environment

Beauty and Nature

I may live an urban life, but there are still pockets of natural beauty all around. There’s a pathway near my house that leads between two fields in which horses graze, and the other morning half the grass was dusted with a sprinkle of frost and emitted a white glow, while the stark green of the other side was trampled as the horses meandered and whinnied. Looking up, we saw a plethora of autumnal reds, yellows and browns, as differently shaded leaves fluttered on the branches above us.

perfectly peculiar plantsPerfectly Peculiar Plants by Chris Thorogood, illustrated by Catell Ronca

The overwhelming vibrancy of this book sucks in the reader as if they are a fly teetering on the edge of a Venus flytrap. Featuring a different plant on each double page spread, the colour of the illustrated plant takes over the page, blending with the insects and birds depicted alongside it. With a watercolour wash background, this is an immersive plant book, a far cry from ancient plant identification tomes that feel cold and staid. Indeed, Ronca’s illustration of the bee orchid looks like a psychedelic Kandinsky painting.

Written by a professional botanist, the text doesn’t shy away from complete explanations and correct information. There are Latin names here, but also exciting enthusiastic prose that aims to convey a love and respect for plants as well as an interest. And the plants chosen are truly magnificent. They are peculiar indeed – from the Dead Horse Arum which looks like an animal’s tongue and apparently smells like a rotting animal, to the Giant Waterlily, which produces heat. The text is written in small paragraphs in a large typeface but for so few sentences, Thorogood provides specific, pertinent information in easy to understand language.

The selected plants are global, and feature different peculiarities, but there’s also an emphasis on some general information about plants – how they get energy, how they work with animals, and of course how they need protecting.

A glut of information, displayed wondrously. You can buy it here.

book of treesThe Book of Trees by Piotr Socha, illustrated by Wojciech Grajkowski

I am lucky to be surrounded by trees despite living in London. A cherry tree lightly brushes the front window, and I can see the broad oaks, beeches and chestnuts that line the roads and fields opposite. Socha’s book is as large in scope as the oak, attempting not to just identify trees, but to understand their importance, their physical and spiritual natures. This large hardback is beautiful in itself – a beauty that comes in part from its source material, and Socha references this.

In fact, this is almost a story of trees rather than a non-fiction book. Its narrative sweeps from a basic understanding of the cyclical nature of trees, to their physicality – age, size, material, leaf shapes etc, to their spiritual and magical elements, their role in the environment as homes and sources of food, to the elements they inspire – wood art, buildings, musical instruments, human-constructed tree-houses and so much more. But the tree’s overwhelming beauty and magnificence makes itself known in the stunning illustrations that dominate the pages – leaving just a strip of text at the border to highlight information. The range of leaves and roots is illustrated, but as the reader journeys through the tree and its importance in different cultures, the author/illustrator team showcase how trees have been used to map our evolution, to map families, and to provide spiritual succour. As with The Book of Bees, there is humour liberally applied to the fact-giving, and a sophistication in both image and text. The Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia pictured overgrown with tree roots is simply sublime. You can buy it here.

wild buildings and bridgesWild Buildings and Bridges: Architecture Inspired by Nature by Etta Kaner and Carl Wiens

It is fairly rare to come across a mainstream children’s book on architecture, and this is certainly one of the more pleasing ones. The premise is the exploration of how nature’s patterns and design informs architecture – using the beauty and aesthetics of nature, as well as problem-solving features within the laws of nature, to good effect in man-made structures. As well as general spreads giving examples of such buildings, there are also small profiles of architects and small experiments to conduct at home – teaching by practical example.

All of this is explained in a range of text, diagrams, illustrations and photographs. Techniques that copy nature include conservation of water, keeping cool, repelling water and strength in shape and design. There are also references to inspirations – the Gherkin in London was inspired by the Venus Flower-basket Sponge. Some of the buildings and structures are quite extraordinary – the Easter Dawyck Bridge that mimics nature’s recycling process, the Council House 2 office block in Melbourne that is modelled on African termite towers, the Wave apartment complex in Denmark that aims to mirror the water of the fjord on which it sits.

