Using bat illustrations to write about big issues for young children

by Emma Reynolds, plus Jamie Mollart discusses Kings of a Dead World and teaching resources for The Last Wild

Picture books are powerful – they are often human’s first experiences of stories, and as such they have the power to literally shape who we are, and we carry these stories and messages into adulthood.

They are also a chance for bonding between a child and their adult, often read at bedtime snuggled up together wrapped in each other’s arms - no safer feeling in the world.

I vividly remember my favourite books that have stayed with me from early childhood.

A story about ‘Ruby’ by Maggie Glen, a bear that comes out of the factory with mis-matched fur and ears and is accidentally still stocked in the shop – but a little girl chooses her anyway. ‘Elmer the Patchwork Elephant’ by Dave McKee who one day just wants to fit in but finds value in being his true unique self. I haven’t re-read these books in over 25 years but the illustrations and their messages about acceptance of our differences and choosing kindness have stayed with me always. Picture books can inspire generations.

And so, growing up - Stories about being different and often the underdog while still being kind have especially stayed with me. And this is partly why I chose to write a book about bats. Almost everyone knows that Bats are one of the most persecuted and misunderstood animals on the planet, but it’s not common knowledge that bats are vital species that are crucial to life on earth. Despite their importance, books about bats are rare, especially children’s books.  So, thinking about bats that I’ve loved since I was a kid - I knew I had a chance here to share the truth about bats, build empathy through a sweet and relatable story, and hopefully make a difference.

Amara and the Bats’ is a picture book all about a little girl called Amara who LOVES bats. Her favourite past time is collecting and bat facts in her note book, and watching the bats with her family in the park. But when they move house to a new town, she is sad to find there are no bats living there anymore due to habitat loss. So, inspired by real life youth activists such as Tokata Iron Eyes, Dara McAnulty and Greta Thunberg, she rallies her new friends and her community to save the bats! It’s a story all about bat conservation, community action and hope.

The habitat loss and creeping urbanisation in Amara’s new town is inspired by Manchester where I live, where luxury flats are being built on every last patch of green in the city centre. The story examines these feelings as Amara feels the pressure and dread of climate anxiety - All children and adults know that feeling of helplessness against something so big, and I wanted to show the emotional toll this takes on Amara, before she becomes inspired by real life youth climate activists to try and make a difference in her community.

I wanted to tell an engaging narrative driven story and share bat facts at the same time, which encourages the reader to see how amazing (and cute!) bats really are, and exactly why they’re vital to all life on earth through highlighting their roles in ecosystems. I show through accessible illustrations bat’s roles as keystone species seed dispersers, plant pollinators, and as earth’s natural bug repellents – eating crop destroying insects and mosquitos. Did you know that bats pollinate 70% of the tropical fruit that humans eat and that we wouldn’t have fruit like bananas without them? Or tequila? Bats save farmers billions of dollars a year in pesticides, because bats eat the insects that would otherwise destroy their crops. When humans let bats do their thing and encourage them, we all thrive.

When thinking about empathy for bats which are often feared, it was important to approach this from two angles. One, was to bust the untrue and harmful myths about bats that stoke this misplaced human fear. The other, was to visually show bats in an engaging and appealing way through my illustrations, and making sure to show bats up close – something many people are unfamiliar with.

Most people outside of tropical climates haven’t seen their local bat up close, (Looking at you Australians and your ability to see your big fruit bats!). There are over 1,400 species of bats living all over the world except for the arctic regions. Of this number, around 1,200 are microbats like Amara encounters, and only 200 species are megabats AKA fruit bats which only live in tropical regions. But, most people are more likely to have encountered a fruit bat at a zoo (I recommend the bat tunnel at Chester Zoo for this – a conservation focused Zoo with the aim of preventing extinction of species) than their local, smaller microbat.

So, knowing most bats in the world are microbats, I wanted to give readers a chance to see an example of the type of bat that they are most likely to encounter in the world flying above them looks like. It was a chance to show people how cute bats are both up close and in flight in the illustrations. A chance to share awareness and celebrate that that they have these cute fuzzballs living right on their doorstep, and that they can see them flying above them if they know where and when to look! In the UK, we have 17 species of microbats that breed here – and in the US there are nearly 50 species – fascinating! All these species look different (but they share similarities – small, brown, white or grey fur, with varying faces wings and ears), and so the bat I chose to depict that Amara sees up close is loosely based on a Noctule/Brown Bat – species commonly found in the UK and US.

