Sunday, January 24, 2016

An Eco-Parable for Our Time: "Hippy the Happy Hippopotamus!"

Awarded as a Winner in the "50 Great Writers You Should be Reading" contest, Chris Rhodes was interviewed on The Authors Show (by Don McCauley), about his children’s book, “Hippy the Happy Hippopotamus”, 10.00 Eastern Standard Time (3.00 PM, UK Time), January 23rd, 2016.

Described as an Eco-Parable, an edited version of the recording was broadcast on The Authors Show from February 9th (4.00 A.M. UK time) to February 10th (4.00 A.M. UK time).


DM: Can you tell us about the book?

CR: “Hippy the Happy Hippopotamus” is a children’s picture book, about a young hippo growing up with his family and friends in Africa. Hippy has the mind of a five year old boy, and so the events that happen in his various adventures are as they might appear to a five year old. How he sees his changing world.

DM: Who did you write your book for?

CR: Well, I wrote the original story for my step-niece, Chloe, when she was about 4. She’s 21, now, and so her interests have shifted somewhat, but she still likes the story of the little hippo! However, its purpose seems to have grown, rather, and “Hippy the Happy Hippopotamus” is now the first book in a series of books, aimed at a general audience of children between 5 and 8 years of age.

DM: Is there a central message in the book?

CR: Yes, the message is the importance of cooperation and working together, in order to solve problems and adapt to a changing environment. In the later books, topics such as the damming of rivers, flooding, climate change, soil erosion, conflict between humans and animals over habitat are covered directly. So the whole project addresses different aspects of "sustainability".

DM: If you had to choose, what would you say is the single most important idea you're sharing in your book that is really going to add value to the reader's life?

CR: In a nutshell, to get over to children, the idea that cooperation with others is the best way to solve problems, rather than conflict.

DM: If you could compare this book with any book out there we might already be familiar with, which book would it be and why?

CR: I am not aware of an exact match between this book and any other, but I might draw a comparison with “The Lorax”, by Dr Seuss. The Lorax is a mythical creature and protector of the trees, who is very unhappy when people cut the trees down, to process them in a factory. This has been interpreted more generally as being about a call for environmental protection, and so “Hippy” has similar themes, especially in the subsequent books, about the vulnerability of the environment to how we treat it, and that we (humans) are a part of the environment rather than being something separate from it. This is reinforced by the theme of cooperation between animals (hippos) and also between animals and humans, that runs throughout the series of stories.

DM: Since your background is mainly in science and environmental journalism, why did you decide to write a children's picture book?

CR: That’s a good question. When I first wrote “Hippy the Happy Hippopotamus”, I was working in a university as a professor of chemistry, but I was really deciding to move on with my life and do something else.

I had previously made a trip to Prague (in the Czech Republic), and visited the zoo there, where there is a family of hippos. I found these really quite fascinating creatures, and it struck me that it might be nice to write a children’s story about them. Then, a few years later, I found the words just came to me, and I scribbled the story down in about 20 minutes, but clearly it had been working in my subconscious for several years beforehand. I think it was all driven by various changes that were going on in my life at the time, which brought the story up from the depths. A bit like poppy-seeds, which only grow in disturbed ground, when they are exposed to light!

[Hence the poppies of Flanders Fields, where the ground had been disturbed by the shelling in World War I].

DM: The book has been described as a modern day "eco-parable". What is meant by this?

CR: This was a description given to the book by a leading British permaculturist, Steve Jones, who is promoting it on his website. I believe he was actually thinking of “The Lorax” by Dr Seuss, which is an eco-parable (story with an environmental message) about protecting the trees, and the environment more generally. Steve saw “Hippy” as a similar eco-parable with the message that empathy and cooperation are the best ways to solve problems in a changing world.

DM: Of all the animals you could have chosen as a main character for the book, why did you decide upon a hippopotamus?

