What’s In a Number?

I’m not very good at maths. That’s not a ‘girl’ phrase, but a statement of fact. In school, my teachers thought I did have good maths capability and sat me for my GCSE a year early. I achieved a B, no mean feat in those days of no A*s, but they then shot for the moon, and sat me for maths AO Level, and I crashed and burned with a lousy D. Needless to say, I was not as good at maths as they thought.

These days, numbers are everywhere, more prevalent than the virus as it turns out, with statistics, predictions, probabilities and graphs popping up on the media minute by minute. And my maths is sharpening. I regularly listen to Tim Harford on BBC Radio 4’s More or Less show, and I think I understand what the statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter says four fifths of the time. And I definitely understand when retailers send me percentage discount emails.

But I get stuck explaining maths to children. Here, two brilliantly practical and mathematical books are helping me out this autumn.

Dosh: How to Earn It, Save It, Spend It, Grow It and Give It by Rashmi Sirdeshpande
is a phenomenon. Neatly packaged to be slightly wider than a traditional paperback novel, and coloured with a lurid green, reminiscent of an American dollar, this guide does exactly what it says on the cover. It explains that money is about making choices, it can be used for good and bad, sometimes you might not have a lot, but the best thing to do is know how to manage what you have.

There’s history here too, as well as up-to-date information on crypto-currencies, and trailblazers who have innovated in business and created new companies, and made money. What’s more the book aims to inform the reader about adapting to change, finding new ways forward, and applicable life skills, all told in a friendly, non-patronising, informative chatty way.

How about starting your own business – ideas aplenty – or learning how to avoid fake ‘special’ offers, which maybe aren’t quite as special as they seem? What’s compound interest, what’s a mortgage, and when was the word ‘bubble’ used to mean something before coronavirus?

This is a fascinating and fantastic guide, which isn’t at all boring. It links tulips in Amsterdam to the housing market, it explores charity and sharing chocolate cake. For anyone planning to live in our society, this is a must-read book for upper-end of primary school/lower secondary school. You won’t regret investing in it. You can buy it here.

The publisher Little Gestalten very kindly sent me In Great Numbers, illustrated by Daniela Olejnikova during lockdown. For primary school readers, this is a great full-colour non-fiction book that opens up the world in terms of where numbers are and what they can do. This dissects maths in the world rather than explaining mere sums at school. It tracks the history of numbers from the people who invented them, to the modern calendar and ways of measuring things, to explaining how the universe doesn’t make sense without numbers and how if you look hard everything is made of patterns of numbers, and that numbers and their possibilities are endless. And it’s written in simple, explanatory prose paragraph bites.

Particular attention should be paid to the spread on how animals use numbers, learning how spiders count the prey caught in their webs, or perhaps you’ll find more of interest on the page about how the world came up with how to tell the time in different places. For me, there’s always the genius of the Fibonacci sequence, phi and the golden ratio, and of course code cracking. With bold primary colours, detailed illustrations, and something to catch the eye on every page, this is a cracking introduction to how relevant and necessary numbers are. You can buy it here.

And now for a little self-promotion (sorry). For adults reading this who like their fiction short and sometimes surreal, you might wish to look at this short story anthology, How to Hold An Umbrella, in which one of my own short stories has been published.

Back to School September 2019

Surprises abound in nonfiction, and my first subject of the day is Maths, but not as you know it. The Language of the Universe by Colin Stuart and Ximo Abadia is subtitled ‘a visual exploration of maths’, and I wish my maths had been this visual at school.

Bursting with colour, from the stunning peacock and gold foil on the cover, the book explores maths in four sections – the contents page colour-panelled for visual ease – maths in the natural world; physics, chemistry and engineering; space; and technology.

Chapters and topics include ‘Finding Fibonacci’ with its huge whirly flowers; to understanding prime numbers through cicadas; to ‘Getting to Grips with Geometry’ with the white-spotted pufferfish, and the book cleverly links everyday school maths to real world visuals, thus helping the brain to remember the concepts.

Levers, Pythagoras, floating, circuits, and more are covered in the Physics section, but things get really interesting in the final section on Technology, where cryptography and data are extrapolated so that the reader can draw a line from maths in the classroom to technology in today’s world. Maths is in everything and everywhere. This is for both the keen inquisitor, and the reluctant maths scholar – it definitely shows you maths in a whole new light, and colour! You can buy it here. For 8+

I always loved History, and these handy guides will show the reader how to navigate their way into the past through a non-fiction narrative. So You Want to Be a Roman Soldier? By Philip Matyszak, And So You Want to Be a Viking? By John Haywood, are repackaged texts from prior books but now updated in a new format with wacky illustrations by cartoonist Takayo Akiyama. Of course any books like this are bound to be compared to Horrible Histories, and there is an element of that humour, but this is written as a guide rather than a history.

