Our oceans are a mess. Plastic pollution and over-fishing are threatening many species, destroying the fine balance of our marine ecosystem. In the spirit of Kiwi teen Bobby Stafford-Bush, whose love affair with the sea and marine life was cut tragically short at the age of 16, comes a living inheritance – Celia Seagull and the Plastic Sea.
Tauranga teacher and author Nicole Miller says, “I am honoured to be representing the legacy left by Bobby Stafford-Bush; to respect our ocean and marine life and to help others when we can.”
The manuscript for Celia Seagull and the Plastic Sea was a 2019 Joy Cowley award finalist. Now, with the generous support of The Bobby Stafford-Bush Foundation, it has become a published book. The Foundation plan to donate free copies of Miller’s children’s book to every school library and public library in Aotearoa New Zealand. Celia Seagull and the Plastic Sea is a powerful debut and one which packs a punch. Focusing on the nest-building antics of busy seagull Celia, Miller’s story demonstrates the perils of overlooking the danger plastic poses to our oceans and marine creatures. It also encourages readers to be less self-centred and to care for others.
We asked Nicole ten questions about this beautiful picture book.
The manuscript for your first children’s book was a 2019 Joy Cowley finalist. Did that make a difference?
Definitely. Before I entered the Joy Cowley Awards, I felt reasonably confident about my ability to write in my chosen style, but I also had moments of self-doubt and self-comparison. Being a finalist for the Award confirmed that my manuscript was commendable, which gave me the nudge to persevere with getting my first book published. Getting a first book published can be really hard, especially as an unpublished author! As well as having a quality manuscript, you need to keep believing that your writing has value, and also have patience.
What inspired you to write Celia Seagull and the Plastic Sea?
I had gone through a separation when I was five months pregnant, so I was feeling quite down and disheartened. I was doing my best to be strong for my children, but I was at high risk of having post-natal depression, so my counsellor had ordered me to walk every day, eat well, drink a lot of water, and do something that I love – something for me.
I started with writing songs for my kids and found that my counsellor was right and that having a creative outlet really picked up my mood. Around the same time, confronting images of the Pacific Garbage Patch were circulating on social media. I wanted to educate myself and my kids more about this problem, so when Jesse was 6 months old we got some books on plastic pollution out of the library. It was hard to find anything that was fictional on the topic. It can be hard to make a serious topic fun for kids.
I think when we are trying to spread an important message, we need it to hit home from every direction – role modelling, open discussions, documentaries, experiences, songs and books are all great ways to educate tamariki. The more they hear the message in every form, the more embedded it becomes. Being a musical person, I have always loved rhythm and rhyme, and I’m a teacher, so the idea to send an environmental message through rhyming verse made sense. The concept was born, and I started writing.
Your book is a living legacy to Bobby Stafford-Bush – a young man who was passionate about the sea and marine life. Please tell us more about that.
I never had the opportunity to meet Bobby Stafford-Bush, but I know that he cared deeply for the ocean, marine life, and about helping others. Celia Seagull and the Plastic Sea teaches children about those same values.
At the beginning, Celia is a very selfish seagull. The ocean is littered with plastic waste, which is harming other sea creatures, but she doesn’t care because she is busy looking for plastic to weave into her lovely big nest. When she runs into trouble, a mermaid comes to help her – with an open mind and no agenda – and this inspires Celia. Together, they go and help all the creatures and invite them back to the nest. There are a lot of talking points for children and adults around helping others and caring for marine life – messages that would have been important to Bobby Stafford-Bush.
I am proud to be representing the legacy and incredibly grateful to the Bobby Stafford-Bush Foundation for funding this book and providing free copies to school libraries and public libraries. They have given me an amazing opportunity.
Jane Goodall has endorsed your book. What did she say?
I made contact with Jane Goodall through her assistant, Mary Lewis. I was surprised when Mary emailed back the same day, praising the book and the message. But she said that my timeline was very tight. I thought we had missed the boat, but just before it went to print, Mary emailed me again and said, “Jane had time to look at your book and loved it!”
