Bringing nature into a library

Published on: 21 April 2024

Here's how the RENEW X BookTrust Biodiversity Storytelling Summit inspired an author-illustrator and Sandwell Libraries to engage children with nature.

Uncle Brow Brows is on a mission. He's here in Sandwell's Stone Cross Library to create a storybook featuring the biodiversity of West Bromwich. With the help of about 20 children. In about two hours.

Author-illustrator Uncle Brow Brows regularly teams up with Sandwell Libraries to host engaging events for children in his local area. As well as being part of BookTrust Represents – a supportive community for children's creators of colour – he also attended the first RENEW x BookTrust Storytelling Biodiversity Summit in 2023, a partnership between BookTrust and RENEW.

The summit was all about bringing scientists, authors, illustrators and publishers together with a shared aim - to explore the representation of biodiversity in children's literature, and to use the magic of reading to improve children's access to the natural world.

Uncle Brow Brows laughing with a  child showing him a picture

"There were loads of great talented authors and scientists," says Uncle Brow Brows. "We worked in different teams and created stories about local biodiversity projects. Nicola from Sandwell Libraries and I were already planning this event. After the summit, I asked whether we would be able to have the focus as biodiversity."

Uncle Brow Brows kicks things off by sharing pictures and facts about the local wildlife children might find in their neighbourhood: a stinkbug, a hedgehog, a coot. He teaches them how to draw these creatures, starting by using shapes. Then, he challenges them to create a character for a story based on one of these creatures from the local neighbourhood. One of these will become the hero of the story the group creates together.

"Today, I want to help children find inspiration from the nature around them," he says. "It's not just going to happen just through books. It's also going to require us to get into the public and really engage with them."

Inspiring children in Sandwell to keep reading and telling stories

Uncle Brow Brows writing a story with children at his event

"We have 20 libraries in Sandwell, each with its own personality," says Nicola Morris, Children's Library Team Coordinator at Sandwell Libraries.

"West Bromwich has the highest number of young families out of all the towns in Sandwell. That's one of the reasons why we've chosen Stone Cross Library for this event today. We want to be a welcoming space to everybody to come in and enjoy. And we want to get across that message of the importance of reading regularly in the home."

She adds: "You can hear the buzz behind me. I can hear children asking questions. They enjoy being able to contribute. By creating a book and characters with the children, it makes it about them."

Children drawing and writing at the event

For two solid hours, children gather around Uncle Brow Brows and scribble on pieces of flip chart paper, raising their hands high in the air when they have an idea for what happens next to the story's main character – a hedgehog named Gerald.

9-year-old Anayah would love to be an author when she grows up – and already has an idea for her first novel. "This is the first time I've met an author or illustrator," she says. "If I could rate this out of ten, I'd probably rate it ten million because it was that good. I really loved my experience here."

What does it mean to Uncle Brow Brows to hear this? "Seeing a face that's similar to ours, a voice that's similar to ours, telling stories that we want to tell, is everything to a young person," he reflects.

"For myself, growing up, there weren't many authors or storytellers you could really latch onto. If I can be an inspiration to them that would be amazing. That would be everything."

What happens next?

Uncle Brow Brows and a smiling child talking at the event

An ambition of the RENEW X BookTrust Biodiversity Storytelling Summit is to fill a gap in children's books about biodiversity renewal. In just one afternoon, Uncle Brow Brows and the children have already come up with their own finished story – Home for a Hedgehog.

"I'm so proud of the children because they've worked so hard with me," Uncle Brow Brows says. "I'll now take this and turn it into a digital online flipbook online – and maybe a printed copy."

A few weeks later – and Uncle Brow Brows has already mocked up a storyboard, front cover and several pages of Home for a Hedgehog, with some exciting plans for taking this book forward. He and Sandwell Libraries want to leave a legacy of the creativity the children showed, something they will be able to enjoy and look back on to remember their experience – and that celebrates the biodiversity of where they live.

Two children showing off their drawings at Uncle Brow Brows' event

"I can genuinely say this is their work, their input, their ideas," says Uncle Brow Brows. "Some of the stories the children were coming up with were incredible. I was speechless at times. They're so young. Can you imagine what they're going to be able to do in a few years?"

He adds: "Hopefully they left wanting to go and find some unique creatures they've never found before. It's all about raising awareness that our local biodiversity is something we need to look after."

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