There are even admissions of mistakes when architects haven’t quite understood the science behind the natural structures they are copying. This is a fascinating book, documenting not only how we learn from nature but also how we can try and live in harmony with it – using natural light, or local materials and resources. You can buy it here.

riversRivers by Peter Goes

The beauty of this book lies not so much in its depiction of nature, but in the stylistically elaborate carving of time and space into the geographic linearity of the world’s rivers. Goes blends the true depiction of the shape of each river that he profiles with an almost surreal aura, festooning each river with tributaries of information and branches of illustrations to sum up the cultural, historical, and natural history of his rivers.

Covering rivers all over the globe from the Thames in Europe to the Yukon in North America, the Niger in Africa to the Fly in Oceania, Goes takes each river and uses his scattered style to meander from the centre of his river into a stream of consciousness about it. So, for example, The Thames profiles its source and route as well as its water level, but also explores the meaning behind the name, the history of the Frost Fair, the kingfisher on the water, The Thames Barrier, the Henley Boat Race and so much more – each nugget of information illustrated in monochrome. There’s a playfulness to the information too – some personal opinion, and clearly a very personal selection of rivers and facts, but this is an extraordinarily dramatic graphic resource. You can buy it here.

 

Autumn 2018 Picture Book Round-Up 2

a house for mouse
A House for Mouse by Gabby Dawnay and Alex Barrow
There’s a wonderful satisfaction in spotting literary allusions in texts, as if the author has winked at you, and you looked up to catch it. Sometimes they’re very well hidden – but for children it’s important that the literary allusions are accessible. A House for Mouse plays upon the enticing estate agent theme of looking into other people’s houses, and also the literary allusions game.

Mouse is searching for a new house, but they all seem to have negatives – clear building regulation failures (The Three Little Pigs), architectural issues (Gingerbread house), inaccessibility (Rapunzel’s tower), overcrowding (There was an Old Woman) and so on. He settles on Sleeping Beauty’s castle but realises that in the end, home is where his heart is, of course.

With humour galore, a fairy tale map at the beginning and soft pencil illustrations delineating the different landscapes, this is a comforting and appealing story book that is more about friendship than location. See if the book suits you here.

theres room for everyone
There’s Room for Everyone by Anahita Teymorian
Mouse was wise to share his castle with his friends – Teymorian uses her picture book to point out that although the library has enough space for all the books (she’s clearly never been in my house), and there’s enough room for all the stars in the sky, human beings constantly fight over space – be it on the train or in a larger context of land and war. The message is simple – that with kindness and love there’s enough room for everyone. What might come across as a little sanctimonious and simple becomes more thoughtful if the reader studies the illustrations used to make Teymorian’s point – the clever use of the boundaries of the page, the distorted long-limbed humans, the neat use of lines to create patterns and textures. A warmth oozes from the pages. There’s room for you here.

the dam
The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold
Immediately bringing to mind the beginning of Haweswater by Sarah Hall, a novel tracking the lives of dispossessed people after the flooding of a valley, this may feel like a strange topic for a picture book. Walker, pushing the boundaries, allows Almond to tell the story, based on truth, of a dam building in Northumberland, which led to the flooding of a valley and the village within it. Here, Almond and Pinfold retell the story of the musicians who played music in this lost place before the flooding.

With themes of loss, dispossession, rebirth and the power of creativity, Almond blesses his lyrical text with a deep simplicity, much repetition, and a clear placing of words within their white background. However, it is Pinfold’s brown and dreamy illustrations that provide the atmosphere and haunting quality to the text, showing both the before and after effects with deep pathos, understanding and clever use of soft muted, almost sepia colour. Pinfold brings a clarity to his study of water and structure, rendering the narrative with a distinct sense of place. And the light – the light pours through the book like water into a flooded valley. You can buy it here.

mary and frankenstein
Mary and Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Julia Sarda
Another atmospheric interpretation in this celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Bailey approaches her topic by investigating how the events of Mary’s life brought her to the moment of creativity, exploring how the story of Frankenstein festered and developed within Mary’s mind. From the death of her mother, to the animosity of her stepmother, the mood swings of her father and her travels and influences, Bailey creates a full image of Mary’s young years with just a few carefully chosen words.

