Influencing kids with fiction

23:24, Mar 19 2012

Des Hunt didn't set out to write about environmental issues.

But the writer of children's fiction found that topics like smuggling wildlife, possum control, dogs worrying kiwi and other birds under threat just appeared in his stories. "I never really intended to become a writer that campaigned for the environment, but it seemed so natural when I started and I have continued with it because I think that fiction is a wonderful way of getting through to youngsters," says Des.

"They are more environmentally conscious than many adults - they have more affinity with animals. If we all had the same attitude to the environment that our kids have, we would be a lot better off."

He knows exactly what kids think, because he makes about 100 school presentations a year. This week he will be one of eight visiting authors and illustrators visiting schools for the Taranaki Children's Book Festival before heading to Puke Ariki for the Family Finale on Saturday.

The 70-year-old began his career as a science teacher at Hawera High School, where he worked from 1964 to 1970. In the 1970s and 80s he started writing science text books and in the 90s decided he wanted to approach science writing in a different way, so tried his hand at fiction. "I thought back to the way I got involved in science and that was through nature." So that's how he based his books. His early attempts weren't successful.

"I experimented for 10 years before I got anything accepted for publication. Yes, it was disheartening. I thought it was going to be easy. The early works were far too much science and not enough story. When I got over that, I got a book published."


That first novel was A Friend In Paradise, about a boy who discovers an extinct giant gecko. It was a finalist in the 2003 New Zealand Post Book Awards and is just about to be re-released as an e-book with a different cover.

"My books are read a lot in classes and I give teaching notes that give suggestions for lessons."

Where Cuckoos Call focuses on Des's fascination with bird migration. He lives at Matarangi, 20 kilometres north of Whitianga, with views out to Mercury Island and further up the Coromandel Peninsula to Great Barrier and Cuvier Islands. Each day he heads out for daily walks to watch over his flocks. "We have godwits in my estuary and they have just left. I walked around yesterday and I didn't see any so I figure they have just left - it's a long journey for them."

The godwits fly to Alaska, stopping at various western Pacific islands on the way out from New Zealand, but on the way back their journey is a non-stop six-day flight. "How they can manage to navigate like," Des marvels over the phone.

There are also New Zealand dotterels in his patch. "It was a bad season. No youngsters fledged. The sand spit was washed away last winter. They are still around, but not nesting."

As well as his regular beach walk, Des also heads into the bush where a scenic reserve and beautiful track has been forged because of technology. "It started with a mobile phone tower track - it's a wonderful walk with beautiful birdlife.

"They help me with my writing, my walks. I do a lot of thinking while I'm walking. I always have a notebook with me, but most days I don't make any notes. I take a notebook everywhere with me because you never know when a brilliant idea will come into your head and at my age they don't always stay there for too long." Des reckons he's got another good 10 years of writing left in him and hopes he can continue delivering stories that children like.

His school presentations help him know whether he's on target.

"That's another good thing about kids - they don't hold back. They certainly let you know their opinion. Without that it would be difficult."

Des and his school teacher wife have a couple of grown-up children, but no grandchildren.

When Des goes into schools, lots of the students tell him they want to be marine biologists. "After the Whale Pot Bay book I got a lot of emails from kids saying they were going to work with whales. Books have an influence - believe me."

During those education visits, Des uses a lot of visual metaphors to add suspense to his stories and on Saturday will be setting up a science laboratory at Puke Ariki to do a whole bunch of "don't try this at home" experiments. His latest book, Steel Pelicans is about two boys who are fascinated with homemade fireworks, which sets up an explosive storyline.

But he'd rather kids cared for the environment - in simple ways.

"I try to get across to them that it's the small things that you do for the environment that matter," he says. Things like littering on the side of the road can hurt animals and plants. "I get them to think personally what they are doing themselves."

Despite writing 15 children's novels that get youngsters to think about looking after the planet, Des refuses to label himself. "I would not call myself an environmentalist. My messages are done through my books."

Messages from Des:

1. Have a compost bin or a worm farm. "Kids are fascinated by composting. They love worms too, especially the boys."

2. New Zealand fauna is special, like the tuatara, which is totally unique. "We have a responsibility to look after these things because they are nowhere else and we have a responsibility to ensure they continue."

3. Power to the people - and the animals. "I try to get across the idea that these animals have just as much right to live on this planet as we have."

4. Des' favourite place in New Zealand is around Lake Waikaremoana. He has just been there to research a book he is writing about a camp that goes wrong and found everything right about the tranquil environment. There were native birds in their 10s, toi toi (not pampas) and remnants of a sunken forest. "You get a real feeling that this is the way it was before man came."

5. Never give up trying to get a book published - it took him 10 years to get his first children's novel in print.

6. Writers need to have a notebook with them at all times to jot down ideas in case they disappear forever.

THE LINKS! http:/ / TaranakiChildrensBookFestival

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