Also written by Michael Botur
Michael Botur / 15 Dec 2021
Michael Botur / 30 Dec 2020
Michael Botur / 12 Feb 2020
Make your book make your family proud
by Michael Botur
In November 2021, the illustrated children’s book ‘My Animal Family’ launched at the toystore Craniums in little old Whangarei, Enzed.
Because it’s a rhyming illustrated book teaching kids their place in the animal kingdom, author Michael Botur (writing this) brought in comic artists to guide the youngsters in drawing a poster of their favourite animal, or – failing that – any old animal (one kid drew a wobbly turtle-silhouette which looked like something out of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas). 'My Animal Family' was read to the roomful of people and the rhymes helped introduce scientific facts about humans’ place in the natural world and how all creatures great and small deserve the same respect as human beings. Indeed, the book unabashedly celebrates over fifty lifeforms from ape to zyzzyva. Even champagne yeast and rabies are in there.
Encouraging intelligent parents to cuddle up with their kids and have meaningful discussions about our position on the planet Earth is one purpose of the book. Another is simply making science fun, through delightful rhyme and illustrations which playfully mock the author and his kids, including ‘porcine wildman’ Abe, ‘feral mammal’ Violet and author Botur himself, described as ‘a KFC fatty who hibernates with beer in his bear of a tummy.’
Unconventional, sure. Confrontational, you betcha. The book is, by turns, educational, fun-to-recite, self-deprecating and rhythmic. Across just 20 pages, 'My Animal Family' touches upon opposable thumbs, mammary glands, the phylogenetic tree and especially binomial nomenclature – that is, getting kids to understand that every living thing has a genus name and a species name, whether Homo sapiens or primordial sludge.
Eccentric and unapologetically original, the book was rejected by several New Zealand publishers. The Whangarei Creative Communities Scheme refused to fund the book because it was “educational in nature”; a publisher who sells a series of books about a boy’s bum said 'My Animal Family' was not publishable partly because a full stop was missing from the end of some sentences. Meanwhile, one of NZ’s top children’s book authors explained quietly that NZ children’s book publishing is “A weird and unfathomable market” and revealed he hadn’t sold a picture book in nine years.
“These are tough times with way too many people with stories to tell for our rather small market, exacerbated by current publishing trends which are market-driven rather than literature-driven,” the author told me, adding “It's tough for established writers. Even tougher for newcomers.”
It became obvious My Animal Family wouldn’t be the next Goodnight Moon - so the question became ‘What is the point of bringing this book to completion?’
After getting past lockdown bans on book launches, contributing half the illustrations, paying for printing and promo and posters, the answer to the question of the book’s purpose arrived on Tuesday 14 December. It came between morning tea and lunchtime when I brought the book into the classroom of my eight-year-old daughter Violet.
I attempted to read the book to the bairns, but instead Violet ripped it out of my hands, read it herself, and even fielded questions from the awed audience. Here was a kid whose age could be measured in months, teaching her peers.
In Ryan Holiday’s Perennial Bestsellers, the pop philosopher argues the best reason to publish a book is if it doesn’t already exist and you wish someone would write it and “if it feels like you’ll explode if you don’t get it all down.”
In other words – if the concept is calling, you should make it reality.
To me, it’s essential, as a creative writer, to leave a legacy on earth whereby you’ve 1) Fulfilled your artistic aspirations, 2) Made your kids proud, 3) Set a strong standard for them to succeed and 4) Delivered a righteous message to readers – in this case, a message of respect for nature.
That’s a way better reason to write a book than snickering about butt-cracks.
My Animal Family almost ended up in the ‘too hard’ basket many times. There seemed no point painting a Western lowland gorilla if its scientific name (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) couldn’t fit in page 13’s rhyme scheme. There seemed no point persevering with the book when my office got burgled, when we moved house and my illustrations got buried in banana boxes, when there was no money in it, when I got divorced from the kids’ mother (who was a star of many pages of the book), when I ran out of money to pay the illustrator, and a million other excuses.
Still, through demoralising winters and days when I was desperate to be outdoors, I got the thing polished, perfected, printed and promoted.
As Ryan Holiday reminds us, quoting Raymond Chandler, “Don’t ever write anything you don’t like yourself and if you do like it, don’t take anyone’s advice about changing it. They just don’t know.”
There’s no longer any question of whether a publisher should get behind My Animal Family. It’s done, and kids love it.
Come to the next book launch. See the author and his kids proudly preaching the book, pausing on every page for fascinating discussions about cavies, cat cancer and cockroach milk. Grab some pens and paper. Draw a poster of your favourite kea, kitten or carnotaurus and consider this question - What artwork are you leaving behind for your family? A book about butts, or something meaningful?