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Interview with Mini Grey – The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth sets out to tell the 4.6-billion-year story of life on Earth in a picturebook. We discussed this wonderful book by Mini Grey with a group of young readers aged between 7 and 11. They had lots of interesting questions. We put their questions to Mini who has kindly answered them here:

Imogen How/when did you get the idea to create The Greatest Show on Earth? Did someone inspire you to make this book? 
Mini When my son Herbie was about 5 years old, we spent a lot of time hanging out in the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Gazing at the dinosaur skeletons, I realised there were enormous gaps in my knowledge of prehistoric life, and I didn’t even know how old the Earth actually is.  So really it was the dinosaur skeletons in the Oxford Museum that inspired me!

Matthew Why did you make it?
Mini  I wanted to show life on earth as a story, and I wanted to show the whole story so the reader gets an idea of the framework of time.  The more you find out about the evolution of life on Earth, the more staggering and awe-inspiring it is, and that’s really why I made this book. Finding out about how everything evolved means you start to see the story of evolution in everything around you and how we’re all connected.

Imogen Why did you choose to do this book as a shoe box theatre?  
Mini In my book I wanted Rod and the Troupe to tell Earth’s story – but with ordinary materials, with cardboard and string and packaging – the sorts of materials anyone might be able to find around the house or in their recycling bin. My story is told by insects: even the smallest creatures with the humblest materials can aspire to tell Earth’s amazing story. We all can, it’s all of our story.

Naomi  How do you know about the different facts inside the book? 
MIni When I’m making pictures, I often like to listen to online talks and one of my favourite topics is prehistoric Earth and animal evolution. But then when I started properly researching the Greatest Show I read books – some for adults, but also books for children (which always have more pictures!). I had to check my facts, and also draw different prehistoric animals – and researching images and content online was a good way to do this. I also asked expert professors to check I had my facts straight.

Esme How did you choose what (ie information) to put in and what to leave out?  
Mini This is such a good question – sometimes what to leave out can be as important a decision as what to put in. The amount I had to leave out was colossal – I only had 48 pages to work with! I decided to focus mostly on the evolution of animals a bit like us, eg fish, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs. In the timeline at the bottom, I could only really tell one or two things about the Earth’s climate and geological goings on – so again I tried to pinpoint one or two key things that affected animal life particularly at the time.

Naomi How/why did you decide on a timeline tape measure? 
MIni When I found out the age of the Earth I just wanted to see what that looked like, and hold 4.6 billion years in my hand. A tape measure is a pretty ordinary household object that you might just find lying about, and it can be rolled up and unrolled, which is useful.

Esme How did you come up with the idea for how you have set it out and organised the information?  
Mini I sometimes find non-fiction books difficult to read because there’s so much information presented simultaneously, and I don’t know where to look first. I made a toy theatre for a project with Pollocks Toy Theatre Museum, and I realised that the toy theatre layout gave me different areas for different activities to happen: a main stage, wings on either side and an orchestra pit along the bottom. I thought I could use this format to break down my information, so you know where to look first.

Dylan What gave you the idea of using household objects to describe the history of earth?
Mini I wanted this story to be a performance – so that you’re not seeing what actually happened, but a re-enactment of it. It started with wanting the story to be told by a cockroach – and from there – the shoebox theatre had to be on a dump. The dump could be full of materials the insects can use to make their props: I love the idea of transforming rubbish into puppets. Also I love drawing tin cans, bottles and packaging.

Dylan How long will it take for humans to really respect other life forms? 
MiniDylan – that is an incredible question to ponder! I think there are many, many people who love and respect nature – including all the people who work with nature – and I think children particularly love nature and animals. Scientists, especially, can see that we live within a precious, unique cathedral of life, and we mustn’t carelessly let all this diversity ebb away. But the voices of the people who care don’t seem to be heard by the people in power – the people in government. How can we get them to care too?

Imogen What was your goal for this book – was it for people to really enjoy reading it? 
Mini Yes! I really wanted my readers to enjoy the show and to entertain them! I wanted my book  to be easy to read, but also for lots of facts and insights to be there if you wanted to look for them. My goal was to bring Earth’s timeline to children –and to show our Earth and the animals on it changing through time, enormous amounts of time. We live on an extraordinary, unique planet: everything – from the mites in your eyelashes to the woodlouse under that stone – is interesting.
Matthew Was The Greatest Show on Earth your favourite book you made? 
Mini It’s been the longest book to make! But, yes, it could be my favourite because the making of it involved finding out as much as possible about the story of Earth. The more you find out, the more you find out you don’t know! So, I still want to carry on finding out more about this story – and new animals are being unearthed all the time, so there’s always more to discover.
The book prompted lots of conversation
For example: ‘If we carry on evolving – will humans have noses in the future?’ The cataclysmic events in the Earth’s history were of particular interest and ‘what came first the chicken or the egg… ?’

Here are some of the children’s comments:
Matthew (7) I like the cover, it makes you want to read it.
Naomi (9) It’s funny, informative and clever. Instead of a full-on facts book, it’s insects doing a show.
Imogen (10)  It’s intriguing. If you want to learn about the earth but don’t want to go through all that studying, you could read this book and you’d be happy as well as knowledgeable!
Dylan (11) It brings adults and children together with the illustrations – they start a discussion.
Esme (8)  I like the cooking up a planet idea, it’s like a recipe – though it’s going to take much longer!

Buy The Greatest Show on Earth available in hardback now, paperback edition available from April 2023.