Book of the Week

What’s Where on Earth Atlas

I have a soft spot for good non-fiction for children. A very small percentage of reviews of children’s books are of non-fiction – in fact very few of the books that drop through my letterbox are non-fiction. There’s easy access in the high street to sticker books, exam revision texts, and reproduced low quality non-fiction, but when you have fact-hungry children looking for inspiration and knowledge, you need to look a little harder.

This is one of those top quality, highly informative books that scratch that itch. In fact, since arriving at my house, the book has scarcely moved from the kitchen table – there it stays, splayed open, imparting information over breakfast, or after school.

It’s a great atlas because it brings the continents to life in 3-D. Containing over 60 specially commissioned information-heavy 3-D maps and artworks, it really does take the reader on a tour around the world, and delivers a wealth of information.

Each continent is repeated on consecutive pages with a variety of features – themed to show topography (colour coded to show elevation above sea level), then population (again shown by colour in 3D), famous landmarks, climate, wildlife, and my favourite – the continent by night. As well as that, on each map there are extra boxes of information related to the main theme, so when studying the climate page, text and pictures also indicate the coldest inhabited place, the wettest, windiest etc. It explains where the sun doesn’t rise in Greenland between early December and mid January, it explains Tornado Alley in the US, as well as arrows indicating paths of hurricanes.

Alongside this, are spreads that pick out a particular landmark, such as the Grand Canyon for North America, The Great Rift Valley for Africa, and a spread for each continent that is packed with boxes of facts – longest, highest, largest, deepest, busiest, tallest etc. Each continent is given a title page, showing where it is on the globe.

Compare the night time maps of Africa and Europe. Or the population maps of Asia and South America.

There’s a section on the oceans at the back, as well as a quick fact reference, showing flags, capitals, population, area, languages and currency. My only quibble here is that the countries are listed within their continent rather than in alphabetical order, so for children who don’t know where a country is, it’s tough to find.

But overall, this is a breath-taking atlas. If I were taking part in a quiz, or in Key Stage 3, this would be my go-to geography text. I’m not, so I’ll just continue my learning with the kids at the breakfast table. Watch out, we’ll be geographical geniuses before the end of the year.

You can buy your own copy here.

From Ant to Eagle by Alex Lyttle

Warning, this review contains spoilers.

They say write what you know. Canadian paediatric oncologist Alex Lyttle has certainly done that, but this novel is about much more than childhood cancer. It’s a tale of sibling love, and the healing power of friendship.

Eleven-year-old Calvin Sinclair is bored. It’s the summer before sixth grade, and his parents have moved from big city to a small town, leaving him with no local friends, and only his six-year-old brother Sammy to play with. To alleviate his boredom, and to express his sibling dominance, Cal comes up with a series of tests for his brother to pass in order to move up the various levels of a made-up chart – battling from lowly Ant through to the awesome Eagle Level, where Cal sits. The chart is meaningless, of course, and Cal hasn’t done anything to deserve Eagle Level, it’s just a simple display of power. The tests include everything from shooting hoops to disturbing a wasp nest.

Then Cal meets Aleta, a girl of his own age who is also new to the area, and the two of them go off on day long adventures, leaving Sammy at home. Cal gives Sammy a series of tasks to complete in his absence. As the summer progresses, so does Cal’s friendship with Aleta, but also Sammy’s number of sick days. From being unable to keep up with Cal and Aleta on a bike ride, suddenly Sammy is too ill to stray far from the house. When a collapse at school leads to a serious diagnosis, Cal has to re-evaluate whether he himself passes the test of decent big brother; does he himself even deserve the status of Eagle Level, or were the challenges he set Sammy essentially mean-spirited? For now, with a series of real tests in the hospital, Sammy has to show true bravery.

The text is beautifully readable, and the setting highly visual – from the countryside Cal and Aleta explore, to the contrasting confines of the hospital. But the main focus of the book is the sibling relationship – Cal’s feelings of annoyance at his little brother quickly turn into guilt when Sammy gets sick, but also love and protection…something that’s actually been there all along. As well as this, the reader sees how much Sammy looks up to Cal too – something that Cal comes to recognise through gradual self-awareness.

