© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

BBC Icon Finds Children's Adventure In An Element Hunter


In the UK, Simon Mayo is a household name. Countless people grew up listening to him as the breakfast show host of BBC Radio One and BBC Radio 5 Live, where he was on air during 9/11. He still broadcasts a daily show for the B, but has in the last few years turned his hand to writing. The second book in his children's series is called "Itch Rocks." It is out now in the United States. And he joins us from our studios in London. Mr. Mayo, thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON MAYO: Ms. Martin, thank you for inviting me on the show. It's a very nice studio you have here.

MARTIN: You know, for people who may not have heard of Itchingham Lofte...

MAYO: Itchingham Lofte.

MARTIN: That's how I say it, Itchingham Lofte. Can you introduce us to this young man?

MAYO: Yes, so there are two books, "Itch" and "Itch Rocks." So at the start of the first book, he's 14. He's just had his 15th birthday at the start of the second book. He lives in Cornwall, in the southwest of England, and he is a collector - everything from frogs and train tickets and Pokemon cards, and now he describes himself as an element hunter. He collects the periodic table, the chart, which you might remember on your science classes at school.

MARTIN: Vaguely.

MAYO: Yeah, It starts with hydrogen and helium and works its way through all the things that are the building blocks of the universe. And some of it is perfectly safe, and some of it is less safe, and some of it is illegal.

MARTIN: He discovers something called element 126, which is more on the end of the dangerous, nefarious.

MAYO: Yeah. Yes, you could say that. So the book starts with an earthquake. These rocks that you mention come to the surface. No one knows really what they are, but they're behaving in a very extraordinary way. They're fiercely radioactive, very, very dangerous, and obviously very valuable. And so lots of people want to get hold of them.

MARTIN: And so adventures ensue for Itchingham.

MAYO: Yeah.

MARTIN: Where in the world does that name come from?

MAYO: Now my guess is that none of your listeners know anyone called Itchingham.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MAYO: And so, I mean, I...

MARTIN: You never know, but I doubt it.

MAYO: Well, there may well be. There was an Itchingham Lofte. I got this name...

MARTIN: Really?

MAYO: Yeah. There is a big old church on the east coast of England in a place called Suffolk called Holy Trinity Blythburgh. And as many of the old churches do, they have a plaque on the wall of all the people who've been priests going back through the years. And in the 17th century, there was a priest at this church called Itchingham Lofte. And he was followed, in 1652, by a guy called Nathaniel Flowerdew. Now Nathaniel Flowerdew, I've made as the bad character in my book. And he replaced Itchingham Lofte as the vicar in this church.

Now the reason why it caught my eye and why I took a photograph of this about six years ago is because after Nathaniel Flowerdew's name, it says, in brackets, intruder, close brackets. And he's the only one that doesn't have a reverend before his name. It's just mister. And so I thought, wow, there is clearly a big story here. They hated this guy. For whatever reason, he was like an imposter. So I thought Itch is a good, memorable name for a boy hero. And I'll make Nathaniel Flowerdew my baddy.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, you have had a fairly remarkable career with the BBC as a presenter and radio host. So why writing?

MAYO: What happened is my youngest son, Joe, came back from school, age 10 years old. This was four years ago. And the only thing he was interested in was science. And I thought, this is an act of vanity, really. Why don't I write a short story, you know? And I came across this phrase, element hunter, the phrase to describe someone who collects the periodic table. And I thought, wow, if you're a kid, if you're a teenager, who wouldn't want to be an element hunter?

It sounded such a fantastic thing. So I wrote it over about a nine-month period, printed it off, handed it to him. And he took it up to his bedroom and he read it over a weekend. And in the way that parents can tell, when he said, no, I liked it, I could tell he wasn't making it up. He genuinely liked it. So at that point, I thought, well, maybe there is a wider audience for it. And that's why we're talking about it now, Rachel.

MARTIN: Was the science hard for you? Have you...

MAYO: Yes.

MARTIN: Do you have a personal interest in that world?

MAYO: Well, I didn't. I didn't have - I had to work very hard. I needed to make sure that the science in the book is real and genuine and believable. So I worked with a professor of nuclear physics and a professor of chemistry. And between us, you know, I will go to my grave knowing that the science here is 100 percent. You know, if it says a blue flame, it's a blue flame. If it says it goes to a white powder, it would go to a white powder. So it's all scientific.

MARTIN: What's your favorite element?

MAYO: Well, when I started this adventure, I would have said something boring like gold or platinum. Xenon gas, I have a soft spot for because it got me out of a very tight spot at the end of the first book when I discovered that xenon gas is also an anesthetic if inhaled. I mean, obviously, don't try this at home. But anyway, so I've also discovered in the course of writing the second book that there's an element called tellurium, which, if ingested in an appropriate way, will make you stink of garlic for about three months.

This is not like someone who's just had garlic bread or just had too much garlic in their cooking. It comes out of every single pore. And so, I thought, what a fantastic way to identify somebody, you know. So if you're a bad character, you've ingested tellurium, you cannot get rid of this smell for months. So my favorite element at the moment is tellurium, with a side order of cesium, actually. There's quite a lot of that in there, in the book.

MARTIN: Simon Mayo. He's the author of a new, young adult adventure story, the second in the series. This is called "Itch Rocks." He joined us from our studios in London. Thanks so much for talking with us, Simon.

MAYO: Rachel, thanks for inviting me.

MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.