There are interactive quizzes, tips, destination suggestions, shopping lists for kits, and so forth, all zanily illustrated in two-tone colours. ‘Climbing the Ranks’ section in the Roman soldier book, and being the ‘Top Boss’ are particularly good pages. There is lots of modern slang mixed in with Roman jargon, and I felt more Caesar-like as the book progressed. Books include maps and glossaries. You can buy them here. For 7+ years.

Stepping back in time further, and reading up on Natural History, you might want to look at When We Became Humans by Michael Bright, illustrated by Hannah Bailey. This information-heavy book moves from apes through first tools, shelters, and migration to hunting, trading and cities, covering a variety of monumental firsts, including cave paintings, buildings, right through to the printing press and population boom – of huge topical discussion at the moment.

The illustrations are intelligently rendered, to sit nicely alongside the text, which doesn’t plod with data, but rather stimulates discovery and thought. There is great analysis in here, the text explaining how writing created history, among other wise words. With maps and charts, anatomy, geography and more, this is a fascinating exploration of human evolution for 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Are you studying rainforests or habitats in Geography? Animals at Night by Katy Flint, illustrated by Cornelia Li is a follow-up to Glow-in-the-dark Voyage Through Space, but this time comes a bit closer to home. With spreads on Woodland, Rainforest, the City, Desert, and more, it thoroughly covers the different biomes at night. Colourful paragraphs caption the exquisite landscape illustrations, which themselves are created with digital technology using hand-painted textures. The porcupine’s prickles feel 3D, the rattlesnake stretches back into the desert behind it. A tear-out poster glows in the dark illuminating creatures of the deep sea. Awe-inspiring and aesthetically attractive, you’ll learn something too. You can buy it here. Age 6+.

Creative arts/textile management more your thing? This book sadly arrived after my blog on fashion books, but is a worthy addition to this ‘back to school’ list, particularly for those primary schools focusing on the ‘All Dressed Up’ topic from the International Primary Curriculum.

Why Do We Wear Clothes? By Helen Hancocks, in association with the V&A Museum is a treasure trove of colourful fashions with a bit of philosophy tacked on top. This isn’t a comprehensive tome on fashion, but rather a primary-school-age book of wacky facts, and an opportunity to glimpse different cultures and fashions.

Crinoline cages, whites at Wimbledon, the bicorne, icons of fashion, umbrellas and colours – it’s all within and summed up in a sentence or two. A good straightforward glossary and guide to fashion ‘people’ at the back rounds off a fascinating book. Some quirks abound – the text asks questions of the reader, and there’s a tiny print credits section, exploring items in the V&A that inspired the text.

Overall, this is a bright and vivacious book with a fun mishmash of information. For age 6+. You can buy it here.

Back to School

The autumn always sees a mega haul of children’s nonfiction – the back to school collections, lists for National Non Fiction November, and of course the Christmas gift treasure troves. This year, unlike the wet harvest, has yielded a bumper crop.

We start the day with maths. Always a slog after the long summer holidays, this book aims to reverse that groan with a rather wonderful premise – from the front cover, the reader is a genius: This Book Thinks You’re a Maths Genius, by Dr Mike Goldsmith, illustrated by Harriet Russell. It aims to prove that if the reader likes patterns, colouring and puzzles, then actually they’re good at maths. Taking basic mathematical concepts, such as geometry, measurements, statistics, and number patterns, it gives the reader activities and games to enhance their knowledge. Most pages have a ‘Where’s the Math’s box’ at the bottom to explain the ‘science’ behind the activity. It feels more heavily weighted towards shapes and patterns than basic numbers, but it was certainly fun to fill in.

Geography next, with two books to explore. The first, Animazes, illustrated by Melissa Castrillon also combines the territory of activity book with non-fiction, as readers can trace the mazes on each page to learn about the migration patterns of different animals. There’s a vibrancy and exuberance to this book – set by the vivid colour palate, which lifts the knowledge from the page. Christmas Island red crabs, wildebeest of the Serengeti, Monarch butterflies, Mali elephants…There’s a wealth of phenomenal facts about these wonderful animals – for general use or project use. Maze answers are given at the back of the book.

