Egg head

10th March 2000 at 00:00
TES JUNIOR INFORMATION BOOK AWARD. THE EMPEROR'S EGG. By Martin Jenkins, Illustrated by Jane Chapman. Walker Books pound;9.99

When I meet the prize-winning author of The Emperor's Egg, he is short of sleep after working all night to complete background papers for a world convention in Nairobi on trade and endangered species. Abandoning his 15th-floor Soho flat (excellent views of Westminster and the London Eye) for a favourite local coffee shop, this conservation biologist-cum-children's writer - a slight, puckish man with a humorous expression - revives.

In his scientific work, Martin Jenkins explains, writing about bio-diversity and the competing claims of local communities and endangered animals, he tries as best he can to remain neutral, to "inject the reason" into international discussions and treaties. In his children's books - a sideline, although The Emperor's Egg is his sixth non-fiction book for Walker - he leaves conservation arguments firmly behind, and hopes that children will be entranced by the natural world.

"I hate preaching," he says. "I haven't written a book about conservation because I don't like proselytising. I'd rather encourage an interest in the world - perhaps a slightly mischievous interest in the world."

His books celebrate some of the more outlandish creatures and habits of the natural world (such as Chameleons are Cool, and Fly Traps! Plants That Bite Back, shortlisted for the TES award in 1997). Although not a father, he quite rightly reckons that anything bizarre and strange that appeals to him is likely to appeal to children too.

The Emperor's Egg concerns the male Emperor penguins of Antarctica, whose job it is to keep the female's egg warm, resting on their feet, under their tummies for two dark months before it hatches.

The hybrid form of non-fiction picture book works perfectly here, with all the narrative drive of a story, but strong on fact. And the humour is delightful: while children will relish the moment when the mother penguin finally returns and sicks up food into the chick's mouth, their parents cannot fail to be amused by the anthropomorphism of father penguins huddling together in the freezing wind, protecting their precious eggs.

Together with old friends of mine, who are parents, I do get a bit weary of all those children's books about self-sacrificing mother animals and their offspring," says Martin Jenkins. "I thought, 'Damn it, let's do something a little bit different'.

When I started to explain to my five-year-old daughter about the father penguins, she cut me short with "Oh yes, it's the wrong way round," and muttered about male seahorses. But when we reached the oint in the book where the father penguin "makes something rather like milk" from a pouch in his throat, her conventional instincts became too much for her: "But what's the mummy doing?" she burst out. Fortunately, the mother penguin, who has been having a fine old time in the sea, reappears on the following page, and the father makes off "for a well-earned meal of his own."

Jenkins read natural sciences and zoology at Cambridge, before joining the World Conservation Monitoring Centre for 10 years. He went freelance in 1990 and continued to research contentious environmental issues - whales and sea-turtles, the ivory trade, orchid theft in Germany and the chameleon trade in Madagascar - for the World Wide Fund for Nature and United Nations.

At about this time, he was approached by an editor at Walker, a friend of a friend, who needed some advice on conservation issues for Judy Allen's Animals at Risk fiction series. He began to advise, too, on Walker's non-fiction Read and Wonder books and, when the editor asked if he'd like to have a go himself, Jenkins produced the very lively Fly Traps! Plants That Bite Back.

"Everyone thinks plants are boring, but these are really whacky," he says. "I wanted to get away from all that cuddly animals stuff." Later books include one on mini-beasts, Wings, Stings and Wriggly Things, a book in the Informania series on the history of vampires, and, in 1999, an extremely sophisticated pop-up called The Art of Science. His texts are always clear, imaginative and quirky, making information fun for children.

"I do find it easy to write," he admits. "The books are so short, it's a bit like writing a poem: it means I can hold most of it in my head at once, and I often muse about a book for a while before I write anything."

Jane Chapman's bold, vibrant illustrations also play a big part in making The Emperor's Egg a winner: penguins who are engaging and characterful without being in the least cute, and wonderfully coloured snowscapes, which move through blue and blue-green to dark purple and pink.

"The inspiration came from watching videos of penguins and noticing the reflections from the sky," she says. "Colour is what I most enjoy about my work: no way was I going to do white snow."

Her double-page picture of the father penguins huddled together in a flurry of snow and wind is particularly atmospheric. "That was very easy," she says, modestly. "I used to do a whole line of sheep-in-the-mist pictures and the technique is the same: you paint the object, quite badly, then you wham lots of paint on top and scrape the paint over the top with bits of rag." Easy peasy - when you know how.

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