paper using a lightbox. This is so I don’t over work the watercolour paper, as it is very delicate and you don’t want to be using erasers or harsh pencils on it before adding your paint.
I then start the painting process, beginning with a wet-on-wet technique. This is where you wet the paper in an area that you wish to add paint to, making sure that the water is clean first. When this is done correctly, the paint will flow nicely and cover the area evenly. This is a great technique for the early layers and for replicating smooth textures.
I will often do this a few times so that I can add more colours into the base of the artwork, but I am careful to not damage the paper by overloading it with water.
Another technique I will use is wet-on-dry, which is where I use the wet brush to add paint onto the dry paper. This is perfect for adding shadows and depth to sections that you don’t want bleeding out.
Finally I will use a very small brush to add the last details like hairs, feathers, wrinkles etc, using minimal water and paint so that the paint creatures crisp and clean lines.
This process usually takes 1-3 days for an A3 piece (which is what all of my book artworks are), and it takes many layers and a whole lot of patience to be able to push through. When they are all finished I will scan them in so that they are ready to be placed into the book.
In the introduction to The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Peculiar Pairs in Nature you explain that there are different partnerships between animals and plants apart from symbiotic relationships that are mutually beneficial. You list ‘Mutualism’ where both sides of the partnership benefit from their relationship; ‘Commensalism’ where one partner benefits and the other is unaffected; and ‘Parasitism’ where one partner benefits and the other is disadvantaged.
You then explain about interesting subsets within these categories such as ‘Obligate Mutualism’, ‘Phoresy Commensalism’ and more.
Could you please select one of these categories or subsets and give an example of the creatures in the partnership and how their relationship works?
There is such a complex list of relationships out there when it comes to the animal and plant world, so breaking it up into easily understandable categories is very handy!
A fun example of one of these categories is the pseudoscorpion and the giant harlequin beetle. They share a partnership that is called ‘phoresy commensalism’.
Pseudoscorpions are tiny arachnids that hitch a ride on the back of a much larger, oblivious critter, the harlequin beetle. By climbing aboard the beetle’s huge wing case, the pseudoscorpions save time and energy by not walking themselves. But when the hitchhiking territorial male arachnids come into contact with other males they will fight for their spot, usually resulting in the loser being thrown off the beetle mid-flight. This leaves the superior male to mate with the females on board.
Because they use the giant harlequin beetle as a form of transport, their relationship is known as ‘phoresy commensalism’.
How are schools using your books?
I have had the wonderful opportunity of finding out first hand how schools have been using my books in a variety of fun and inventive ways!
One of my favourites is using an uncommon animal from my books to test kids’ creativity, providing them with only a list of descriptive hints and seeing if they can piece together the animal themselves. I love this because although it is simple, it is actually an insight into the jobs of many scientific illustrators! Having minimal photos or reference materials but still needing to replicate an animal in a realistic manner.
Another memorable lesson plan was having the kids research their own ‘ugly’ animal and see what they could find out about it. It challenged their perception on ‘beauty’ and helped them to see that researching an animal and finding out why they look a certain way is so important.
Getting to go and visit schools has been one of the most rewarding parts of my job, so hearing teachers share the ways they have been using my book within their curriculum has been incredible.
What is a response from a young reader about one of your books that you have enjoyed hearing or reading?
I have received many emails and messages about how my books have touched people across Australia and the world, something that I am still coming to terms with!
It is hard to narrow it down to just one response, but one that truly impacted me was when a young girl who enjoyed painting but had lost the use of her arms. While many would accept defeat and not push themselves, this little girl had learnt to paint intricate artworks with her mouth! She did a painting of a tapir (an animal from my Ugly Animal book) and sent me a photo.
It has encouraged me to always keep on going, even in the most challenging of times.
Your three books are of very high quality, from your illustrations and written information to the hardback production values. Astred Hicks, Design Cherry, did the cover and internal design and typesetting. How did you work with her or did she take your content and undertake her role without further collaboration?
It has been such a pleasure working with Astred for my book layout and cover designs. I had never imagined that my illustrations could look so beautiful and like a classic old timey encyclopaedia, but she brought them to life with her wonderful skills.
Initially Hachette had asked me to give them some sketches of what I had in mind for the cover and internals, so I did some very basic drawings and sent them on. An important inclusion for me was that there needed to be a page for the text and a page featuring the illustration, that way it was able to celebrate the details of the unusual creatures on a large scale.
She also had the fun job of choosing the majority of the animals for the front cover and organising them so they fit perfectly. If I had any notes on adjustments or for things to be swapped out I would forward them through and that was that!
I am looking forward to seeing how she designs my upcoming series as well.
Thank you very much for sparing the time to share with us so generously and insightfully, Sami.
Your books are scientifically accurate works of art and are becoming collectors’ items.
My review of The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Ugly Animals at PaperbarkWords blog