Explore the World to Learn New Things

“We have lots of creepy, scary-looking creatures in the nature collection…that’s because we’re exploring the world to learn new things.” – Penny, ship’s dog, HMS Investigator

It was true then and it’s true now: Books can change young lives.

Take British explorer Matthew Flinders (1774-1814).

As a boy, Flinders was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and study medicine. Then he read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. He later wrote, “I burned to have adventures of my own.”

The determined Flinders joined the British Navy at age fifteen, becoming a fine navigator and cartographer. He was the first to circumnavigate the continent of Australia and to use the name Australia.

His second expedition, in the HMS Investigator, had the support of scientist Joseph Banks and included botanists, naturalists, and artists.

And right beside Flinders in these adventures? One small, “fearless seaman”: ship’s cat Trim.

The Adventures of Trim books are fictionalized historical fiction, with talking animals and lots of humor. Still, reflecting the scientific mission of the voyages, the stories include references to plant collecting, botanical illustration, and landscape art.

The one child character was inspired by landscape painter William Westall, who was only nineteen years old when he joined the expedition. Both Kristy and I made use of a rich array of online university and museum resources about Flinders and the ship itself.

Each book includes an author’s note introducing Flinders and Trim as well as the genre of historical fiction. There’s a not-too-subtle message about the importance of storytelling in each note too. That’s because we only know about Trim because Flinders wrote about him.

Penned a few years before his death, Flinders’s heartfelt, modern-sounding tribute to his beloved cat wasn’t discovered among his papers until 1971. Today there are statues of the devoted pair in both England and Australia.

Several incidents in the stories are drawn directly from Flinders’s account, including Trim plunging overboard as a kitten, learning to swim, and climbing up the rope thrown to him. Trim apparently was a favorite of all the crew, who rolled musket balls on the deck for him to chase, taught him to play dead, and tolerated Trim swiping bits of dinner right off their forks. In other words, like our own cats today, Trim ruled his domain!

History wouldn’t exist without stories like these. And to encourage young writers to tell their stories, illustrator Kristy Caldwell and the Peachtree team have assembled a fun Trim activity kit, available for download here.  And there’s also a fabulous segment on Kid Lit TV where Kristy shows kids how to draw Trim.

I’m a huge fan of Dori Hillestad Butler’s King & Kayla early reader series, illustrated by Nancy Meyers (and, like Trim, edited by the talented Kathy Landwehr).

Just as the King & Kayla books introduce readers to problem-solving and mysteries, I hope the Trim stories, brought to life in Kristy’s delightful illustrations, will inspire children to explore and discover their world, to have adventures, and, of course, to write about them.

Who knows, perhaps some readers will even decide to go to sea.