iIt's a Bugs Life in Brightoni

Best selling children's author talks beetles, bugs, Brighton and books

Brighton is a city which had become famous for its community of creative and artistic people. So much so that now, those with artistic leanings or ambitions are drawn here every year. The well-known and respected Brighton Festival is one of the largest and most established annual multi-arts festivals in England. And it doesn’t stop there. Brighton Fringe, the biggest arts festival of them all, attracted audiences of over 604,000 in 164 venues across the city last year.

Best selling children's author, M G Leonard.

These events that celebrate every beauty of the arts, from music, dance and theatre, to literature and debate, highlight the incredible talent of the city’s creative population. With events like this and more occurring in Brighton throughout the year, it is no wonder that the city draws residents who have an ambition for creative expression - and best-selling children’s author M.G Leonard, AKA ‘The Beetle Lady’, is no exception.

Before moving to Brighton over seven years ago, M.G Leonard, real name Maya Gabrielle, lived a pretty interesting life already. She first started out in the music industry, running Setanta Records, an independent record label that managed bands such as The Divine Comedy. After that, she became a digital producer at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Royal Opera House, Harry Potter West end and the National Theatre.

Maya shows us her pet beetle larvae

Maya would eventually go on to become an award-winning, bestselling children’s author, publishing eight books from 2016 to this year. Her books have been translated in over forty languages and a TV series based on her Beetle Boy trilogy is currently in development. However, it is even surprising to her the place she now finds herself in. When she was a child, while clearly intelligent, she was on multiple occasions tested for dyslexia and ADHD, with teachers concerned about her ability to reach the expected potential in her writing. Though the tests would all come up negative, Maya believed she lacked the confidence in her writing. However, this did not stop her from pursuing ambitious careers and continuing her desire to become an author.

I never thought I could write and I was scared of bugs, so it’s weird now that I’m famous for being the beetle lady

In the background of all this, Maya also faced another pressing problem – her phobia of insects. It was only when her eldest son was about one, and a blue-bottle fly had got into the sitting room, that she saw the absolute fear in his eyes; a fear she recognised only too well and believed to be copied behaviour from her own reactions to insects. With a determination to not give her son, as she put it, “the gift of fear”, she set herself up with the task of learning about insects, in the hopes that it would eradicate her phobia.

An African black beetle in the making

Maya found herself drawn particularly to beetles. Partly due to her curiosity for an insect about which she felt she was entirely ignorant and partly because they didn’t seem as scary as spiders. Ten years and a lot of bug research later, the woman who never believed she could write and never thought she could love insects, is now the author of The Beetle Boy and The Beetle Trilogy and feels fondly toward her beloved beetle pets which she keeps with her at home.

Getting to spend an afternoon with any author is always going to be interesting, but Maya had a particularly fascinating edge. A self-described “beetle expert”, I quickly realised these were not just stories she had written, but woven into them were years and years of research into one the most prolific species on earth.

Expressing stories in any way is the most effective way to understand what it is to be human and understand our relationships with each other

I didn't know, for instance, that there are more species of beetle than any other animal. Currently there are 350,000 known species, let alone how many undiscovered there might be; some estimates believe there could be up to three million currently living on the planet. As Júlia Sardà put it in The Guardian, "Why it has taken them this long to get starring roles in a children’s book is a mystery". And I would tend to agree. Clearly Maya recognised the potential for this absence of beetle protagonists and heroes and channelled it into her creation of the Beetle Boy, a book that begs the question, can a boy be best friends with a beetle? The answer is yes, yes he can. And this story of a young teen searching for his father, with the assistance of his beetle friends, is testament to the beauty one can find in nature and the insect world.

After leaving Maya’s home in Brighton I was left not only inspired by her belief in the power of writing and more importantly, the creation of stories in whatever form that may be, but I was also left amazed and curious about these diverse and fascinating creatures. So much so, I found myself the moment I got home, (yes you guessed it) researching beetles! Honestly, you should try it some time.

Want to find out more about M.G Leonard and her other books? click here

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