Sarda’s illustrations use darkness, shadows and an almost Picasso-like angularity to illuminate Bailey’s words, creating an unforgettable aura in the people she draws and the landscapes she illustrates. The richness of the colour palette – vivid reds, oranges and browns elucidates the richness of the culture within which Mary was subsumed, but it is the clever rendering of the skies, storms, and imagination at work in dark greys that really sets the tone. Many details to look at, including the houses of the era, the interior décor, as well as gravestones and horses and carriage provide an extra thrill for readers. Like Frankenstein itself, an unforgettable book. Inspirational. (The book is titled Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein in the United States). Explore the life of Mary Shelley here.

on a magical do nothing day
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna, translated by Jill Davis
Illustrations of a completely different order in this modern award-winning text about finding creativity and adventure out of boredom, now published in paperback. A purposefully gender ambiguous protagonist is told by the mother to put down the computer game and find something to do. The child leaves the house with the computer console in order to be out of sight, yet gradually becomes sucked into the natural environment.

At first miserable and bored, the child soon finds joy and creativity in solitude; the neon orange coat at first marking the child as separate from nature, but then seamlessly blending into the myriad of mushrooms and toadstools, and before long there is wonder to be found in the sensuous delights around – jelly snails, the aroma of fungi, the sifting of earth through fingers. The weather plays its part too, and at the end mother and child bond over quiet contemplation and hot chocolate.

This is a phenomenal book of everyday discoveries, with illustrations that make the reader draw breath. The change in perspective, the clever use of light, tone and vignettes gives the book an excitement, and yet also tender empathy. I’m longing for a Do-nothing Day of my own. You can buy the paperback here.

travels with my granny
Travels With My Granny by Juliet Rix and Christopher Corr
On the surface a vibrant picture book about destinations throughout the world, told by an adventurous Grandmother, this is actually a book about dementia, and explaining to children how to try to understand what people with dementia are going through. The grandmother believes she is really travelling, and the other adults explain that she doesn’t know where she is, but for the child, (again an ambiguous gender) he/she is happy to explore the grandmother’s mind, even if it seems confused.

The illustrations are bright and garish, depicting New York on a bright yellow background with multi-coloured skyscrapers and entertainments – as brash and brassy as Times Square. London is blue, Jerusalem orange, Rome a tender mauve. A few facts punctuate each city – in Delhi the tricycle taxis are rickshaws for example. The information at the back explains about dementia. An important, interesting addition. Buy it here.

Social Action Picture Books

I do firmly believe that starting out with an agenda is not the best way to write a book, but often a cause or an issue catches our attention because of the story behind it. The media know this all too well – putting a human face to a crime, building a narrative around Brexit, giving story examples of health crises are the way we engage with issues. We need stories.

These clever picture books may be issue-based, but they win over the reader with their subtle blend of picture and text, with their bold narratives.

Homelessness:
the old manThe Old Man by Sarah V and Claude K Dubois

A skilful mix of tender illustrations and sparse text portray this issue with pathos and intelligence. Homeless people often feel invisible, and the gentle pencil sketching and sepia tones of this picture book lend an invisibility to the homeless man, but also give the book a sophistication and elegance that makes it attractive.

The book starts with daylight and a girl rising from her bed within her house, but flits quickly to the homeless man also starting his day, in the rain and ignored. It portrays his struggle with hunger and cold, his awkwardness and shame, his loneliness.

For much of the book, the people remain faceless – shown from waist down, or blurred in the rain. It is only at the end when there is human connection between the little girl and the homeless man, that the features begin to be defined. It is one act of human kindness that gives the homeless man the warmth and humanity to go to a shelter, and be recognised for who he is.

This is a brave and touching story, and an excellent picture book for allowing children to explore an issue and see that people are more than just their outward appearance. You can buy it here.

Gender Roles:
looking after williamLooking After William by Eve Coy

This humorously illustrated story takes a look at domestic roles and the workload of a parent in a warm and engaging manner.

The little girl of the story decides to act as ‘mummy’ to William, her stay-at-home Dad. She not only performs everyday tasks, but also sees his potential to be whatever he wants to be when he grows up.

