Written and illustrated by Mini Grey
For ages 5+
Huge welcome to everyone reading this who found me today via the Puffin Books Blog Tour! Lovely to see you! Enjoy a fun Q&A with award-winning creator, Mini Grey about her new non-fiction picture book for kids. Find out about Grey's inspiration, fact-finding research, and her passions for kids literacy.
'The Greatest Show on Earth' is a lively dive into 4.6 billion years of life our planet courtesy of a cast of crawly critters with charm and humour. Grey has squished an enormous amount of data (not bugs) and visuals depicting the birth of our planet, the first signs of life, the dinosaurs, humans and so much more in between into this colour-bursting gift-quality book!
Q&A with Mini Grey
Nicci: How overwhelmed were you at first - contemplating creating a picture book covering a whopping 4.6 billion years of Earth history learning within one picture book digestible and engaging for 5-7 yr olds?
Mini: Yep, that sounds daunting! I think I started just brainstorming about 6 ‘scenes’ I’d like to make, and how my insect troupe could puppeteer them – and collecting scribbly drawings in my sketchbook.
Nicci: How long did it take you to create this book?
Mini: In a way it took ten years! The idea first started happening ten years ago, hanging out at the Oxford Museum of Natural History with my son Herbie (then 5). We wondered how old the Earth actually was, and then when we found out we went home and made a 4.6 billion year long tape measure out of paper. The book started off as a little zigzag book with a tape measure of time on the back – but in 2019 I made a toy theatre for an exhibition at Pollocks Toy Museum, and realised maybe a theatre stage format could be the answer to how this book was going to tell its story.
Nicci: How did you research all the information in the book? Tell us a bit about your research process.
Mini: It started while I was working on other picture books. When I’m making pictures, I always want something to listen to. So I listened to all the TED talks and online lectures and radio programs I could find about prehistoric life. (Radio 4’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg has a fantastic Prehistoric archive.) So I was trying to osmotically absorb as much about the past as possible. But then when I was building each page for real I had to properly research the facts. I had about 10 books that I used for my ‘framework’ of what story to tell, plus a lot of Wikipedia and also sometimes asking scientists.
Nicci: What was the most surprising thing you found out?
Well, the story of life on Earth is just one surprising thing after another. Some of the sizes that underwater creatures have grown to in the past have been staggering. For example Cameroceras was a straight-shelled nautiloid predator (relative of octopuses) that lived about 450 million years ago and could reach 10 metres long, like a colossal predatory ice-cream cone with grabbing tentacles.
Nicci: What was your favourite era to write about and to illustrate?
Mini: The Greatest Show is a bit of a whistle-stop tour, and I’d love to spend a bit more time and space to show more of the extraordinary animals that were around. I wish I’d had more space for the animals of the Permian, like the sail-finned Dimetrodon and sabre-toothed Gorgonopsids, and the crazy animals of the Triassic too, when weird crocs ruled. But maybe my favourite era to illustrate was the Carboniferous Age when plants boosted the oxygen levels in the atmosphere with and insects grew really big (an opportunity to show insects manipulating puppet insects!)
Nicci: How tricky was it to blend storytelling with so many complicated facts and timeline information? (Love the tape measure of time!)
Mini: Thank you! My challenge was to distil the story of each page down to one key scene in the Main Stage, exploring another theme in the ‘wings’ and showing just one or two climate events in the Tape Measure – luckily at each 50 million year spread there seemed to be a new evolutionary innovation – like having two arms and legs (being a tetrapod) or having an egg that could be on land without drying out (being a reptile.)
Nicci: There are plenty of fictional elements carefully inter-spliced re-reading the book, was that important for you to keep perhaps a human or non-visual narrator out of the picture?
Mini: I guess I couldn’t pretend to ever know authoritatively the story of life on Earth, so having a probably fairly unreliable cockroach narrator was useful!
Nicci: Why choose insects as your acting troupe? Any of them named after real life people?
Mini: I think picture books are a great way to offer a non-human viewpoint, and insects are our companions on Earth but we don’t often empathise with them. Plus they are small, which offers up puppetry possibilities on a shoebox stage! (They’re not named after real people, but some of them are named after some of the insects I drew for an Inktober challenge called ‘Meet The Relatives’.
Nicci: Was it fun to include your love of theatre in the story?
Mini: Making theatre is a sort of magic, I think possibly because it starts as a game of ‘let’s pretend’. It’s about playing, and your imagination often supplies the extra magic to create a believable theatrical world. A picture book is very like a performance. Also I love the layered-ness of the cut-out scenery in toy theatres!
Nicci: What’s a typical day for you in your creative process?
Mini: It all depends on what stage the book is at…When making the Greatest Show pictures, each spread was a bit like making an individual theatre scene – frantically drawing all the actors and scenery and signs and curtains and then a lot of time putting everything into layers in Photoshop
Nicci: Your illustrations are highly detailed and engaging. Where did you study and hone your skill?
Mini: I have total imposter syndrome about making illustrations as I didn’t do an illustration, art or printmaking degree. I want to go back to university and do one!
Nicci: What are your big passions for kids literacy?
Mini: I think it’s fantastic for children of all ages to read picture books and talk about the pictures – especially at school. There’s no ‘one right answer’ when talking about what’s happening in picture-book pictures. And I think at home: for parents to know that reading to their child just for fun – for entertainment - is a brilliant thing to do.
Nicci: If you could change one thing about the curriculum for primary school education what would it be?
Mini: Maybe for children to have more time for making things. If I were back at school I’d want a stand-up desk/table and not to sit down all day.
Nicci: Favourite books when you were young? Any you think may have influenced or inspired you?
Mini: Finn Family Moomintroll. One Fish Two Fish by Dr Seuss. All the Narnia books. Everything by E Nesbit. The illustrations of Edmund Dulac, Heath Robinson, Arthur Rackham and Ronald Searle.
Nicci: What are you working on at the moment?
Mini: Stories featuring animals! But there’s still so much more to find out about the story of life on Earth…
Thanks for the super interview, Mini!
FREE make & do activity
Make your own cut out theatre and troupe and see what happens!
About the creator
Mini Grey (author & illustrator)
Mini Grey was given her name after being born in a Mini in a car park in Newport, Wales. She studied for an MA in Sequential Illustration at Brighton under the tutelage of John Vernon Lord. Mini also worked as a primary school teacher in Oxford, where she now lives. Her books include Egg Drop, The Pea and the Princess (shortlisted for the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal), Biscuit Bear (winner of the Nestlé Children's Book Prize Gold Award), Traction Man is Here (winner of the Boston Horn Book Award and shortlisted for the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal), The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon (winner of the Nestlé Children's Book Prize Bronze Award and winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal), and Traction Man meets Turbodog.
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Publication date: 28 April 2022
*Puffin Books provided me with a review copy of 'The Greatest Show on Earth'.
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