For those wanting a more straightforward factual book, Starters: Rainforests by Nick Pierce and illustrated by Jean Claude ticks the box for little ones. Basic layouts and colourful simple illustrations lend this a modern textbook look, and it reads plainly, but overall gives information in a neat concise visual way, with glossary, and index. Great for Key Stage One, and will bring a dazzling intensity of colour to the topic.

After break, it’s biology, using Bugs by Simon Tyler for budding entomologists. With the first 32 pages devoted to dissecting insect life – from anatomy to taxonomy, life cycle to senses, and the rest given to large colourful illustrations of individual species with accompanying small details about size and habitat, this is a comprehensive look at the subject. However, it stands apart with its impressive use of blank space on the page, clean lines, and coloured backgrounds, which all give the book both a vivacity and a clinical feel. Rarely have insects looked quite so engaging, it could almost double as a coffee-table splendour. Inspirational for children, a minibeast triumph.

You can’t beat a good historical narrative for history lessons. Philip Ardagh’s new series sets out to dominate the market here with his ‘faction’ books, illustrated by Jamie Littler. The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge explores the life of a medieval knight with as much tongue-in-cheek humour as sword-in-hand fighting. Written in day-by-day diary form, with footnotes giving factual information or terminology, the next in the series is The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny, Victorian Housemaid.

The Histronauts series aims to mash activity, story and non-fiction in its first two titles, An Egyptian Adventure and A Roman Adventure by Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke. A group of children dive back in time, and through the means of a comic strip, they illuminate facets of historical life. There are activities alongside the narrative, such as learning Roman numerals and how to play merellus, as well as mazes, recipes and a host of other factual information. Packed with detail, these are fun and educational.

For a more visual look, try Unfolding Journeys: Secrets of the Nile by Stewart Ross and Vanina Starkoff. More cross-curricula than anything, this geography/history hybrid aims to explore this part of the world with a fold-out, vividly yellow map of the Nile (not to scale), highly captioned with number points, which are then extrapolated on the reverse of the fold-out. A mixture of ancient and modern facts and points of information make this a tricky landscape for a child to navigate – a few more dates might have helped, (and I’m unsure about the James Bond reference inside) but it’s certainly an intriguing way to look at a place of interest.

After lunch, younger primary school children will be delighted to get their hands on Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System by Dr Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman. A new title in this series, but firmly aimed at a younger age group, this is another gem from publishers Flying Eye. Fantastic, familiar cartoons, accompanied by Professor Astro Cat’s chatty and informative dialogue, this would be my go-to book for teaching KS1 children about space for the first time.

With our first day at school completed, we look forward to a trip out. The National Gallery have two phenomenal companion books to touring – Get Colouring with Katie by James Mayhew, and Picture This! By Paul Thurlby. The Katie books by James Mayhew have long been favourites for introducing the youngest children to art, and this is a great companion title that picks out paintings within the gallery and gives children space on the page to colour a detail in their own way. Katie gives hints and explanations along the way. Paul Thurlby’s spiral bound book explores more of the paintings by featuring a picture of them, and then a small explanation, with occasional questions to the readers. The paintings are grouped in different ways – both historical, but also those featuring children, times of day, fashions etc. It might be frustrating without a knowledge of which room each painting is in (which the book doesn’t give). But the questions it poses are pertinent and thoughtful. You can buy all these books from good local bookshops, or click the Waterstones link on the top left of the page.

Spring 2017 Picture Book Round-up

Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory by Elys Dolan

The author of Weasels and Nuts in Space has come up trumps with her new book, which at first glance, looks simply like an Easter holiday novelty title. However, it’s much much more than that, and for me, one of the top books of the season.

The chickens in Mr Bunny’s chocolate factory are force fed chocolate, so that they can squeeze out chocolate eggs. But when holidays and breaks are cancelled to increase production, the worker chickens revolt, calling a strike. Mr Bunny thinks he can survive without them, but comes to realise in the end that having a happy workforce means a thriving business. (By the end, the workplace has turned into a start-up firm’s dream, complete with a table tennis area, salad bar and café.)

With a quality control unicorn, health and safety, conveyor belts, a call centre and an ‘image change’, this is a sumptuous indictment of greed in manufacture, and a wonderful lesson about workers’ rights and factories, and the art of persuasion and negotiation.

The plot is told through a combination of narrative, speech bubbles and illustration, at times combining to form a comic strip, and Dolan has imbued her book with subplot and much personality.

A brilliant book, with humour throughout, and a message that lasts long after you’ve consumed the final chocolate egg. Hunt it down here.

Edie by Sophy Henn

Another gem, in a completely different style. Henn’s style is distinctive (she illustrates PomPom books, and previously shone with Where Bear?) and it’s clear to see the similarity here, although this time our protagonist is a girl. The message behind Edie is both simple and complicated. In essence it’s about the dissonance between what a toddler thinks is helpful and how an adult wants toddlers to behave.