Cal’s voice is honest and direct, which at times of course, is brutal in its direct confrontation of a fatal illness, but also incredibly moving. And through this honesty, the book is admirably empathetic of all characters – doctor, parents, patients and siblings. There are some lovely touches – a fascination with the Goosebumps series of books, as well as the emotional understanding displayed by Cal in gaining the trust and friendship of new girl Aleta.

This book isn’t for everyone – with intensely adult themes, including the death of a six year old, this will be a hard book for some to swallow – yet it’s so honestly written, so tender, that for those willing to confront life’s darker side, it deserves a wide audience. For 11+ years. Please note that this book was initially published by Central Avenue Publishing in North America, and may not be as widely distributed (yet) in the UK. It is, of course, available on Amazon.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

When I was twelve years old a new English teacher started at my school. She was young and glamorous, and I wanted very much to impress her, especially as she taught my favourite subject. Then, one day she handed out our homework assignment on the text we were studying – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She wanted us to depict a scene in a comic strip. I was devastated. Drawing wasn’t literature, I thought. My level of drawing barely matched Wimpy Kid levels, my love for my teacher plummeted as swiftly as Sir Toby descends into revelry. The effort I put in matched my grade. Low.

But it remains one of the Shakespeare plays I best remember. The cross-garters (easy to depict visually), the gender disguises, the triumphant reuniting of the twins. And perhaps that was to do with having to try to make a visual representation.

One of the ways in which the children in my library club best engage with the books I’m reading to them is if we use the books as inspiration to discuss and draw the contents. We may do craft, or create our own story, or redesign covers, or simply draw our feelings.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth is a series of comics presented in paperback book format. In fact, the publisher very kindly sent me the first three, which I devoured with glee, chortling nonstop. Hilo comes crashing down from the sky, clad only in silver underpants, and has no idea where he comes from, or what he’s doing on Earth.

DJ, a normal kid from an overachieving family, and his friend Gina, try to figure out where Hilo comes from, and by the end of the book, how to fight robots in order to save the world!

The comic is fast-paced – action leaps from frame to frame, but the book goes much deeper than that. DJ has pretty low self-esteem, believing that he lacks the skillsets he sees in his siblings. With the friendship of Hilo and Gina, he grows in confidence, and finds out what it takes to be a real hero.

Winick evokes great humour in his portrayal of Hilo, who has no idea what food and clothing are for, and yet absorbs new information at a startling rate. He introduces catchphrases for the friends, and references other comics and movies.

The books are bright and bold – the colour screams from the page, and the characters are wonderfully empathetic and emotive in their depictions.

There’s long been, and still is, a snobbery about comics, and yet by using them for readers who don’t want to be confronted with a large chunk of text, comics can easily imbue children with great storytelling skills.

One of the great things about comics is that they explore the angle of a scene – like assessing the point of view. The reader can explore each individual picture to see why the illustrator has drawn it in that way – what is shown in this scene, what is not – where is the ‘camera’ looking from, is it a close-up? The language has been carefully selected – after all there’s only so much the author can fit into each square – why did he chose those particular words? And more than that, what is the narrative stream between the different frames? – the connectivity of panels relates to the connectivity of sentences in a narrative text.

With a diverse cast, a cliffhanger ending, and a message of friendship, loyalty and bravery, this is a great new series. For 8+ years. Discover it here.

The State of Grace by Rachael Lucas

This past week has been Autism Awareness Week. So I step slightly out of my usual territory to review a teen book, one that explores what it’s like to have Asperger’s, but one that is also a sumptuous read. Books are a great pathway to developing empathy, and The State of Grace really opens up readers’ minds to autism.