(And worry not! Fruit bats make an appearance in the book too.)

Joining your local bat group is one of the best ways to experience bats – as you’ll be walking in great bat watching spots with experts listening on a bat detector for their calls, and you’ll learn to identify the different species. The first bat I saw ‘in the hand’ was a Noctule on a licensed bat box check with my bat group, and I fell in love!

Bat workers often recount how they got hooked on bat work after they saw a bat up close – to see such elusive mammals up close which are usually flitting by quickly at night really is incredible, and this experience is something I wanted to reflect in the book. Amara first feels an acute connection to bats after a bat becomes trapped in her attic when she is little, and the wildlife rescue hold the bat very gently in a towel.

It was important to me that ‘Amara and the Bats’ has a human driven narrative around bat conservation, and (as far as I’m aware) it is the only book that does so. The reader can directly place themselves in Amara and her friend’s shoes as they navigate the challenges, and also be inspired to take similar positive human action for bat conservation. Bat facts are weaved in throughout the story, and there are practical guides including a guide to bat houses/boxes, a guide to making your garden/local space bat friendly, facts on multiple bat species included, and useful links to bat charities and organisations.

I hope my author-illustrator debut ‘Amara and the Bats’ inspires kids, builds empathy and understanding, and that it fills them with excitement to go bat watching! All ages can use the tools in this book to help bat conservation and save the bats! Helping the world’s only flying mammal thrive.

Amara and the Bats is out July 20th (US) and July 22nd in paperback (UK) and available to pre-order here.

Bat Conservation Trust – UK Bat Charity

Merlin Tuttle Bat Conservation – The David Attenborough of bats.

Bat Conservation International – US Bat Charity

Austin Bridge Bats – US Tourist Site

Maid of Bats – One of my favourite microbat carer accounts.

Emma Reynolds is an illustrator and author based in Manchester, UK.
Her debut author-illustrator picture book ‘Amara and the Bats’ is out July 20th 2021 with Atheneum - Simon & Schuster. Emma started the #KidLit4Climate illustrated campaign, bringing together over 3,000 children's illustrators and authors from over 50 countries in solidarity with the youth climate strikes. She is inspired by nature, animals, adventure, and seeing the magic in the everyday.

New Release

League members Kate Kelly and Jamie Mollart discuss his new book, Kings of a Dead World, out now with Sandstone Books.

The Earth's resources are dwindling. The solution is The Sleep: periods of hibernation imposed on those who remain with only a Janitor to watch over the sleepers. In the sleeping city, elderly Ben struggles with his limited waking time and the disease which is stealing his wife from him. Outside, lonely Janitor Peruzzi craves the family he never knew. Around them both, dissatisfaction is growing. The city is about to wake.

Kate: Kings of a Dead World gives a very powerful depiction of a world falling apart, both environmentally and sociologically. I was wondering what inspiration and resources you drew on when creating this world, for it was frighteningly vivid, and in light of current events worryingly convincing.

Jamie: All my stories brew over a period of time from things that are bubbling under in my head. I think this one originally stemmed from the concept of personal culpability. I work in advertising and it is something that I struggle with from a moral standpoint in relation to my concerns about the environment. As an industry we are in many ways directly responsible for consumerism; one of the biggest causes of damage to the world we share. 

We live in a throwaway culture and the thought that we have a ticking clock in which to undo the damage we've caused is a key theme in the book. I really wanted to explore this idea of the individual impact on a larger whole. This is one of the reasons I started playing with the idea of enforced restrictions and having a set of characters in the novel who seemingly have no-one to be responsible to. 

I was also interested in what human beings are capable of if there's no checks and measures - something which it could be argued technological advances have enabled us to do as a society as a whole.

I did a lot of research into environmental issues, climate change, politics and revolutionaries such as the Baader Meinhof group and then pulled my visual prompts together into this Pinterest board.