She sent me this quote from Jane: "A delightful story that speaks to the harm that is caused by the plastic waste that ends up in the sea. The message is clear: we must dispose of plastic safely and help all life in the ocean.”
She added that it would be a magical story for their ‘Roots and Shoots Programme,’ and so it has since been added to Jane’s archive library.
What do you hope your book will teach children about plastic pollution? Other key messages?
I hope it will make children aware of the fact that when we ‘throw away,’ that ‘away’ is an actual place, and that a lot of the everyday items we use end up in the ocean or in landfill. Many of those products have only been used once. I hope this will encourage children and their families to wonder when they go shopping: “where will it go when I am finished with it? What harm could it do in the ocean or in landfill?
Do we really need it? Can we buy it second-hand, borrow or make it? Can we buy it in the form of a more sustainable material?”
I hope Celia Seagull and the Plastic Sea will generate such questions and conversations about the disposable, consumerism-based lifestyle we have lived for too long, and inspire families to make (or keep making) changes where they can.
How helpful has your career as a teacher been in writing for children?
Being a teacher has given me an insight into how young children think and learn, and what they enjoy in a book. I get to read a lot of picture books and take note of components such as language, rhythm and structure, which children respond well to. The more I read, the more ideas I get. I am always taking note of topics that I don’t think are covered sufficiently, covered in a particular style or topics that are only represented in non-fiction form. The best part is that I can read stories that I have written for my class and note their response to gauge interest. I think being a teacher may give me a bit of an advantage in planning and presenting author visits. I have just booked my first visit, which will include a writer’s workshop on rhyming verse for year 5-6 students.
You’re passionate about nature and music – how do you express your interests?
My absolute favourite way of expressing my musical side is through stage musicals, however, this takes a huge commitment with rehearsals and that can be hard to manage when children are young. The last musical I took part in was ‘Hairspray’ in 2016 with Musical Theatre Gisborne (MTG) where I was in my element playing Tracey Turnblad’s awkward sidekick, Penny Pingleton. I really look forward to being a part of another show one day!
Currently, I enjoy singing with the talented musicians in 80’s covers band Max Headroom, and I occasionally write a children’s song to teach in class. In terms of nature, I love being outdoors; walking in the bush, staying in a DOC hut, surfing or swimming at the beach, snowboarding and camping.
Do you think your rural upbringing has made a difference in your life?
I grew up on an orchard with role models who were resourceful, particularly my Dad, who to this day keeps an immaculate, sustainable garden. He would always fix, make, upcycle, and store items that still had any sign of being born again and reused. My first bike was upcycled for my 5th birthday – painted pink at my request. Clothing was usually handed down or mended by my nana to give it a longer life. Mum and nana both knitted, and nana sewed for us. She volunteered at the local op-shop and often tried to find items second hand before buying brand new.
I think my upbringing has made me creative and resourceful. While I am no gardener, sewer or knitter, I do always try to source second-hand items before buying brand new, my wardrobe would be close to 50 per cent good quality second hand, and I like to get things repaired when possible.
What new adventure(s) are you planning?
The next adventure will probably be a trip out to Tuhua (Mayor Island) for my dad’s birthday. We have been making an effort to give experiences as gifts some of the time, so last week the kids coloured in a homemade fishing voucher as Dad’s birthday present. We’ll spend the day fishing and swimming, anchor up at South East Bay, enjoy the stunning views and walk to the trig.
Hopefully, we’ll be eating fresh fish, too!
If you could have one wish, what would it be?
For children to be able to grow up in a world where they feel safe. I think that wish would solve a lot of issues – global warming, plastic pollution, violence, racism, the pandemic and bullying just to name a few. If children were made to feel safe in their world, it would have to mean those problems wouldn’t exist.
Celia Seagull and the Plastic Sea by Nicole Miller is illustrated by Lily Uivel and published by Mary Egan Publishing, RRP: $15.00.