For grownups they may recognise their own impatience and frustration, and children will delight at Edie’s antics – knowing that they are usually deemed naughty. However, with a bit of philosophical distance, we can see that Edie is learning through play – and perhaps we impose too many restrictions on children’s freedom. Where’s the line between experimentation and good behaviour? A thought-provoking yet lovely little charmer in beautifully muted pastel shades. You can buy Edie here.

I Can Only Draw Worms by Will Mabbitt

An impeccably silly title, which teaches counting and numbers to the very youngest audience, whilst also showing children that simplicity is often best. Will Mabbitt may not be the best illustrator, but he can certainly use his imagination and make the reader laugh. With its neon colours – bright yellow background cover with a pink neon worm, and bold blank spaces, this is a startling book – in that it takes minimalism to a new degree.

If you want a book to make your little one laugh, then this is it. Just worms, a dreadful accident (I think you can imagine what) and some more worms. Tongue-in-cheek to the nth degree. Draw your worms here.

The Lost Kitten by Lee, illustrated by Komoko Sakai, translated by Cathy Hirano

In contrast, here is someone who can really draw. The illustrations in this book are old-fashioned, and impeccably lifelike. The Lost Kitten tells a simple story about the possibility of loss after finding something you love.

Hina and her mother find a scrawny kitten in their doorway. While they are busy, the mother showing how to take responsibility for a kitten and how to care for it, the kitten is lost. There is, ultimately, a happy ending.

The rough edge to the pencil and paint illustration gives the impression of furriness for the cat, and a slight mist to the humans, so that they feel storylike and whimsical. I was particularly taken by the view of the back of Hina in the wind, with the branches shaking, as she calls for her lost kitten. A desperation rendered from the back is quite something.

It’s these different perspectives that give the story pathos and magic – a distant view of a crowded pavement, a close up of the found kitten next to a boot, the startling shining of the cat’s blue eyes cradled in the arms of the girl (her own face looking down so that eyelashes are more prominent). Find your kitten here.

Other titles to admire include Tasso by William Papas, a re-publication of a 1966 book, but which seems ever more relevant with its fable about tradition versus change, machines taking the place of humans. Set in a Greek fishing village and illustrated with dazzling watercolours, Tasso’s music playing is no longer needed when the café buys a juke box. With deft touches of humour in the illustrations, this is a throwback to the era, and all the more wonderful for it. In the end, of course, authentic music making prevails. Pre-order Tasso here.

Another re-publication, this time a bindup of three favourite Winnie and Wilbur tales. Winnie and Wilbur: Gadgets Galore by Valerie Thomas, illustrated by Korky Paul also plays to the moment with its tales of Winnie ordering a computer, outwitting a robot and zooming to space. Trademark spiky and colourful illustrations, children never tire of witches and the magic that goes wrong. Get your copy here.

And lastly, but by no means least, a wonderful hybrid of fact and fiction in The Curious Case of the Missing Mammoth by Ellie Hattie, illustrated by Karl James Mountford. So many parents lament that their children stick to non-fiction – nothing wrong with this – but here is a book that might fit. Timothy needs to find the missing mammoth and return him to his rightful place within the museum – on the way, trekking through the various rooms, and lifting the flaps, Timothy and the reader learn an assortment of facts, including history, art, aviation, and dinosaurs.

A hodgepodge of goodies, in scintillating contrast and colour, so that the pages are busy without blaring, intriguing without intruding. An excellent introduction to the world of museums. Be inspired here.

Lots by Marc Martin

Quirky and intriguing, Lots is a book about impressions – what do we notice when we go somewhere? How does one place distinguish itself from another? What would we like to explore? Marc Martin has chosen 15 places to illuminate – and they certainly shine. With handwritten text, illustrations reminiscent of William Grill in their intensity and number, this is a vibrant, bold and wonderful new non-fiction book. One for children who want to find out the little known facts about a place, or see it represented in resplendent colour. Check out, in particular, the illustration of the favelas in Rio, or the bawabs in Cairo, the Salema fish in the Galapagos, or the solitary walker in Times Square, New York. This is a beautifully illustrated book that deserves awards for both its quirkiness and illustrations. I’m delighted to host Marc on the blog today, explaining why he chose the places he did.

It was really difficult to choose which places to include in LOTS – there are so many fascinating destinations with their own distinct character that I would have loved to include, but with only 32 pages, there are only so many places I could pick!

