A fox stands unconcernedly on a Georgian street; stags lock horns in front of Áras an Uachtaráin; swifts flit across city skies. The large-format, full-colour new book for children, Naturama, is a glorious compendium of wildlife in 21st-century Ireland. But it doesn't present nature as something "out there" which you see on the telly. Instead it aims to bring kids, and their parents, right into the action. It encourages its readers to go rooting in hedgerows, paddling in ponds and turning up stones to discover the surprisingly varied life that lies just inches from our eyes.
Naturama starts in spring and works its way through each season. It focuses on habitats which are accessible to everyone – the suburban garden, the city park, the countryside – and it's crammed with the sort of facts that kids adore. Bet you didn't know that slugs have 27,000 teeth and green blood – and that for every one you find above ground (gardeners, look away now) there are 95 under the earth. Or that the Irish for jellyfish, smugairle róin, means "seal snot".
"All the kids I've ever told that to have absolutely broken up with laughter," says Michael Fewer, who wrote the text for Naturama. "That's important for kids. And mentioning poo and things attracts them to the whole idea that nature is not a fuddy-duddy subject."
A retired architect who has produced many walking guides, including volumes on The Wicklow Way, The Western Way and The Beara Way, Fewer doesn't hesitate to recommend activities that are deliciously outside the box, such as probing the frothy bubbles of cuckoo spit on summer grasses (gently) to locate the froghopper inside. Or another, which this reader intends to try as soon as possible: "The best way to look at the night sky in winter is to get together with your friends and family on a night without clouds, wrap up in warm clothes, and lie down on a mattress or on cushions in the darkest part of the garden".
"Oh, yeah, that's great fun," Fewer says. "We have a cottage in the back of beyond in Co Waterford, and we had cheap mattresses on the bunk beds – so what we used to do towards August and September was bring them out, put them in the grass and just lie down. It's the easiest way to look at the sky, because if you try to look up you get a crick in your neck after five minutes."
Fewer is fascinated by the folklore associated with Irish trees, animals and plants. Writing about the primrose, he notes that it used to be made into tea. Has he ever actually sampled primrose tea? “No,” he admits. “In the old days people made tea out of primroses. But there’s a lot of things people did in the old days that I’d have serious doubts about. I have made cowslip wine – but I didn’t put that in the book, because the readers are mostly not over 18.”
It’s all great fun, but is it also, somehow, sad that 21st-century children have to be taught to recognise bluebells and blue tits? “Well, they always have been,” says Fewer. “I have a big collection of English nature books, many of them from the Victorian period and a lot of them directed at children. What can you see in the woods, and all that kind of stuff. So I think it’s a constant.
“There’s more urgency about it now, maybe. My mother showed me a chaffinch on the window for the first time when I was three, and my father took me into the mountains and stuff like that. I may be wrong, but I have a feeling that that isn’t happening as much – and that even when it does, kids are stuck into their iPads and whatever else, a lot of the time. I’ve never written a children’s book before, but I thought: ‘Why not?’ I’m a bit of a child myself.”
This playful, unfettered approach is echoed by Melissa Doran, whose gorgeous illustrations bring Fewer's text to glowing life. "I've been teaching digital illustration workshops for five years, but this is my first big illustrating job," she says. When it came to the raw material for Naturama, however, she was in her element. "I grew up on a farm in Leitrim so my playground was big," she recalls. "I was always obsessed with nature. I used to write a journal – many pages of 'I saw a blackbird today', or 'There's a nest in the hedge' – and I'd draw some pictures as well."
For Naturama, Doran began with four full-page illustrations that offer a portrait of each season. "They took a long time because I wanted to pin down a style for the whole book," she says. "And I wanted to put in a lot of colouring pencil and crayon because I thought if you were, like, eight and that was your main medium, you'd be able to see how this book was made."
Doran used a mixture of digital colouring for the stylised, somewhat two-dimensional backgrounds, and more textured, detailed hand drawings for the animals and birds. “Then I collaged the two different elements, so it almost gives it movement as the eye flicks from one dimension to the other,” she says. “The birds and things look much more real, but there are a lot of gaps between the real and the not-real that you can imagine yourself into.”
Does she have a particular fondness for hedgehogs? She laughs. “Yes. They’re so cute, with their little hands. You can really imagine them going about their business, having some story for themselves.”
Wildlife illustrations, she adds, demand a careful balancing act between scientific accuracy and artistic whimsy. "For the birds and the animals I would have done a lot of research to make sure they have the correct markings and colourings," she says. "But in field guides the bird is in a kind of perfect pose. I think you really need to know how a bird moves –- so what I did was, I looked at a lot of videos as well. There's this really funny one called Videos for Cats, which is 20 minutes of birds coming to eat seeds."
Check it out, folks. Just remember, it's for cats. Where people are concerned, both Doran and Fewer are intent on getting us away from the screen and out of doors as often as possible. Fewer's new book, which will be out this month, is a "human and natural history" of Hellfire Hill in the Dublin Mountains. He'll follow that with a book called Europe's Western Fringe. "If you take a line eight degrees west of Greenwich, you're left with the west coast of Portugal, Galicia and the west of Ireland," he says. "A lot of my books are about journeys – I've been working on this one for three years, and it travels all the way from Cape St Vincent to Donegal, tracing the connections between the landscapes and the people who live there."
Doran, meanwhile, is about to embark on a series of weekend drawing sessions at various locations around the city. "The first place I'm gonna go, on July 16th, is St Enda's Park in Rathfarnham, " she says. "It has a walled garden and a tiny bit of really pretty woodland – and it has a tearoom, which is extremely important for a tea-and-cake break." She's also organising, along with her fellow artist Aisling Griffin, a series of Saturday workshops for adults at The Chocolate Factory. "I always see really cool workshops and I think, 'That looks really fun' and then it says, 'Suitable for eight to 12-year-olds'. Why should they get all the best summer camps?" Or, for that matter, nature books.
Naturama is published by Gill at €22.99. Hellfire Hill: A Human and Natural History will be out from South Dublin Libraries in July. Details of Melissa Doran's art classes can be had from her website, goradiate.ie