Helen Scales is the author of the new children's picture books The Great Barrier Reef and What A Shell Can Tell: Where They Live, What They Eat, How They Move, and More. Her other books include The Brilliant Abyss. She teaches at Cambridge University, and she lives in Cambridge, England, and in France.
Q: What inspired you to write this new picture book about the
Great Barrier Reef?
A: I’ve been captivated by coral reefs for decades and I’ve been lucky enough to visit and study them in many parts of the world, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
These are extraordinary ecosystems. They show off their tremendous diversity and colour, right before your eyes. I can’t think of any other parts of the living world where you can immerse yourself in such a kaleidoscopic scene.
But of course, all is not well in the tropical paradise of
coral reefs and these ecosystems are terribly threatened by the climate crisis
along with many other impacts from humanity. The Great Barrier Reef is one of
the most iconic, threatened ecosystems on the planet.
So, writing this book was really a two-fold thing for me. On the one hand, I want to show readers this beautiful ecosystem and plunge them into the intricacies of corals and all the other animals that live there, as well as showing how the reef has been important for people for thousands of years.
And then, I also want readers to know that this special
place is also in big trouble, and we need to act now to do whatever we can to
Q: You describe the Great Barrier Reef as “a place as fragile as it is magnificent.” What do you see looking ahead for the reef and its inhabitants?
A: I try to be optimistic about the future of the Great Barrier Reef, and other coral reefs around the world, but it can be hard. With multiple threats bearing down, I easily get overwhelmed at the scale of what needs to be done if we are going to help save these amazing places.
Where I seek the greatest hope is from the incredible people around the world who are fighting for coral reefs, and other parts of the ocean.
There are many brilliant people determined not to let them go, whether they're campaigning to slash greenhouse gas emissions, fishing communities volunteering to set up marine reserves in their local waters, scientists working on making climate-resilient corals, or anyone who’s prepared to stand up and say that we have to change the way things are done.
I see no silver bullet for saving coral reefs, and the whole
of the ocean, from human harm. We need a diverse mix of people all helping in
different ways — that’s where I think there really is room for hope.
Q: You also have another new picture book, What a Shell Can Tell. How do you see the two books intersecting, and what do you hope kids take away from them?
A: All of my books intersect with each other, no matter what age readers they’re for, because they all aim to bring people closer to the ocean and hopefully to persuade them to be interested in what’s there and to care.
As for What a Shell Can Tell, this is for slightly younger readers, and my particular hope for this one is to encourage people to go out and explore nature themselves, whether that’s in their back gardens or a local park, or for a day at the beach.
Shell spotting is one of the easiest and most accessible
ways of interacting with ocean life (even land snails — after all, they are the
descendants of sea snails!). I want readers to have fun looking for different
shells, and hopefully to know some more about the stories those shells can
tell, about the animals that made them, where they lived and so on.
Q: What do you think the illustrations by Lisk Feng and Sonia Pulido, respectively, add to the books?
A: What I love about the artworks for these books is how they so vividly invite readers into the ocean realm and show them what’s there, while also leaving space for readers to use their imaginations.
There’s a tremendous power in combining words and images. I have so much I want to say to readers about ocean life, and how these incredible ecosystems work, and the illustrations help me do that.
But they also do more than I can ever do with words —
there’s no way I can capture that expression on a sea otter’s face who’s just
caught a delicious abalone shell, or conjure the sense of being in a colourful
snowstorm of spawning corals. Most of all, though, Lisk and Sonia have made two
incredibly beautiful books, which I will treasure and I hope lots of others
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have several more book projects at various stages of development. Most of them I can’t tell you about just yet but one I can, which comes out next year, is all about restoration and recovery in nature.
At the moment we’re calling it Return of the Wild, although
that may still change (I’m terrible at deciding on titles). It’s being
illustrated right now by a two-woman team of fabulous artists, Good Wives and
Warriors, who I am so thrilled to be working with — a real dream!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My latest adult title, The Brilliant Abyss, is just coming out in paperback in the US (and in the UK a little later in 2022).
Also if anyone in the UK would like to order copies of any of my books, then do please consider ordering from my page at Bookstore. I get a small commission fee on all sales, which I’m donating to the ocean conservation charity Sea Changers, who support all sorts of scientific and conservation projects around the UK seas.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Helen Scales.