All of this combined in my head and built up into the world I've portrayed. Rereading it during the editing process made me realise how horribly pertinent it is. The empty streets, the way we spend time, separation from our families, being faced with the impact we've had on the world. While I was writing the book it was ostensibly a work of dystopian fantasy, but now it seems eerily prophetic.

Kate: That’s fascinating. I did wonder if your revolutionaries were based on such groups as Baader Meinhof. Of course, when faced with crises such as those you describe, as well as those we are facing in the real world today, its is expected that those in power will come up with a solution. You describe the sea defences which have been built to defend cities like London from the rising seas, and I can see something similar having to be built in the not too distant future. But it is the solution the authorities in Kings of a Dead World come up with that is at once both fascinating and unsettling. The mere though of sleeping away most of the rest of your life makes me shudder. What was your inspiration for this?   

Jamie: The idea of The Sleep came from me trying to think of the most extreme and horribly pragmatic ways of solving the Climate Crisis we face. I began exploring how you could approach a solution to it if you were to ignore empathy and a concern for the human cost. And this was the furthest I could get and make it (hopefully) believable. 

The Sleep addresses the main problems that cause the continued Climate Crisis - consumerism, nationalism, the idea that the individual can't have an impact, reliance on dwindling resources, population growth etc. So, if the only aim is to halt it, then The Sleep would work. It also came from the ability we have as a species to ignore something until it's almost too late and then be forced to act in a way that is more urgent and knee jerk than it otherwise would have been.

The counter argument to all of this is that clearly, we can't allow our species to be the collateral damage in solving the problem, which is where Andreas and his group come in. I wanted to present the two extremes of the argument, as this is central to the themes of the book - what happens to human beings when they're pushed to their limits. The idea of what we're capable of is interesting to me, and The Sleep and the NSF represent the furthest ends of the spectrum I could imagine around the core idea of providing a solution. 

The Sleep also gave me an opportunity to really explore time and how we choose to spend it, again at the extremes of this. How do we react if our time is extremely limited and how do we react if we have the opposite of that and nothing to constructively fill it?

Once I settled on the idea, I found it a really exciting concept to play with as it opened up so many possibilities for me as a writer to delve into and let's face it, people with their backs to the wall are always interesting for us as novelists.

Kate: Well these characters certainly do have their backs against the wall. And yet, despite what they are going through at the heart of everything is an incredibly powerful and poignant love story. 

Jamie: That was always my intention so I'm glad it came across to you that way. There is so much horror in the story that I wanted a real human core. And with one of the main themes being use of time it was really important that the character who experiences the lack of time has a truly compelling reason to make the most of it. 

The relationship between Ben and Rose, one of love and support, needed to be a direct contrast to the loneliness that Peruzzi experiences. It needed to represent everything he is lacking and the cause of his turmoil.

I also wanted to discuss love and companionship as the centre of the human experience and how even in the most terrible of circumstances it remains as a key motivation for us as a species, and possibly even more so. 

Love, whether platonic or romantic (and I tried to get both in), is absolutely integral to the way we experience the world. Looking at everything through the prism of love adds poignancy to every story and enables us as writers to make a human connection with readers that wouldn't be possible if we concentrate solely on events and not reactions to them.

I don't want to give too much away about the plot, but in the context of what is discussed in terms of human culpability, I wanted to highlight the idea that human beings are capable of both love and terrible things. The two aren't mutually exclusive. It's this duality which is key to our species and what makes characters interesting and hopefully believable.

Kate: Oh I agree. It is that duality which makes your characters so interesting. Nobody is pure good or pure evil and it is Ben’s great love and loyalty to Rose that gives his character so much depth, despite all the terrible things he has done. But what I found most moving about their relationship was Rose’s illness. Dementia is something that touches all of us at some point in our lives, either through family or friends and I felt you handled a difficult subject with a great deal of sensitivity.

Jamie: It was something that I felt really needed to be handled with dignity and sensitivity. Her illness is the main reason Ben needs to value every second they have,  and which makes the fact that their time is limited by The Sleep more poignant. It's a disease that has affected me personally, as my Gran and my wife's Gran both suffered with it, so I understand how cruel it is and the way in which it can feel as if it is stealing a person from you. 