Grace, 15, has Asperger’s, but she doesn’t let that define her. She has a phenomenal best friend, Anna, and a potential teen romance with newcomer Gabe, as well as well-defined passions, including horse riding and Dr Who. But there’s an undercurrent of tension at home: her father is working away from home as a wildlife photographer, and her mother is not only trying to cope on her own, but is ever aware of her own changing role as her children grow up.

Grace’s mother invites an old friend into their lives, who exerts a certain amount of influence over her – not always for the good of the family – serving to superficially inflate Grace’s mother’s self-confidence whilst denting Grace’s own. Grace fears the changes being wrought on her family, at the same time that she is unwittingly seeking to change her own with a teen romance.

The book is told from Grace’s point of view – she explains her thoughts to the reader as if she’s talking directly to them, explaining what her experiences are like. There’s her everyday reality of living with Asperger’s – when she feels tired from socialising she reaches the point in which:

“the noises in the house have separated and I can hear each one individually. And at the same time I can hear them all together – it’s hard to explain. It’s like I’m trying to process what’s going on and I can’t filter anything and I can’t think at all.”

But there’s also the distinctive moments in life – emergencies, first kisses, fallen horses. What becomes startlingly obvious is that Grace, of course, is just like any teenager: the first kiss, the first date is nerve-wracking. She is constantly preoccupied that her friends will tire of her. She worries about her relationship with her mother, as well as having moments of taking out her anger and stress on her little sister.

Of course this book will be cheered for bringing a girl with Asperger’s to the front of the action – she’s our protagonist and she’s portrayed brutally honestly. Lucas gives her a romance, shows that she can be both good at communicating like any teen, and also clumsy in her romance like any teen:

“And I wonder if dates are supposed to be like a rollercoaster of amazing bits and uncomfortable silences and kissing and not knowing what to say.”

Grace has no ‘special’ quirk with her autism, as is sometimes portrayed in literature, such as an ability to process maths sums quickly. What she does fear most though, is change. Familiarity is key to her stability, so when changes seem to lurk on the horizon, her world comes crashing down.

The book poses lots of questions – about fitting in and standing out, about the lovely awkwardness of a first tender romance, and a teen’s dawning recognition of her parents’ fallibility.

The secondary characters in the book are particularly effective – from the little sister – also struggling through teen hood in her own way – an understanding and sympathetic grandma, and an undaunted ever-loyal best friend.  Wouldn’t we all love an Anna in our lives?

The book feels current and fresh in its references. But what I particularly enjoyed is how readable and relatable the text is, and how well Lucas voices Grace’s feelings – bluntly: extrapolating exactly how she feels, particularly her tiredness after social interactions, and her attempts to force her face out of her ‘resting bitch face’ into something more compassionate to show that she’s listening to the conversation. Lucas should be pleased – her readers will certainly listen.

A sensitive and charming novel. For 12+ years. You can buy it here.

The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

This book came out in 2016 and rather slipped under the radar, but despite that, has continued to haunt me since I read it – in the same way that the song from somewhere else haunts our protagonist.

Frankie (Francesca) is out distributing leaflets to try to find her lost cat. But when she is hemmed in by bullies in the park, she is rescued by school outcast Nick Underbridge (the name is a carefully chosen clue to the later events in the story). Nick is ostracised in school, and smells slightly, but Frankie finds herself accompanying him home out of a sense of duty and thanks.

At his house, Frankie is drawn by a haunting and beautiful song, but she can’t locate where it comes from. She starts to spend more time with Nick, despite the worry that she too will be cast out at school because of the friends she keeps.

Gradually, the song exerts more and more influence and pull on her, and the story dovetails into part fairytale/part fantasy other world, as it becomes clear that the song originates from the dimension of another world – a kind of fairy tale world. With fairy tales comes danger and darkness, and Frankie’s friendship with Nick is tested to extreme limits when the two worlds collide.

