Bugs, bugs, bugs & meeting author Maya Leonard (‘Beetle Boy’)

Lisa Kazianka is a first-year PhD at the University of Cambridge, where she also did her MPhil in Children’s Literature in 2016/17. She feels incredibly lucky to be able to spend three more years within Cambridge’s children’s lit community!

There are many reasons why being a children’s literature PhD at Cambridge is amazing. One of them is the fact that so many great talks and conferences take place at the Faculty and Homerton College.


Term started only four weeks ago and I’ve already had the chance to attend three interesting and incredibly informative events: Dr Zetta Elliot’s talk on inclusive fantasy fiction for young readers, where she also talked about the self-publishing industry; the “Mythology and Education” conference; and, this past weekend, a conference on bugs. Yes. A whole day of talks and discussions about bugs in children’s literature! (Including bug-themed decoration, conference material, cakes and sweets, of course.)


The conference started with Imogen Burt from the Buglife organisation explaining the variety of ‘bugs’ and their importance for our ecological system, as well as how the media creates a ‘fear’ discourse around invertebrates.

The morning panels consisted of talks on attitudes towards insects in children’s literature (Prof. Sarah Annes Brown, Anglia Ruskin University), ants in children’s animated films (Maggie Meimaridi, University of Cambridge) and bees in historical children’s literature (Melanie Keene, University of Cambridge) and as a metaphor in contemporary adolescent fiction (Catherine Oliver, University of Cambridge).

The afternoon sessions were equally as interesting and diverse, with Prof. Maria Nikolajeva talking about insects, cognition and children’s literature’s play with scale and size, and Amy Webster (University of Cambridge) filling us in about bugs as food in literature for the young. Prof. Peter Hunt took the theme of the conference metaphorically and spoke about ‘bugs’ that have been overcome and those that still exist in the system of children’s literature studies.


Beka Kimberley (University of Cambridge) asked the audience, “Would you hug a bug?”, while Anna Harrison (Roehampton University) told us about an interesting project with children in which she introduced them to the Very Hungry Caterpillar through different media, including a storybook app. David Whitley and Zoe Jaques (University of Cambridge) talked about insects in Pixar animation, and Prof. Simon R. Leather (Harper Adams University) spoke to us about how he developed his passion for the study of etymology through his childhood readings, and, in a very entertaining way, pointed out the various issues with illustrations of insects in children’s literature (‘They’re just wrong!’) :-).

Although the theme of the conference was unrelated to my own dissertation, I found the talks not only incredibly entertaining, but inspiring – because they made me think about issues I had never considered before.

I enjoyed all the academic presentations on bugs in children’s literature, but my personal highlight and a perfect way to round off the conference, was the author talk with award-winning children’s writer Maya Leonard (Beetle Boy, Beetle Queen, Battle of the Beetles).

Maya’s books – source: https://twitter.com/mglnrd

Maya talked about her initial fear of bugs – a real fear, she said, that she had suffered from her whole life until she finally overcame it in the process of researching for her book – and told us how, after a fascinating career in a variety of areas in the creative industries, she came to be a children’s writer.

Her relationship with nature, Maya explained, started through her childhood readings – The Secret Garden was one of her favourites. She stressed the power and impact of storytelling, of narrative in all forms (she has a background in performative arts), and told us how doing a Masters’ degree in her late 20s has taught her the value and benefits of research.

Maya spent years and years researching beetles before eventually writing and publishing Beetle Boy (2016) and its sequel Beetle Queen (2017). (The third novel, Battle of the Beetles, will be published in 2018. She has also recently finished a nonfiction book on beetles that will be released soon!) In her talk, Maya emphasised the importance of accuracy and how she developed her goal of reducing fear of insects by writing positive narratives. Fear, she said, is closely related to ignorance. And Maya wants to use her writing as a tool to work against this ignorance and to demonstrate to young readers that nature is fascinating, and that insects aren’t as frightening as other books (and adults!) make them out to be.

Maya’s talk was entertaining, emotional and inspirational. Her passion, commitment and goals as a writer have undoubtedly had as much of an impact on a room full of academics and children’s literature enthusiasts as they have on the many children she talks to on her tours around schools in the UK. Thank you Maya!

Maya signing books

One comment

  1. Hi Lisa! Absolutely love your post. I also attended these events and found them amazing. Just have a small question regarding Prof. Simon Leather–correct me if I am wrong but I thought he is a entomologist instead of an etymologist? I always get these terms wrong as they just look so similar!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s