The reader will adore her attempts to look after him – making him breakfast but spilling the milk all over the table, giving him exercise by making him tow her up the hill on his bike, and generally ‘looking after’ him by making him push her in the swing, or take her round the supermarket in the trolley. Her grown up jobs include building blocks, and making tea for her toys.

It’s a gorgeous portrayal of domestic life, with immense wit and warmth. In the end, the little girl decides that her Dad only wants one job, despite all the wonderful things he could achieve – and that, of course, is being her Dad. Uplifting and cute, and dominated with shades of blue, green and yellow – like a soft lamp casting a warm hue across the page. You can buy it here.

Animal Conservation:
hello helloHello Hello by Brendan Wenzel

Wenzel’s first picture book, They All Saw A Cat, took the perspective of the animal in viewing the world and illustrated each page accordingly. Hello Hello also gives animals shape and zest, showing the animal world in amazing variety – in colour, but also in action, with animals leaping, flying, twisting, turning and dancing across the white pages. Reminiscent of Lucy Cousin’s Hooray For Fish with its similar sparsity in rhyming text; the animals address each other with descriptive greetings: ‘Hello Stripes, Hello Spots, Hello Giant, Hello Not’. But Wenzel’s sparklingly colourful exploration of animal life takes the illustrations further by using a huge range of media including cut out paper shapes, oil pastel, computer graphic.

The message is simple – that the animals all share certain traits, despite their vast differences. Many of the creatures featured are endangered and Wenzel lists the animals at the back, stating whether they are vulnerable or not. A vibrant call to action. You can buy it here.

is it a mermaidIs it a Mermaid? By Candy Gourlay and Francesca Chessa

A tale of identity and imagination, in that Benji and Bel find a strange creature on their beach, and although they know it is a dugong, Bel goes along with the dugong’s story when she claims to be a mermaid. The humour lies in the illustrations, which represents the dugong as a fairly lumpen animal, about as far removed from mythical ideas of the mermaid as possible.

When Benji’s negativity causes the dugong to cry, he realises he’s been insensitive, and plays along too. The illustrations are colourful, particularly of the undersea world, and beautifully atmospheric, especially in the change in light depending on time of day, but they also bear out a childlike simplicity. What’s more the children and the dugong are constantly active – so that the picture book feels alive and exuberant.

At the end, the authors remind the reader that both dugongs and sea grass habitats are under threat, and give resources for how to help. Save the world here.

 

Environment Conservation:
the coral kingdomThe Coral Kingdom by Laura Knowles and Jennie Webber

Through simple rhyme, this book manages to explore facts about the coral reef, portraying the colour, diversity and life cycle of the ecosystem. Each page has a simple sentence accompanied by the most detailed and colourful illustration. In this way the book both informs and inspires.

There is much to take in – the dive of the dugong, homes of polyps, sea stars and mantas, turtles and minke whales. The colours and textures are plain to see, and the interweaving of the different creatures and plants make for quite a spectacle.

The shock comes over halfway through, when the beautiful colours are gone – bleached by the warming seas. The remainder of the book explores what humans need to do to protect this environment, with a beautiful pull out spread of how it should be, accompanied by information about conservation on the reverse. From the winners of the Margaret Mallett Award for Children’s Non-Fiction, this is a perfect picture book to teach first steps to conservation. See the coral here.

when the bees buzzed offWhen the Bees Buzzed Off! By Lula Bell, illustrated by Stephen Bennett

With a die-cut front cover, and lift the flaps throughout, this is a nifty book for young children about discovering nature. The insects inside the book are frantic that the bees have disappeared – told in an array of speech bubbles, accompanied by short narrative sentences.

The authors have had fun here: the insects are imbued with personality, and pretentions of comic wit: “the search is fruit-ile” says one, a joke wasted on the very young but wry for the adult reader. Other jokes suit the readership better – the jealousy of tadpoles at different stages, the lying spider.

In the end, the insects learn that bees need certain flowers to enable pollination, and without them our world would be poorer in many ways. You can buy it here.