The duality of the story is what makes it so special. The book is set in a time in which kids get on their bikes and ride to freedom, of lego and drawing, but also the internet and mobile phones, yet Harrold makes it feel sort of timeless. The effect of the everyday objects is to ground Frankie deeply in reality, within a contemporary story about friends and bullying, yet there are clear shadows of another world that seep into this – a fairy tale dimension that echoes the heightened emotions of our main story. There are both intensely dark and frightening emotions, and yet also visionary and pure and light overtones to this ‘magical’ dimension of the story. In this way, Harrold uses the duality of his fairy tale to mirror reality and his contemporary story – we all have the darkness and purity inside us.

Pinfold echoes this in his black and white illustrations – they are realistic in what they depict – the estate, a cat at night, Frankie on a bench, Nick’s Dad opening the front door. And yet, because of the shadows cast, the point of view from which the picture is drawn, the intensity of the pencil lines, and yes, more by what is hidden than what is shown – they are deeply dark and disturbing – mysterious and haunting. They feel slippery and ethereal.

The text too – telling a compelling story of friendship in a lyrical way – there is comedy and poetry mixed with darkness. Its evocative and ghostly. Each word is carefully chosen – it’s minimal, and pure.

But most of all, all this combines to make a text that is easy to read, and scattered with illustrations. In fact, the reader devours the book – identifying with the choices Frankie makes about friendship, and her conflicts within herself – especially when she is drawn to a song but can’t quite work out what it is or what it represents. It implies a feeling of loss and absence throughout, and leaves the reader with a sense of bittersweet sadness, as well as uplifting lightness.

This is a great book for deciphering and picking apart friendships – understanding not only who we choose to be friends with, but also how we demonstrate our loyalty to our friends, and how we come to understand them. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been picked up by award lists…this is a hidden gem – perhaps it needs to come out of its own shadows.

Suitable for 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Fish Boy by Chloe Daykin

There aren’t many TV programmes that pull the whole family together for family viewing time any more. Maybe X-Factor or BGT. But one that still has resonance and meaning, and is guaranteed to pull a family crowd, is a documentary from Sir David Attenborough. So when I heard that Fish Boy by debut author Chloe Daykin was about a boy who channelled the voice of Sir David in his head as part of the narration, I was more than intrigued. I was super excited.

For any of you out there who know a boy who is tentative about reading, but gripped by facts of nature or animals, and loves the environment – this is an intriguing premise. However, it’s not quite as I thought, less about channeling the facts of nature, although there is plenty of that, but more an invocation of Sir David’s soothing tones, his lilting voice, his reassurance, and this, above all is what gives Fish Boy its ultimate charm.

Billy is picked on at school, feels and acts like a bit of a loner, and added to that his Mum is sick – an undiagnosed dragging sickness. Living by the sea proves to be his perfect escape, especially as one day a sense of magic seems to come alive under the water, (more than a sense of magic – almost a dreamlike second dimension). Then a new boy starts at school, and changes everything – the way Billy thinks, his time at school, and most importantly how he views his family.

There is an element of surrealism about the book – a large element, in that every time Billy goes swimming he becomes ‘one’ with the fish, swimming with them, communicating with them. For some children, this might be offputting, although if like me, you like a bit of quirkiness chucked in with the realism (think David Almond in particular), then this is the book for you. What could venture into the bizarre and zany, rests beautifully in Daykin’s hands, as her prose is sparkling, unique and captures Sir David Attenborough’s calming and soft overtones. It lulls the reader, and soothes them, so that the overall effect is rather like being underwater.

There’s no satisfying explanation for the adventures under water with the fish, which perversely serves to make the book more satisfying. Some things in life are just unexplained, just mystical, and that’s fine. What is resolved is the friendships and family conundrums.

Most particularly, the resolution between Billy and his mother is poignant, as towards the end she is diagnosed – but more than just having an answer, Billy comes to an acceptance of what’s happening with his family. It’s uplifting and hopeful.

With swirls of humour, as well as some fairly frightening undercurrents, this is a refreshing read – quite unlike anything else I’ve read recently. And what pulled mainly for me was not so much the story, as the fact that Daykin’s prose matches her story – typical modern boy/parent dialogue pared with short sharp pithy prose when swimming – almost as if it’s mimicking the short flap of a gill as a fish breathes – but also all massively imbued with the character of Billy. Clever. Watch out for her second, it’s sure to swim freestyle too. You can buy it here.