CR: I think it was spending time with the hippo family in Prague zoo, and I then started reading about the hippopotamus, and discovered that they are “vulnerable”, because their population is decreasing, mainly as a result of poaching and that their habitat is being destroyed by humans for farming. So, a story about a young hippo seemed to be a good metaphor for environmental change, and a way of illustrating environmental issues, e.g. climate change, conflict between humans and animals over habitat, damming of rivers, pollution issues and so on. But in a way that children could understand.

DM: Do you think that the book would be of particular value in schools?

CR: Very much so! We have done quite a number of readings in schools... well, I read the stories and Jeanette shows the kids the pictures. She also teaches them to draw – hippos and other things. They love the illustrations, and they connect easily with the storyline. In a classroom setting, the book also helps to teach children to read English (particularly in multi-cultural schools, as they tend to be in East London, where many of the kids don't have English as their first language), but the book also sets a natural mood for discussions about environmental topics.

DM: How does the book relate more broadly to your work on "sustainability"?

CR: This began about 10 years ago, when I started my blog, and began writing various articles about “sustainability” in the broadest sense. I then got involved with permaculture and the Transition Towns movement, and a whole host of other things, and it struck me that the future that our children will find is likely to be quite different from how things are now, in terms of how we use resources, and in very many other ways.

And for example, because the oil supply is going to fail at some point over the next few decades, we will need to do more on the local scale, not the global, and so we will need strong communities where people have to cooperate with each other. So, the book (and the whole series of books) is aimed to bring these ideas to young children, since really it is their future that’s at stake. They are ones that matter - more than me, at this stage in my life!

DM: The book is linked to your charity, "For Our Children's Earth". What does this do?

CR: The charity works to promote ideas about sustainability, the need to preserve the environment (both locally and globally), and to reconnect children with nature. We do a lot of outreach work in schools, talking about environmental topics, and also reading the hippo-stories to the kids. We run workshops in schools and communities, I give public lectures, and the longer-term aim is to build a “centre” where actual hands-on activities can be done. Permaculture is a strong part of this. Our funding comes from sales of the books, and money we raise from talks etc. So, the link between the book and the charity is both conceptual/ideological and financial.

DM: Tell us your most rewarding experience since publishing your work?

CR: Without doubt, it’s the reaction of children when they see the pictures in the book, and have the stories read to them. It’s lovely to see the joy in a child’s face, that the book gives them. In fact, everyone seems to love the pictures, which are entirely due to the talent of Jeanette Cole, the book’s illustrator. But when I say this to her, she says that she finds it very easy to draw the pictures from the way I write the stories. So we are a good team!

I was also extremely moved by the overall flow of goodwill toward the book which we have received from very many and entirely different kinds of people: children, parents, teachers, and people with “green” interests. There has been a wonderful response via Facebook to Hippy becoming a winner on the Authors Show. So he has a good following, and people are rooting for him, which I find very heart-warming, and encouraging

DM: If someone wrote a book about your life, what would the title be?

CR: I remember being asked this same question some time ago, and the title that popped instantly into my head was, “On the Edge of Adversity.” Now, of course, this can also mean being on the edge of “opportunity”. So, while my life has certainly had its ups and downs, I feel that I have been very fortunate in that people have come along, at various critical points, who have nudged me in the right direction, or been able to open a door for me, which has led on to something good.

And I’m very grateful for that, as it could have all gone very badly wrong at various points, especially when I was in my teens, but more recently too, deciding to make a break from the academic world, and yet I have found a new role, and been able to explore a lot of different dimensions that I never would have done otherwise. Indeed, it was pure chance that I met Jeanette, the book’s illustrator, and yet amazingly, she seems able to “see” the same images that I saw in my mind when I wrote the stories in the first place. But she can draw them. So, it’s as though we were floating around looking for each other, until fate managed to connect us.

DM: How would you describe your writing style?