It's a disease that is sadly becoming more prevalent and the manner in which it acts is so quick and relentless. I wanted Rose to face it with a sense of dignity, but also to be realistic about the way it manifests. I did a lot of reading around the subject and was particularly influenced by Wendy Mitchell's incredible memoir 'Somebody I used to know'. The way in which she describes her fight against the desire is both disturbing and inspirational. 

Thematically it worked for me as well. Rose is drifting away from Ben and there's nothing either of them can do about it. This sense of helplessness and the impact of something they have no control over mirrors The Sleep and I wanted to bring this tragedy to the front in the way I talked about their situation. 

Kate: You mention human culpability and we do indeed have to accept our responsibility to our planet. After all, the current climate crisis is very much down to our own actions and the throwaway society we have become. What message do you hope your readers will take away from Kings of a Dead World?

Jamie: Culpability is absolutely at the heart of the story. For Ben and Rose it is about confronting the past as well as dealing with the present they live in, and without giving too much away, also in the way in which Ben tries to resolve things. It's central to Peruzzi's relationship with the city, The Sleepers, his relationship with Slattery and the way in which their actions escalate. The novel explores the effect of the individual on society and the balancing of our personal behaviour and beliefs with the needs the world as a whole.

I don't want to get preachy here because it's not a polemic, but it does come from my own personal preoccupations around environmental issues and consumerism. In my research I read very heavily around Climate Change and this has led to some quite extensive changes to the way we live as a family. Jonathan Safron Foer's 'Eating Animals' was instrumental in us moving to a plant-based lifestyle and we generate heat for our house using an air source heat pump rather than using gas. If you read Greta Thunberg's 'No-one is too small to make a difference' she makes the case for personal culpability far more simply and elegantly than I ever could.

Literature, especially speculative fiction, to me, should always prompt thought and discussion. And if anyone reading Kings of a Dead World spends any time thinking about the individual effect they can have on their society and environment then I will have done what I set out to achieve. Of course, I want them to have a good time along the way; I wanted to write a pacey, scary, exciting novel with some big ideas tucked away in the words. Whether I managed to do that isn't for me to say!

Jamie Mollart runs his own advertising company, and has won awards for marketing. Over the years he has been widely published in magazines, been a guest on some well-respected podcasts and blogs, and Patrick Neate called him ‘quite a writer’ on the Book Slam podcast. He is married and lives in Leicestershire with his family. His debut novel, The Zoo, was on the Amazon Rising Stars 2015 list. His second novel, Kings of a Dead World is out now.

Teaching Resource

Marina Ekkel has prepared 6 worksheets for The Last Wild by Piers Torday, downloadable in PDF.

A disease called the 'red eye' has caused all animals to begin to fade into extinction. A single corporation runs the world, and is bent on confining the human population to cities. And twelve year old Kester Jaynes cannot speak (at least to humans).

Forced away from his family, Kester is locked away in a facility for troubled youth. There he discovers that he can speak, but only to animals. With the help of a flock of pigeons and a cockroach, Kester escapes the facility.

The animals bring him to their group in the wild and implore Kester to help them find a cure for the red eye. Kester agrees to help and begins a journey to find his missing father (a famous veterinarian) and a cure for the red eye.

The Last Wild is a fast paced adventure novel that deals with themes such as friendship, promise keeping, corporate power, and animal endangerment. The book is recommended for year 5 and year 6, but could be read by advanced readers in year 4. All worksheets and exercises are based on the U.K year 5 and year 6 curriculum. There are 6 worksheets in total each reflecting a different part (or chapter) of the book. Please adjust as you see fit for your own classroom.

Happy Teaching!

Worksheet 1 - Reading Comprehension exercise [PDF download]

Worksheet 2 - The Wolves [PDF download]

Worksheet 3 - The Red Eye [PDF download]

Worksheet 4 - Friendship and Promise Keeping [PDF download]

Worksheet 5 - Foraging [PDF download]

Worksheet 6 - The Stag [PDF download]

You can find other teaching resources created for our authors’ books here, including a water use quiz based around The Memory of Water and a discussion guide on science and politics in The Stone Weta.

Writing Climate Fiction with James Bradley and Lauren James - online panel with Australian Society of Authors - 20th July, tickets available here