Thursday, 3 May 2018

HOW THE BORKS BECAME: An Adventure in Evolution • New UK picture book

How the Borks Became, an evolution-themed picture book by me and Elys Dolan is out today!

After thinking about writing a picture book about evolution for several years, I finally got around to doing it in 2013. When my children were in primary school the only explanations they had been taught for the creation of life on Earth were those given in Christian and Hindu religious texts. I’ve no objection to schools teaching children religious creation myths at this age but, if children are to develop a proper understanding of the natural world, schools ought to be teaching the evidence-based explanation of creation offered by science alongside the faith-based explanations offered by religion. Since September 2014 UK primary schools have been obliged to teach evolution to children in their final year (age 10-11). While this is a step in the right direction, research has shown that children are more likely to accept the rational, scientific explanation of creation presented by evolution if they are introduced to it towards the beginning of their primary education, rather than at the end, by which time less-rational explanations (both religious and non-religious) have often established themselves in children's minds.

A spread from How the Borks Became illustrating the evolution of humans over the last 3,500 million years.

Picture books can be very effective in illustrating the concept of evolution to young children. However, while there are plenty of picture books that show how evolution results in plants and animals changing their appearance over successive generations, there are very few picture books that explain the process by which these changes are brought about. And those picture books that do attempt an explanation are often inaccurate or misleading, suggesting that a species might change its appearance within a single lifetime or that the change might be brought about by a conscious effort by an individual animal.

It’s a common misconception that Charles Darwin discovered evolution, but the concept was established long before Darwin popularised it. Darwin’s breakthrough discovery was the process of natural selection whereby individuals best adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and pass on their advantageous features to the next generation. Having been unable to find a picture book that depicted this process accurately, I set out to write one myself.

To depict natural selection properly one has to show individuals with beneficial traits surviving, while other individuals, who lack these traits, are dying. The dispassionate depiction of creatures dying from hunger, predation or other environmental factors is the antithesis of the reassuringly safe, peril-free world that the vast majority of picture books present to young readers, so I decided that the book needed a strong dose of humour to lighten the tone. In an attempt to achieve this, I drew inspiration from Dr. Seuss, whose rhyming stories often introduced children to important concepts in an amusing and engaging way. My personal favourites include The Sneetches, a laugh-out-loud story that deftly deals with both racism and consumerism, and The Lorax, which tackles environmental issues in a similar way.

The stories of Dr. Seuss, including The Sneetches and The Lorax, were an inspiration for the book’s text.

Both the Sneetches and the Lorax are fantasy creatures and I decided that – although evolution books are usually found in the non-fiction section – the animals I would use to explain it would also be fictional. So the book is set on the Earth-like Planet Charleebob (named after Charles Robert Darwin) and follows the evolution of a species of llama-like alien creatures called Borks. One big advantage of using a fictional species and setting was that it gave me licence to represent the process of natural selection in a speeded-up, caricatured form over just four generations of Borks. A page at the end of the book explains that evolution on Earth happens at a far slower rate with much smaller changes and that it might take an Earth animal millions of years to change as much as the Borks in the story do.

Writing the text turned out to be relatively quick and easy compared with finding a publisher. One of the first publishers I showed the text to told me that she could not envisage how it could work as a picture book, so I illustrated a few of the spreads myself to get the concept across. Another publisher told me that the book needed at least one character that survived from beginning to end, so I wrote an alternative draft featuring a Doctor-Who-like time traveller with a boy and girl companion, to narrate the story from start to finish.

One of the spreads I illustrated myself, to show how the book might work on the page.

Usually, if a picture book does not find a publisher after about a year, I stop pitching it. However How the Borks Became was a project close to my heart and my supportive agent Caroline Walsh and I continued to show the text to anyone and everyone we thought might be interested for three years before the book was finally accepted by Janetta Otter-Barry for her newly-founded publishing company Otter-Barry Books. One of the last books Janetta had published in her former role as publisher at Frances Lincoln was The Story of Life, an excellent picture book illustrating the timeline of evolution of life on Earth by Catherine Barr, Steve Williams and Amy Husband, so I knew the Borks were in safe hands.

