World Book Day interview with children's author John Miles

Feb 2021

Thursday 4 March 2021 is World Book Day. Many a book has been written about, in or inspired by our National Parks. From the big names of William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter to children's author John Miles, who we interviewed for this timely blog about his series of books which connect young readers with National Parks, nature and wildlife.

Tell us a bit about your background and how you arrived at writing books for young audiences.... 

I have always worked outdoors, from Forestry Commission - often in the National Parks - to working for the RSPB. I went self employed in 1991, which increased my travelling around the world along with a longer stay in Egypt where I fell in love with ‘ancient birds’. I have written several books using that theme from ‘Pharaohs Birds’ to Hadrian’s Wildlife as well as helping folk know where to find birds in a series called ‘Best Birdwatching Sites’ covering several of the National Parks. 

It was while researching one of these books I had my moment which triggered the children’s theme watching Kittiwakes by the Hadrian’s Wall Path in the centre of Newcastle sliding down ‘The Sage’ at Gateshead or so I thought. I knew few people were writing ‘real’ wildlife books and was fortunate to start with a publisher and when he died I kept going. Now I have 14 children’s books from Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons to Dung Beetles. 

What National Parks feature in your books? 

My initial theme was very urban showing children what could be found all around them. This changed with ‘Gowk the Cuckoo’ based and sponsored by The Broads. As a migrant bird to Britain you follow the Cuckoo back to Africa. The Broads National Park even sponsored a Cuckoo with a satellite tag on calling it ‘Gowk’ but sadly the bird died in Spain. The Lake District National Park was used in ‘Liver the Cormorant’. Liver is born on Windermere where Cormorants nest on an island but when winter comes she flies to Liverpool Bay which holds the largest concentration of Cormorants in the UK and where the symbol of the city is the ‘Liver bird’ which is a Cormorant holding a twig for its nest. 

Where does your inspiration come from? 

I had a book as a child called ‘Happy Jacky at the Zoo’ [I still have it!]. I love that book as Happy, the Jackass Penguin went around the Zoo checking on all the residents which took me to see species which I could only dream of. The art work was ‘real’ not like many children’s books so what you saw, was how it was in the wild. 

You focus a lot on birdlife - is that deliberate? 

The first 8 books were all birds but since then I have an urban Fox, a Dung Beetle and a Polecat just waiting for the artist to finish his work. Of course I have a wide knowledge of wildlife and birds stand out for so many. 

What response do you get to your books? 

The responses are worth more than the sales [but I still need to sell more!]. I was the main sponsor at the 2019 Bird Fair for the children’s section where I saw children from all over Britain. One Grandmother paid to come back into the fair just to tell me her grandson loved the books she had bought the day before. Amazing! 

How do you think life has changed for children over the years? 

I think everyone knows that the computer games and phones have distorted the mines of many children. You need to get them out side again and realising there is another world out there to explore. 

Why is it important to connect children with nature? 

Health is now one of the growing concerns for young people. It has been shown that the great outdoors can give back so much and knowledge of what nature really is can stimulate the mind. 

How do your books do that? 

They are about real nature where food chains exist not make believe stories. They are not just about the species as history and geography especially migration can play a key role in how the species reacts to the modern world. ‘Joseph Starling’ has to move from Russia due to the arctic winters hitting Moscow with lack of food pushing him across the North Sea to Britain. The Starling was once praised in Russia for its benefits it did feeding on grassland. So much so a nest box scheme was encouraged to increase the population. There is nothing like that today! 

How important is the educational element? 

It is certainly an education well away from the normal and like me as a youngster with my book, I want to inspire the child to ‘kick start’ their love of wildlife, art and science. 

Any more stories featuring National Parks in the pipeline? 

Living in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which is close to both the Northumbrian National Park and the Lake District National Park, I have several ideas where to write about next. Many of my characters have real problems in real life like the chemicals that are destroying the Dung Beetles. Even in the National Parks there are still species that need reintroducing like the Pine Marten which in turn can control the non native Grey Squirrel. So many species so many potential books!  

To find out more about John's books, visit his website: www.chickbooks.co.uk