CR: That depends on what I’m writing. I think there is humour in how I write, albeit somewhat on the dark side at times. For example, my novel “University Shambles”, which is very much a black comedy, albeit a surreal one. I’ve written very many scientific papers. I’ve also published a collection of poetry, quite a lot of journalism (mostly on-line), and now the series of children’s stories. I also had a shot at writing a radio play, recently. So, my words are in quite a mixed bag, really!

DM: Who influenced your writing the most?

CR: As a child, I loved the books by Enid Blyton (“The Mountain of Adventure”, “The Island of Adventure” and so on), and “The Famous Five”.

My first urge toward creative writing began when I was 18, inspired by an abandoned book of poems by Walter Scott, which lead me on to writing my own poetry, and I was further influenced by W.H.Auden and Dylan Thomas. In terms of novels I was particularly influenced by D.H.Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, and I was very much drawn by the social commentaries of George Orwell (“Down and Out in Paris and London”, for example).

In terms of the campus novel genre, I was probably influenced by Malcolm Bradbury (“The History Man”), and there was a B.B.C. television drama (“A Very Peculiar Practice”) written by Andrew Davies, which probably put into my mind the idea of writing my own novel (“University Shambles”) based on my own experience of the commercialisation (...destruction maybe), of the British University system.

So, any influences are probably highly various.

DM: Are your characters pure fiction, or did you draw from people you know?

When I wrote my novel, “University Shambles”, at the beginning some of the characters were based on the traits of some people I knew, but I found that as the writing-momentum gathered, all of the characters developed a life of their own and finally became entirely fictional, rather than parodies of old familiar faces. Having said that, it is striking that various people, having read the book, seemed to recognise the characters as people that they know!

Now, in the case of “Hippy the Happy Hippopotamus”, I can say that the “characters” are based on a family of hippos that I was able to visit in Prague Zoo, over several years! And, I suppose, the anthropomorphic elements (their human characteristics) are based on the ideal elements of a happy, loving family, all trying to do their best in a changing and unpredictable world. But there is an innocence to it all, because the things that happen are as seen through the eyes of young “Hippy” who has the mind of a 5-year old boy.

DM: Are you more of a character artist or a plot-driven writer?

CR: I would say more of a “character artist”. However, the plot and the characters weave together into a broad tapestry, and the characters and events intermingle and borrow structure from one another. But the initial idea – the first thought in my mind - is that of one person (or a young hippo, in this case!), and I try to feel how they would feel, in their immediate surroundings and situation, then roll out the strands and develop the plot from there.

DM: Other than selling your book, what do you hope to accomplish with it?

CR: To get the message over to kids that empathy and cooperation are the best ways to solve problems. This is particularly important because the next generation is likely to be challenged in all manner of ways as the world changes profoundly, and their ability to work together to solve problems is likely to become paramount. We also aim to get the book onto the school National Curriculum (U.K.) and its equivalent in other European countries and in the U.S. A proportion of the sales revenue from the books goes to support the charity, “For Our Children’s Earth”.

DM: Who should buy this book?

CR: The book is aimed at children aged between 5 and 8 years old, and their parents and teachers. The primary geographic target area is Europe and the United States. The benefits of buying this book are its beautiful illustrations, and simple text which children easily connect with. It is an ideal book for parents to read to their children, helped by the pictures. In a classroom situation, the book is very helpful for teaching children to read English, and it is a natural prompt for discussions on environmental topics. Also, because of the book’s theme of sustainability and social harmony, it is of interest to community and environmental groups.

DM: Where can readers find you and your book?

CR: My webpage is or simply google “professor chris rhodes” and you will find me. My email is on the webpage, but is and please get in contact with me directly about buying the books, and indeed anything else.

We have e-versions of “Hippy the Happy Hippopotamus” available and also the next two books in the series, “Visitors for Hippy” and “Hippy Eco-Hippo”. We are seeking a printer for all three books at a reasonable price.