The Big Book of Beasts by Yuval Zommer

A skulk of foxes, mould growing in a sloth’s fur – just a couple of random facts that I learned whilst perusing the latest offering from Yuval Zommer. This follow-up to the hugely successful The Big Book of Bugs is another triumph. Such short sentences – pithy and witty – provide easy text for a young reader and speak casually with not a word wasted. “When a tiger licks a wound, its spit helps to heal its skin.” Simple yet effective absorption of facts.

But of course, this book is led mainly by its illustrations. Zommer has his own fun style – a series of portraits of each animal on a double page spread – so for example, the reader sees depictions of a lion roaring, snoozing on its back, licking a friend, hunting and sitting astride a rock – all to show the different snippets of information that Zommer wants to impart.

Each spread shows either a different type of beast – wolves, tigers, bears, bats, hyenas etc, or some general characteristic – such as noises and smells, claws and jaws. There’s no precise science as to which animal made the cut and which didn’t; the book just sets out to make an impression.

And because this book of beasts is for the relatively young, it remains positively tame. Although the lion hunts, the depiction of bloody meat is cartoon-like and divorced from the animal – the bear hunting looks as if the animal is juggling fish rather than eating them.

Because this is not intended to be a clear representation of the animal – rather a mashup between a cartoon and an illustrated depiction of the creature – so that the bear rubbing its back against the tree looks almost Yogi-esque in facial expression.

It’s not an encyclopedia – not a book you’d go to for ‘everything about lions’ for example, but rather a taster of the animal world, instead of a reference for project work. But at this age, what more could the reader want than to pique curiosity with stunning, selected facts: ‘A baboon sleeps upright on a cushion-like patch of skin on its behind’? Accompanied by a myriad of sympathetic, slightly humorous, endearing illustrations.

There’s a lovely glossary with pictures, and an index too – for those that need an introduction to such things. There’s also an interactive element, and the by now necessary bit in every children’s animal book about those species that may be at risk, and the human environmental factor. As with the rest of the book, this is done in a very gentle way. In fact, in the book as a whole, there’s nothing beastly about it.

You can buy it here.

The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King

So there’s chocolate and there’s books. Two favourite things of mine. Sylvia Bishop clearly feels the same for she has transplanted the idea of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory into a book about bookshops.

Property Jones was left in the lost property cupboard of a bookshop when she was just five. Now she lives with the owners – a mother and her son. She loves living there, with her adopted family, but as was the case with Charlie Bucket and his family, they are impoverished. And Property is impoverished in more than one way, for she is harbouring a terrible secret – she is illiterate and cannot admit it.

And then, fortunes appear to change when the family win a competition to own Montgomery’s Emporium of Reading Delights, perhaps the greatest bookshop in the world. The shop smells of books, the rooms are themed on a grand scale: a dictionaries room in which everything has a brown tag label; the room of knights and castles books with stone walls and tapestries, books of woodland tales in a room in which the floor is covered with pine needles – and so on, all operated with a series of levers and pulleys – stacks of rooms in loops.

But with more power comes more responsibility, and possibly great danger, not in terms of the grumpy cat who resides there, but the grey man who lurks mysteriously in the shop.

This is an old-fashioned adventure story, wrapped up in the fantastical delight of limitless imagination. There are forgeries and baddies, befuddled old gentlemen and oddball cats, and children seeing and doing more than the adults. But above all, a shining colourful adoration for books.

The ultimate message is one of honesty – being true to yourself and others, and seeing what’s true and what isn’t. What message could be more pertinent in this era of fakery and falsification? And most of all the text and characters feel fresh; the premise may not be new, but it has been executed as if it is – the prose reads freely, the plot moves like liquid gold. If I was seven again this is the book that would make me fall in love with reading. And bookshops.

