Talking bees, butterflies and how to be a writer with Tony De Saulles

The book jacket for Bee Boy by Tony De Saulles

We caught up with Tony De Saulles, the illustrator behind the Horrible Science books, to find out more about his new series Bee Boy (first published February 2018), his top tips for budding writers and illustrators, and what he's most looking forward to at the Quarry Bank Children's Book Festival later this year.

Tell us about your new series, Bee Boy:
Bee Boy is a fiction trilogy aimed at children aged 7+. The stories are woven around the real life of honeybees and take an enchanting peek into the world of these fascinating insects.
Book one, 'Bee Boy: Clash of the Killer Queens', is the story of a boy called Melvin Meadly who keeps a hive of bees on the roof of a block of flats where he lives with his Mum. Mel doesn’t have many friends. He tries to spread the message that bees are important to help keep planet Earth healthy but the kids at school just laugh – especially when he tries to read his bee project at morning assembly. It all goes horribly wrong. Then one day, Mel discovers that he does have some friends after all. In fact, he has thousands of them. It happens when he’s blowing smoke over his bees to calm them before he opens the hive. The smoke billows out and wraps around Mel, shrinking him down into the hive where he becomes half bee, half boy – Bee Boy!

And that’s when the adventures start as Bee Boy battles to protect his bees from killer wasps, murderous moths and nasty neighbours. A dramatic struggle unfolds with a final sting in the tale when the school bully, under attack from a swarm of bees, begs Bee Boy for help.

Melvin has further adventures in 'Bee Boy: Attack of the Zombees', published August 2018 and 'Bee Boy: Curse of the Vampire Mites', coming in 2019

Why did you choose to set your book in the world of bees?
I’ve always been interested in insects. I’m ashamed to say that when I was young I caught and killed butterflies. I pinned them out in neat displays and showed them to my biology teacher. I also set beetle-traps and cast my captives in resin. These days, I’m older and wiser and wouldn’t harm a fly but that’s how my interest in bugs started.

So when I set out to write a children’s fiction series my imagination turned to insects and the sort of adventures a child the size of a bug might have. If he or she could fly – even better. My mum was a bee-keeper, so I know a little bit about bees and with the current interest in bees due to the dangers they face from insecticides and disappearing wildflower meadows, bees seemed topical and provided a story with a message. They are such amazing insects with incredibly complex lives. As soon as the name ‘Bee Boy’ entered my head, I simply had to start writing.

" My mum was a bee-keeper, so I know a little bit about bees and with the current interest in bees due to the dangers they face from insecticides and disappearing wildflower meadows, bees seemed topical and provided a story with a message. "
Busy bees at work in a hive
Bees in the hive
Busy bees at work in a hive

Do you have any favourite bee facts?
There are SO many!

I think it’s fascinating that it’s the female honeybees that do all the work. There might be as many as 50,000 bees in a hive and nearly all of them are female workers. And ruling over them all is a single queen bee. She spends her life laying eggs to keep the hive alive. A worker bee only lives for six weeks so a constant supply of new bees is needed all through the summer.

Hives are like two factories in one – a bee factory and a honey factory.

Male bees are called drones. While the female workers clean, feed, build and guard, the drones do nothing but wait for their chance to mate with a virgin queen. As soon as a drone mates, he dies. And any drones that are still alive at the end of the summer are thrown out of the hive by the workers. Why waste valuable winter food on old drones when new ones can be grown in the spring?

What are you most excited about the Quarry Bank Children’s Book Festival in June?
I so enjoyed my visit to Knole last year so it will be wonderful to visit another National Trust property. I have a relative on my wife’s side of the family who worked in a cotton mill in the early 1900s. She was very old when I met her many years ago so it will be fascinating to get an insight into the sort of work she might have done.

Do you have a favourite National Trust place?
The National Trust cares for many miles of the Pembrokeshire coast and that is one of my favourite areas to explore. The walk from Porthgain to Abereiddi is one that I’ve done many times. Most people visit Abereiddi to see the Blue Lagoon but I go fossil hunting in the quarry. Buried in the slate I’ve found fossils of graptolites — a primitive animal that lived in the sea 400 million years ago!

The Blue Lagoon in Abereiddi, Pembrokeshire
The Blue Lagoon in Abereiddi, Pembrokeshire
The Blue Lagoon in Abereiddi, Pembrokeshire

What are your top tips for budding illustrators and writers?
Everybody can draw and write if they want to. It's just a matter of practise. Practise, practise, PRACTISE! And it’s so much easier to work hard at something you enjoy so find something that you really, really want to do and go for it.

A good way to start illustrating is to copy the work of other illustrators. You’ll find that even though you’re copying, your own style will start to develop. Look closely at how different illustrators draw hands and faces and figures and experiment with your own drawings. It’s a fact that the more you do the better you’ll get and, like I say, if you enjoy the process you are more likely to stick with it.

As for writing, they say we should write about what we know and I guess that’s true to a certain extent, but researching for a story is also great fun. Inventing interesting characters is important. What do they look like? Are they funny or serious, shy or bold? Even though they’re your invention, you need to get to know them and once you do you’ll find they take on a life of their own. When developing stories, think of difficult challenges and frightening/funny situations for your character to overcome. And if all this sounds terribly difficult, read lots of children’s books to see how other writers tackle these problems. In fact, whether you want to be a writer or an illustrator or both, many of the clues that will help you succeed are sitting on your bookshelf right now!

You can hear more from Tony De Saulles and lots of other illustrators at the Children's Book Festival, taking place at Quarry Bank on 23 and 24 June.