An Interview with Bren MacDibble

how to beeThe other week, I featured How to Bee by Bren MacDibble as my book of the week. It’s a near-future fictional look at the plight of children in a world in which bees have been wiped out from pesticide use, with a stand-out protagonist in the shape of Peony, a farm child who longs to be a bee (a worker who manually pollinates the trees). Bren MacDibble kindly gave me some time and answered my many questions – the book itself throws up many topics of debate and is a fascinating study, as well as a bold and gripping novel.

How To Bee is a phenomenal story set in the future after the loss of bees has caused an environmental disaster and famine. How did you come up with this idea?

For a long time, I’ve been looking for a farm story (being a farm kid, write what you know and all that stuff), but I love fiction set in the future, so it came about pretty naturally after looking into food security and all the possible threats to our food supplies. Bees and their current plight are definitely worthy of a story, having worked alongside English crops for centuries, and their current situation being so dire.

The future in the novel is fairly bleak, not only the environmental impact, but in terms of a massive divide between rich and poor, and a seeming lack of human rights/right to education/child protection. Did you set out to show this wealth divide for a reason?

I see it happening all around us right now, so a future without it didn’t seem honest. When you have money there are so many ways to use that money to make more money, but the poverty trap is just that, a trap. Once you’re poor, there are so many barriers to getting work, to getting by, to getting ahead. So many people, and societal structures that tell you daily you’re worthless and stupid, adding your own lack of self-worth to the trap. Working for just enough money to keep working is another form of poverty. Maybe you feel safer, because you can buy enough to eat, and the clothes you need to keep working, and pay for the travel to the job that pays just enough to keep you employed.

The poor and the working poor suffer first and suffer most in any catastrophe. Floods, fire, famine. Money, and the insurance it buys, is insulation that carries people through a catastrophe, but the poor don’t have that. They were struggling already to pay rent, to buy food, they didn’t have the funds to plan for the unexpected. That had to be shown if this was going to be an honest story. And I wanted this to be an honest story.

In the novel, Peony, the main character, has a truly distinctive voice, which reflects her lack of schooling and her rural upbringing. Did you find writing the voice easy?

Peony’s voice was so easy. She just got into my head. Her voice was full of the bravado of someone who has mastered her own small world, but also so simple and honest. There were a few elements I had to think about, like that fruit and flowers were precious in this new future so all good things like the children’s names, and the term ‘super-cherries’ had to celebrate fruit or flowers, also I wanted to set it in the future, but I needed them to still speak like farm kids. So it had to be futuristic with words like ‘diz’ for disrespect and ‘Urbs’ for city dwellers, but roughed up and full of farm terms like ‘go stomp yourself,’ which is how they get rid of pests in the future on farms with no pesticides.

The rich people in the novel still have phones and computers and televisions, yet the poor people don’t at all. Do you see our use of technology dying out in the future, rather than extending communication between different people?

In this future, young Esmeralda can play games on her fridge and in her room, and no doubt her parents use technology in their jobs much as we do, but there are so many poor in the post famine world, that I expected any technology they once owned would’ve been swapped/sold/pawned for food long ago. Electricity and internet fees would be further costs that could better go towards food and shelter. Maslow’s hierachy of needs does not have technology in the bottom layers.

In the book’s acknowledgements, you mention that you wished the foreman on the farms had been as nice as you had made Boz, the foreman in the book. How many farms have you lived on and what was your experience? How did you use that experience to form How to Bee?

There were about five farms between the ages of 7 and 17. On one, we lived in little more than a shed, surrounded by an electric fence and a chow chow paddock full of steers. I was alternately electrocuted and chased by young bulls, the bare wooden floor gave me splinters and the water chugged out of the taps brown. At the local school which had two classrooms and four kids in my year level, no one would talk to me because their parents owned land and we were the scruffy kids who lived in a shed in the chow chow paddock. The land owners certainly made it known that we were lesser beings. Whether they were swearing at us to round up sheep faster, or giving us a dressing down for stealing fruit from their orchards, we certainly got the impression that we were feral sub-beings who should just be quiet and behave. The last two farms were better, the land owners were nice, often had things to give away, and would invite us to use their pool on hot days.

