Helen Milroy’s latest picture book encourages us to see our backyards as habitats for the buzzing, scooting, zooming splendour of insects
Last year was a great year for Helen Milroy. Her work was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards, the Readings Children’s Book Prize and the Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Awards, while reviewers called her picture book Backyard Birds vibrant, bright, beautiful, wonderful, colourful and bold. In 2021 the First Nations author and illustrator returns to the backyard with her new picture book, Backyard Bugs. She shared some more details with us in the interview below.
Why did you write the book?
I just love the idea of kids getting outside and knowing all of the animals, creatures and bugs who live alongside them. We are all part of a larger ecosystem and it is time we all got to know each other and learn how to get along. It is important for the future that we create sustainable healthy environments for us and the entire ecosystem we are part of. Getting kids to learn to appreciate all of this as early as possible lays down the foundations for the future.
Are you trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Aussie bugs?
Not really, but sort of. We need to appreciate that everything has a place and while we may not always know what that is, it is good to encourage our kids to learn, explore and care for the natural world in a safe way. For example, people often get scared of spiders. Yet the spider web catches lots of bugs that the birds eat, and the willy wagtail uses spider web to glue their nests together. So while we may want to keep our distance, spiders are very important bugs.
What do you hope readers will get out of Backyard Bugs?
The opportunity to appreciate the beauty and wonder of all the bugs that live alongside us, to see what they can find in their own backyard or their local community.
Do you have any recommendations for guardians and carers about how they might present your book to their kids?
Maybe read the book together, look at the pictures, then go outside and explore safely. Talk about how many different kinds of bugs there are and what their colours or characteristics are. Take bees, for example: they produce a lot of food in the form of honey and help to pollinate the flowers. You don’t want to get stung, but you can watch safely and see where they go. Many bees visit the backyard for the flowers or to have a drink of water and take some back to the hive. So you are helping the bees by growing lots of flowers and leaving sources of water for them to drink from. Draw some pictures together of what you have found and write your own story about what the bug is doing or how you may help them to live and grow.
What bugs do you see in your own backyard?
So many and at different times of the year. For a while, a lot of the butterflies that used to come to the garden disappeared completely, but they are just starting to come back this year. It made me wonder what happened and how I could help the butterflies survive. I started to look at what plants they like to keep them strong and healthy. There are bugs that inhabit different spaces – the spiders often hang from up high but the earthworms and slaters are in the earth and on the ground. It makes you aware of the entire backyard as a habitat.
After drawing them all in such detail, do you have a favourite bug? If so, why?
I must admit to finding them all fascinating. If I had to choose, I would have to say the humble old Christmas beetle. They were in such large numbers when I was a kid, but now they hardly turn up at all. I like the fact that they appeared in summer and that meant the long holidays were coming soon and beach weather was on the horizon. I am also fascinated by the way they stumble across all sorts of obstacles, fall over and manage to get up and keep going. They must be a determined little beetle!
What was the best thing about doing the illustrations for the book and what was the hardest?
I enjoyed celebrating the bugs by placing them in unusual backgrounds, which hopefully showed them all in a good light. I hope the illustrations engage our young readers to see bugs differently. It can take quite a while to draw all the detail, especially wings, but it is worth the effort.