Monday, 23 November 2020

Guest review by Gill Lewis: DIARY OF A YOUNG NATURALIST by Dara McAnulty


"McAnulty has a fierce love of the natural world which shines brightly, and I, for one, am glad of its light."

Gill Lewis is a children's author, vet, wildlife enthusiast and tree house dweller, whose many books about animals and the natural world include Sky Dancer, Moon Bear and Run Wild. Three new books will be published in 2021: Willow Wildthing and the Shooting Star, illustrated by Rebecca Bagley (OUP), is the third book in the Willow Wildthing series about children finding wild space in the city; Swan Song (Barrington Stoke) is a story about teenage depression and the healing power of nature; and A Street Dog Named Pup (David Fickling Books, with a cover by Levi Pinfold) is about the incredible bond between human and dog, and one dog’s journey to find his boy.

See more on Gill's website.

I’ve been mulling for a while about writing this review. It’s hard to say what hasn’t already been said about this astonishing book and its equally astonishing author.

Quite deservedly, Diary of a Young Naturalist is the winner of the Wainwright Prize 2020, winner of Books are my Bag Readers Award for Non-Fiction, shortlisted for the Irish Post Award 2020 and finalist of Baillie Gifford Award 2020.

The book chronicles a year of McAnulty’s life between his 14th and 15th birthdays, a time between childhood and adulthood. We journey with him from the west of Northern Ireland to the east, from one spring to the next. He allows many of us a deeper understanding of autism, smashing stereotypes, as he shares the love and support from his family – mother, father, younger brother and sister. All but his father is autistic. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a profound account of a deep connection and love of the natural world and a desire to communicate with others to ensure protection of this planet we all call home.

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time but needed to find time and space to immerse myself. I’m glad I waited, because McAnulty’s words are ones to savour. He is truly a gifted writer. Poetic and lyrical, he is able to convey the deepest thoughts and emotions through words, yet without resorting to prolific superfluous prose.

McAnulty’s descriptions are powerful. They reawaken our senses to the world around us, a world we all too often shut out, wrapped up in our busy lives. He offers us sensory landscapes from seabird cries in the far distance and the way cloud shadows move across golden fields to then focus in self-absorption in the small details of watching a woodlouse crawl on our fingertip. Literature and folklore are woven throughout minutely observed science. We tread carefully amongst the bluebells for fear of the wrath of faeries and yet also learn about the slow growth of bluebells and their existence since the ice age. Science and art. Head and heart. Our human connection to the natural world.

Many people travel the world to see wildlife, but McAnulty shows us the world in a bucket. He describes a newly made bucket-pond as a cauldron of magic, and yet with growing distance from childhood has the self-awareness to realise that such childish joy is perceived as wrong, bad almost; “My mind skips, because, well, I’m too old for my body to be seen skipping into the house.” And yet, McAnulty’s words fizz and pop and sparkle with raw wonder, and one can’t help feeling that utter joy, a reawakening of senses long buried in childhood, a joy that should be a part of all our lives, however old we are.

Whilst the natural world offers great solace, delight and curiosity, the human world is one that is a hard path for McAnulty to navigate. The joy and wonder at the natural world are matched by the depths of anger and sorrow at its destruction at the hand of man. And through the course of the book we see that anger and passion become a powerful engine to communicate with others. McAnulty talks of the frustration of not being listened to, and being bullied at schools. Then we see the growing empowerment of having his voice heard. There is maturity beyond his years to recognise that some people pay lip service to him or want to use him for their own agendas. He acknowledges that he must be his own agent, and yet feels powerful and powerless at the same time. His sheer determination has traction. Where teachers once shrugged their shoulders at him and pupils laughed, a new school sees engaged teachers and pupils who seek change too.

I came away changed by reading McAnulty’s book – reawakened to childhood wonder, a renewed conscious desire to use all my senses to perceive the world around me, and to hold fast to the truth that we can all make a difference and change hearts and minds.

This is an important book for all to read. Deeply empathetic to all living things including his fellow humans, McAnulty has a fierce love of the natural world which shines brightly, and I, for one, am glad of its light. 

Diary of a Young Naturalist
is published by Little Toller. Cover illustration and internal maps by Barry Falls   

See also: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham, reviewed by Linda Newbery

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