So, I started with a long list and slowly narrowed it down. I wanted to include a mix of iconic cities, such as New York and Paris, as well as places that not everyone might think of, such as Ulaan Bataar and Reykjavík. I also made sure I chose locations from each continent, and tried to ensure there was a good mix of cities and nature.

In terms of focusing on each place, I tried to identify some of the particularities of each destination – some are more colourful, some are busy, some are full of animals, some are really hot and some are quite cold! I asked myself questions such as: ‘What are some of the things you would notice if you were travelling here?’ or ‘What is it about this place that makes it different from other cities?’.

I’d also visited about half the places in the book, so personal experience helped shape my decisions – for instance, in Delhi I was amazed by how many cows there are roaming the streets (and how colourful they can be) – it’s not something you’d see in other cities outside of India!

If I hadn’t been to the place I was drawing, I relied on research and information from people who had been there. Once I started researching a particular location in more detail, it was usually pretty easy to discover some of the more unique things about it. There’s an amazing amount of information on the internet, and you can usually find travel blogs and other websites that give you insights into what makes a place particularly different.

Some of my favourite places in the book to visit are New York, Ulaan Bataar and Delhi. I love New York because of how vibrant and fast-paced it can be – there are lots of people from all around the world and you can always find something to do just by wandering the streets. Delhi can be slightly more challenging for visitors, just because it’s very chaotic and there’s a sense of the unexpected, but it’s a very energetic city with lots to discover. Lastly, I like Ulaan Bataar because it’s a little bit hard to get to, and off the beaten track. The people are extremely friendly, and the vastness of the Mongolian landscape is stunning.

With thanks to Marc for the guest post. You can buy it here

Alison Hubble by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman

What makes a good picture book? It’s a question that plagues writers, illustrators and publishers of course. Unlike a novel, where it might take me some time to work out if I’m going to review it favourably and what it is that grabs me, with picture books that drop through my post box, it tends to be an instantaneous reaction.

Is it the concept, the re-readability, the illustrations, the characters, the rhythm, the humour? Whatever magic wielded here by experienced writer and illustrator duo Ahlberg and Ingman, this picture book worked from the moment I saw the cover.

The concept of Alison Hubble is, in itself, fairly genius – partly because the concept feeds into the rhythm of the book – the two are inseparable, full title being: This is the story of Alison Hubble who went to bed single and woke up double.

The story begins in the endpapers – Alison, a delightfully ordinary little girl with pink pyjamas and blonde hair kisses her mother goodnight whilst the cat looks on mischievously – told only through illustration. The title then kicks off the text – and Alison Hubble wakes up double. The cleverness of the rhyme sells the title straight away:

“Woke up with a twin
In her single bed.
“Who are you?” “Who are you?”
She said, she said.”

The cleverness of course is Ahlberg’s play with words throughout – from the use of numerical words, to the use of double entendres within the English language, from the mother describing what has happened to Alison as a very ‘singular’ event, to Alison’s speech:

“But what to wear?
Yes, that’s the trouble.
I’m in two minds,
said Alison Hubble.”

I can’t resist a rhyming picture book – they are a pleasure to read aloud and enable the listener or reader to guess what is coming next with ease. There is fun too, with the illustrations showing Alison’s delight at what has occurred and then the slight doubt as the two Alisons squabble over who is really Alison. But then, to the reader’s surprise, Ahlberg takes his joke to the next level by doubling Alison again…and again. And then it becomes as much a book about numbers and maths as it does about humour, fun, and cleverness.

Ingman is also let loose – with his subtle drawings of multiple Alisons and her environment, especially when multiple Alisons set off and off and off etc for school – each Alison the same and yet dressed slightly differently, and then answering the register call at school from all over the classroom.

His illustrations are reminiscent of those in The Pencil, where the world grew exponentially during the story, in the same way that Alison grows (in an unusual way) here. There is so much detail to take in on each page – from the other schoolchildren gawping at Alisons, to the cut-through of her house, and of course the many many Alisons, all the same and yet individuals too – and it is this subtle rendering of ‘clones’ all with their own personalities, that makes the book so clever, and so interesting.

Ahlberg has great fun with the ending too, along the way involving press, football team analogies and the hilarious despair of her parents. It’s all rather amusing.

And clever at the same time – Alison does her doubling wrong, and the reader must spot the mathematical error – and there is a cheeky school boy who answers to Alison’s name too, as well as some funny placards, and more play on words with newspaper headlines.

The last double page illustration is ripe for counting Alisons – my test child readers all did this – before demanding re-reads.

A new classic – a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek and smart picture book.