Janetta accepted the book on the condition that we found a suitable illustrator and made a couple of suggestions. Although I would have been happy to work with either of these illustrators on another project, they didn’t feel right for the Borks. I’d tried to make the text both amusing and educational and I felt the book needed an illustrator that could bring a strong element of humour to the illustrations as well. I told Janetta that ideally the book would be illustrated by someone like Elys Dolan. Although I’d previously worked with Elys on The Clockwork Dragon, I doubted she’d be interested in doing another book she'd not written herself as she had plenty of picture book ideas of her own to keep her busy. However I decided that there was no harm in asking her and Janetta agreed. To my delight Elys said that How the Borks Became sounded like an exciting project and agreed to come on board!

If you’re familiar with Elys’s other books, you’ll know that she excels at creating spreads crammed with amusing detail and she brought a similar approach to her illustrations for How the Borks Became, inventing a lively alien ecosystem for the Borks to inhabit. In addition to the five plants and animals referenced in my text and illustration notes, Elys created a further ten lifeforms that can be seen evolving (or in one case going extinct) alongside the Borks. You can find the names of all fifteen species and a little information on each in the explorer notes that fill the book’s endpapers. My favourite creature is the magnificently sinister Ravenous Snarfle, that deserves a book all to itself.

"They were roaming this plain on a bright sunny day.
when a Ravenous Snarfle came flying their way."

Shortly after Elys came on board I read a Guardian article about a team of developmental psychologists at Boston University who had been researching how picture books could be used to teach natural selection to 5-8-year-olds. Like me, the team had been unable to find a picture book that depicted natural selection accurately and, like me, the team had developed their own, called How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses. The Piloses picture book is aimed at a slightly older age group than How the Borks Became and illustrates the process in a more detailed, less caricatured way, but both books take a similar approach. Like the Borks book, the Piloses book follows the evolution of a fictional creature. The Boston team had opted to use a fictional species because their research had shown that children are more likely to have preconceived ideas about real animals. The team’s research had also shown that children were able to retain and generalise the understanding of natural selection that they’d learnt from their book and apply the same principle to other fictional animals.

Boston University psychologist Deborah Kelemen with her own book, How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses. You can find out more about the book and the research behind it at

“Most storybooks that touch on natural selection only further confuse kids, but How the Borks Became introduces the principle in an effective and entertaining way.”
Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences,

Boston University, and author of How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses
The approach taken by the Boston team’s book seemed so similar to the one taken by How the Borks Became that I sent team leader Deborah Kelemen a copy of my text along with Elys’s initial character sketches in the hope that she might be willing to give us some feedback in the light of their research, which Deborah graciously agreed to do. Deborah and her team continued to give us feedback as we developed our book and Deborah gave the finished book the endorsement opposite.

How the Borks Became was not an easy project to get published, but it’s a book I’m especially proud of. So now it's finally in print, I’d like to give a HUGE RAVENOUS SNARFLE SIZED THANK YOU to my agent Caroline for persistently pitching it to publishers, to publisher-editor Janetta for recognising and honing its potential, to illustrator Elys for breathing weird and wonderful life into Planet Charleebob and to everyone else that helped the Borks evolve from a fanciful idea to a fabulous finished picture book!

Here's what some early reviews have said about the book

"An accessible and entertaining way to introduce the concept of evolution and natural selection, told through amusing verse … Elys Dolan's colourful illustrations are full of fun and children will enjoy spotting all the variations."

"A funny, accessible introduction to the concept of evolution
and natural selection … Dolan's pictures are a riot."


Here's a trailer I made for the book.

You can download and print out activity sheets for the book by clicking on their images below.

Spot the Difference


Buy this book at amazon UKBuy at amazon US

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