All Things Bright and Beautiful: National Non-Fiction November

National Non-Fiction November (a month dedicated to the sometime neglected category of children’s information books) is not only in November because of the alliteration – November is also the peak period for buying children’s non-fiction in the scramble for Christmas gift options. I have a huge pile of amazing non-fiction books on the floor at home – they are too huge to fit on the shelf, and this way they can dazzle me daily as I trip over them on the way to the computer. For dazzle they do. Children’s non-fiction grows brighter and more beautiful every year.

Today, the highlights of new animal and nature non-fiction.

DK Explanatorium of Nature

Watching Blue Planet II on Sunday night was magical. As Sir David Attenborough explains, cameras now have the ability to show us things that weren’t possible even a decade ago, and the daring and bravery and patience of the cameramen is quite striking. DK capitalise on this power of photography in their stunning non-fiction for children.

With jaw-dropping photography to inspire, simple facts laid out, and a comprehensive layout, this is quite an encyclopaedia, that also lives up to its name, for it certainly does explain things. Each spread is entitled ‘How something works’, starting with Life, and it doesn’t just state the facts, but it actually explains them. In ‘How Life works’, the authors explain the seven characteristics that all forms of life share, as well as describing how humans have divided living things into seven major groups called kingdoms, and exploring the essential element of water. It’s comprehensive, but told well and simply, and illustrated to perfection – the main image here is a close up photo of a squash bug and its babies on a leaf.

Every page in this large book is dominated by a bright, annotated or captioned image, usually photographic, so the eye is constantly drawn and interested, and there are smaller diagrams and illustrations to explain in more detail. For example, the spread entitled ‘How Starfish work’ has a large photograph taken from underneath, but also an illustration to show how seawater tubes run through their bodies, seeing as starfish don’t have a heart or blood vessels. It also explores the internal skeleton, tube feet, how they eat, how they regrow limbs, and the use of its star-shaped body.

There are numerous questions answered in this huge compendium, including bioluminescence, how insects see, how a crocodile can breathe underwater while still holding prey in its mouth, why birds fly in a V formation, and many more.

Ten chapters include the basics of life, microorganisms, plants, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and habitats. A fantastic visual feast. You can buy it here.

Urban Jungle by Vicky Woodgate
As an urban adult with urban children, this was a delightful find. We live in the heart of London, where our access to nature comes from crossing a footpath through two fields to get to school, and gazing out at our small patch of London green, marvelling, this time of year, at the red beauty of the acer gracing the middle of the lawn. But even within these small landscapes, there is huge scope for nature, and this wonderful book opened our eyes to the multitude of species that inhabit our urban spaces.

The book is a sumptuous collection of colourful city maps, highlighted with illustrations of the different abundant species that make their habitats in the city. Of course there are foxes and pigeons in London, but Vicky Woodgate focuses not only on the seen, but also on the unseen.

In New York for example, terrapins turn up at JFK airport in June to lay their eggs in the sandy turf near the airport. In Hong Kong, the masked palm civet eats fruit in the lush trees of the city’s parks.

Woodgate also highlights the danger humans pose to these urban dwellers. Pollution in Thane Creek in Mumbai has led to the disappearance of about 50 marine species, and in Sydney, the destruction of their habitat means that the common brushtail possum have now adapted to urban living and find roofs in which to nest.

Each animal illustration is labelled, and there are many small snippet paragraphs of information to absorb. On each double spread, a small map indicates where the city lies within its country, and there are large opening continent spreads that give an atlas view as to where the cities are in the world. In each city, green spaces, airports, zoos and animal sightings are given in a key.

Of particular interest are the ‘boxed off’ animal stories, supplementing the main information. These may be about migration, or natural disasters, or a particular animal that has a story in that city.

The idea is to inspire sightings and nature watching even in the most over-populated places on Earth. With a comprehensive index, and a huge number of experts who helped with the book listed at the back, this is a phenomenal piece of new non-fiction. You can buy it here.

How Animals Build by Moira Butterfield and Tim Hutchinson

Lonely Planet approach animals slightly differently in their new title about animal homes. Told with facts, but in a colloquial, jokey manner, the book roams across the planet looking at animals that build their homes with clever strategies. From coral reefs, to termite mounds, hives to webs, the placement of each animal is fairly random, and there is no index.

Instead, the book is incredible fun. Fully illustrated in colour, each page contains either small flaps to see inside an animal’s home, or a full page opener that shows what’s going on behind the scene. The first spread, for example, shows an illustration of a European oak tree. The flap reveals all that’s going on inside the one tree, from woodpeckers’ holes to a wasp nest, to a burrowing wood mouse at the bottom. The title of the page ‘Apartment Block with Branches’ gives a clue to the tone of the book.

There are a lovely couple of spreads about underwater living, brightly coloured, with an illustrated diver too, and lots of information including the meaning of sand circles on the sea bed, hiding places for octopuses, and a fact trail about how reefs are constructed.

Further on, the beaver is awarded the prize for best animal building for his dam and lodge, and there’s even a section on animals who make their homes in human habitats.

This is a lovely introduction to studying nature in a specific way, and would serve the purpose beautifully for a school project. Colourful, interesting and just light enough on information to inform its young audience without overwhelming. You can buy it here.