Bestselling children’s book author and mama-of-two, M.G. Leonard, tells us what it takes to make sure your kids grow up imaginative and fearless, too…
Just a few years ago, Brighton-based children’s author Maya Gabrielle (pen name M. G. Leonard) was terrified of insects. But now she loves them. In fact, she loves them so much she even looks after two of her own Rainbow Stag Beetles called Motty and Hector. And she wrote a series of bestselling books about the insects. Her first one, Beetle Boy, came out in 2016 and quickly won numerous awards and nominations. Then two more novels – as part of a trilogy – came soon after, to much acclaim. Before all that, however, she also worked in the music industry and theatre. Basically, Maya is a pretty creative lady. Here, we chat with her about her work, her family, and how we can make sure our kids grow up creative, too…
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a non-fiction book called The Beetle Collector’s Handbook coming out [in September 2018] and I’d like to produce a small book of poems for children about beetles too. I’m currently writing a contemporary fairy story about climate change called December’s Children.
Where do you find your inspiration for your new projects?
It’s a collision of thoughts, observations and something that is troubling me. I want to bring into the world books that have the capacity to create the desire for societal change in the young. I felt the way we portray invertebrates in our cultures belies the environmental importance and good the creatures do, so I wrote the Beetle Boy books. I also believe that climate change is an important topic that’s difficult for us to talk about with our children, so I want to write a story that enables that.
Why did you decide to write about insects when you were afraid of them?
When I was afraid of insects, I never took the time to look at them in detail or learn about them. I was too busy running away. When I began studying them, I was astonished by their beauty and infinite variety. You could never be bored spending time with beetles, and I haven’t been. I’ve found beetles to be one of the most inspiring subjects, which is how I’ve managed to produce four books about them.
Is it important to face your fears?
It is liberating to overcome a fear, and I’m immensely proud of myself now when I go into schools and help children to handle my beetles. It’s something I never dreamed I could do. It has made me feel that, perhaps, I’m capable of doing other things. It has made me bold.
Why do you think fostering creativity in children is so important today?
Creativity is the way humans work through problems and express complex emotions. Cultural product is an exploration of what it is to be human. For humanity to progress and survive, creativity is essential. Combine creativity with any one of the STEM subjects and you get real innovation. It would be ludicrous not to foster creativity in our children. It is of vital importance that we do so, but, most of all, children love to create. It brings them great joy, builds their confidence and develops their ability to express themselves and therefore empathise with others.
What tips do you have for parents looking to encourage their kids to read for pleasure?
My oldest son was what they call a “reluctant reader” and we did a number of things that helped with his reading. Firstly, the books I encouraged him to read on his own were highly illustrated – either graphic novels or the Tom Gates books. The pictures helped him with the words. Secondly, we would read a chapter book together every night before bed, taking it in turns to read aloud. I had a shelf in his bedroom where we’d put all the books he’d completed so he could see the shelf fill up and his confidence in reading grew.
How do you encourage your own sons to be creative?
I don’t think you need to do much to encourage creativity in children. You just need to give them the space, time, tools and attention. In our dining room we have a cupboard of paints and paper. My youngest will often go to it and pull out his pens and start drawing. We visit a bookshop or the library every weekend. There is a constant flow of reading material through our house and if the boys don’t enjoy a book, I don’t make them finish it.
When I’m writing, my boys will often come and work beside me on homework (the oldest) or making their own books (the youngest), which can make it hard to write, but it is delightful. And my husband is musical, too, so we try and make noise together when possible. None of it is scheduled or enforced. Creativity just happens, because children naturally want to do it.