Richard Dikstra is the author of the Tigeropolis series and a Director at Belle Media, a company that develops creative content and IP. He published his first book, Hurricane Hutch’s Top 10 Ships of the Clyde, in 2013 and is the co-author (along with his business partner Kay Hutchison) of the picture book series, The Adventures of Captain Bobo. Recently returned from a trip photographing polar bears in Svalbard, Norway, Richard has always been interested in travelling, wildlife and conservation – topics that are embedded in the Tigeropolis series, first published in 2015. We asked him a few questions about his life as an author and the importance of combining children’s literature with global issues, such as conservation.
1. Can you tell us about how the Tigeropolis series came about?
The series came about through my involvement with a tiger conservation/advocacy group in India.
Tigeropolis is about a family of vegetarian tigers running their own tiger park, somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas. A typical tiger park, by the way, is huge (400 square kilometres), so the opportunity for adventure is considerable.
I am a great admirer of the people and organisations that work in conservation. They do amazing work, while making huge personal sacrifices. Their dedication is truly inspirational, but given their constant need to appeal for funds, the messaging around conservation can seem relentlessly depressing. I characterise this as the ‘Give us £20, or the tiger dies!’ approach to fundraising. I wanted to take a different route, one that appeals to children, so Tigeropolis is full of jokes and fun illustrations, and the stories are capable of being appreciated on multiple levels. Yes, the books have an underlying message about caring for the environment, but my main aim was for parents and their children to enjoy a good story.
2. You say on your website that the story is loosely based on your own time working in conservation. How did this influence you?
I have been involved in several conservation initiatives linked to tourism over many years.
The idea for the Tigeropolis stories blossomed at the end of a two-week journey that took me ‘behind the scenes’ to some of India’s best known tiger reserves. I’d been travelling with a couple of film makers working on a project assessing the status of each of the country’s 50+ tiger reserves. They had been doing the trip on behalf of an NGO based in Delhi, and I was lucky enough to be invited along. It was a wonderful trip, but for some reason we had no luck seeing a tiger. That sometimes happens with wildlife, and that unpredictability is of course one of the things that makes a ‘sighting’ so special.
That said, there have always been arguments about whether allowing visitors to see animals in the wild has a negative impact on the wildlife. The people I was travelling with were firm advocates for allowing access, believing that it improves understanding, but also, and equally importantly, that it can help local communities derive badly needed revenues from tourism, thereby fostering a mutually beneficial relationship between local communities and wildlife.
For two weeks we had been travelling between parks with no luck. Then, as the light faded on the very last hour of our final visit, a female tiger suddenly emerged. It had simply risen from cover where it had probably been hiding for hours. For some reason it had suddenly decided to show itself. It walked slowly past our jeep, stopped, turned to face us (as if posing for a BBC Wildlife photoshoot), then quietly slipped back into the jungle gloom as quickly as it had appeared. That encounter typified my friends’ argument – the tiger barely acknowledged us, it handled the encounter on its terms and was totally in control. She showed herself for as long as she was comfortable, then left to carry on with her day. There and then I decided to write a book from the tigers’ point of view – with them running their own wildlife park, and totally in control.
3. How important is it for children to learn about conservation issues?
It’s crucial for two reasons – firstly, they are the ones who inherit the future. The state of the planet in 40 years’ time should matter to them – they will have to live on it. Secondly, they are enormous influencers within their own families when they take up an issue.
I do quite a few school talks and, although initially the questions are about the books and my characters, the discussion often turns to conservation. They care and they want to know what they can do to help.
4. What does a typical day of writing look like for you?
Currently, I am writing the third book in the series, called Caught in the Trap. It’s about poaching. The book has about 45 B&W illustrations, so I’m busy discussing what we need with the illustrator and editor and approving the outline artwork. It’s fun seeing what the illustrator makes of my text and, sometimes, it makes me rethink things.
As a children’s author, I’m also asked to do events over the summer. Holiday events are different from school talks as there is a bit more of an expectation to entertain, so I put in effort to develop a suitable presentation. Hopefully I get it right, it’s be fun and they ask me back.
5. What next for the series?
Book 3 will be out early next year. Over the last 12 months we’ve been talking to a few animation companies about the prospects for a series based on the books, but we recognise that’s a long journey and our expectations are suitably calibrated. The next book in the series involves the tigers coming to the aid of a group of Siberian tigers, but at this point I won’t say much more than that!