I was sent this book to review in the early proof stages, but have been promised (and given a sneak peek) of the illustrations that will embellish the book. I have no doubt that they too will be as exquisite as the text.

Don’t miss out – this could be your child’s golden ticket to a lifelong love of books. Suitable for age 6+ years.

You can buy your own golden ticket/bookshop girl here.

Attack of the Alien Dung by Gareth P Jones, illustrated by Steve May

Authors are often asked to elaborate on where they get their ideas from. It’s quite simple – most of the time it involves asking themselves the question ‘what if?’ This new series starts with a great premise – what do our pets do when we’re out of the house all day? And the answer is – they defend the Earth against aliens. Hence, Pet Defenders.

Gareth P Jones, former winner of the Blue Peter Award, is known in the industry for his wacky sense of humour and his outlandish inventiveness (see also for this age group: Ninja Meerkats, Dragon Detectives and Steampunk Pirates) but this new series plumbs new depths – or reaches new heights, depending on your sense of humour!

Planet Earth is under constant attack from alien species, but agent Biskit (a dog) is fully prepared to stop them, aided by his new partner Mitzy (a cat!) and the boss – Example One, who happens to be a former lab mouse. Add in a few Forget-Me-Plop seagulls to keep the humans quiet, and a story is born. In fact, it’s highly reminiscent of Men in Black (with animals), and just as funny.

In Attack of the Alien Dung, not only does Biskit meet his new partner, Mitzy, but he has to save the world from a Dung Guzzler beetle from the planet Dun-Glowing, a creature who thrives by eating rubbish and grows larger the more it consumes.

There is little let-up in the action here, with many pet chases, as well as non-stop gentle humour and overarching inventiveness and silliness. Accompanied by very funny black and white illustrations that help to tell the story, as well as showing extra brushes of humour, this is a rollicking read for young readers.

Stepping in the footsteps of Captain Underpants, Spy Dogs, and the silliness of Jeremy Strong’s books – this fine new series should prove to be a popular addition to the comedy canon.

So many children say that they like to read a book that makes them laugh. These sorts of books are perfect for encouraging reading as a habit rather than a chore – if they’re laughing throughout, then they don’t deem it work – and before long the habit is formed and reading is for pleasure and for love.  There’s no better attraction than laughter. And Gareth P Jones does it particularly well. You can buy it here.

The Awesome Body Book by Adam Frost

I’m sure I would have qualified to be a doctor, or at least enjoyed biology more, if this book had been around when I was a youngster. This is a non-fiction chapter book, set out in full colour, and packed with the most incredible facts that will enable the reader to answer quiz questions, startle their teachers and amaze their parents, as well as share delectable, laughable quirks with their friends.

There’s no index or contents, for a very good reason – this is a book of randomly assembled facts to dip into, laid out in colourful infographics and cartoon illustrations.

So the reader can find out what’s edible in their back garden, to which is the biggest/smallest/strangest/longest muscle in the human body, to bacteria, worms, hair, noise, crying, the heart, brainpower and on and on. And each section contains small enjoyable sentences of information.

Amazing the facts might be, but there’s no alternative truth here. The full source and reference list is even listed at the end of the book so that the reader can double check any truths of which they’re unsure.

The diagrams are hilarious – showing how long the human tongue would be if it was proportionally as long as an African hawkmoth’s, there’s a diagram showing different facial hair, and some of the graphics are just plain fascinating – the infographic showing different noises in decibels.

But mainly this book works because as well as being interesting, it’s so accessible. It’s easy to read, and the reader will learn without realising they are absorbing facts, and ‘read’ without realising they are ‘reading’ a book because the facts are in such small morsels.

It answers things that don’t actually come up in biology lessons, and goes beyond farts and worms, (although it does cover these in detail) and delves into the psychology of dreams, colours in different cultures, and behaviour comparisons between humans and animals.

Adam Frost has won the Blue Peter Book Award for a previous title in the series, but this is the first themed title. And it made me use my orbicularis oculi (pars lateralis). See if it makes you use yours! Buy it here.