You also write school reading books. Is there a big difference between writing these stories and your novels? Is it more restrictive?

I just write what I want, which doesn’t really fit with most publishers in the educational market, just those keen on humour, with fun series. Okay, mainly just one publisher, but their series are hugely popular and sell into the UK and US as well, so I’m very lucky to have found that one educational publisher that likes me. Mostly these are short concise stories and there’s not the room to be intensive with the characters, the way Peony is written.

I’ve read that you have quite a bit of wanderlust. How does travel inform your writing?

I think it’s built into me, this moving on thing. We moved around a lot when I was a child, I backpacked the world in my 20s, travelled across the US on motorbikes recently, and now I live in a bus. I think it does inform my writing because if you’re living how I’m living right now, which is with only the basics, you understand what you really need to get by. Travelling lets me meet a lot of people, see a lot of lives, hear a lot of accents, gather ideas, avoid the need for a full time job, and understand what it is a human really needs to be okay.

What do you think has been the biggest influence on your writing?

Reading. I read widely. I read all the time. I get upset that people think I have to read all the latest and greatest or all the classics because I need time to read all the obscure and wonderful too. It’s a terrible shame our lifetimes are too short to read everything. I read my favourite writers when they talk about what they do and I try to understand how they do it. So basically, finding authors I love, whatever the genre, and listening to their observations. Shoving it all into my head so I can understand how to do what I want to do, which is write with honesty and heart and really connect with readers.

Are you excited to bring your novel to the UK? Do you think readers here see differently from those in your native Australia/New Zealand?

Super excited. In Australia, the bees don’t have the varroa mite and deformed wing virus, yet. The bees are not suffering as much as they are in every other country. So there isn’t as much noise about saving bees as there is in the UK. I think people in the UK are more ready to see the importance of this book. Young readers in Australia and New Zealand have given me absolutely wonderful feedback about How to Bee, and I think young people in the UK will love it too. Peony’s way of talking is universal, being a future/country mash up rather than anything colloquial, and young UK ears will tune into it very quickly given their exposure to accents and slang. It’s been shortlisted/won six awards down under and it’d be super-cherries if it took off in the UK as well.

What are you working on next?

Dry Running is almost done, and comes out this year in Australia. I have created another famine, this time caused by the death of all grass and grains due to a fungus (this was recently reported in Queensland, but I promise I’m not writing these things into existence!). A brother and sister have to escape the city and drive their dog cart, pulled by three Malamutes and two Huskies, 600 km to safety to reunite their family. Two kids, five big dogs, and a wide bare land to cross. It’s going to be an adventure!

With huge thanks to Bren MacDibble for so patiently answering my questions. And I highly recommend How to Bee. You can buy it here

 

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

how to beeRecently, I’m seeing a great deal of science fiction that’s set in the very near future (mainly in adult fiction, but also in some children’s novels), as if we’re nearing our own dystopian landscape. But generally, this genre works well. It enables the author to envision a future not that different from the present, but tweaking elements to make a specific point. For the reader, it coaxes belief in this imagined world, in that there is a startling familiarity with specific things, despite the larger world being a little different.

In How to Bee, Bren MacDibble goes with the premise that due to widespread use of pesticides, the bees have died out, and to continue growing produce and farming, pollination must be done by children (leaping from tree to tree with special pollinating wands). Based on real practises in Chinese provinces, where humans do actually hand-pollinate pear blossom, and her real-life experience of growing up on a farm, the book feels authentic and disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful.

What shines most from this dazzlingly yellow book is MacDibble’s use of ‘voice’ to tell Peony’s story. Peony is nine years old, a worker on the farm, although not yet a Bee, because to be a Bee a child must be ten and awfully quick. She’s working towards it, but not quite there yet. Her voice, as she tells her story, feels new, fresh, lively, irrepressible but mainly fast, as if she’s scrabbling over the words as she would scrabble across the trees. The voice feels unschooled, unrestrictive, and matches her immense physicality. The play on words of the title sum up Peony’s whole existence. This is a girl bursting with life. She wants to be as much as she wants to bee.

Of course, like all good novelists, MacDibble must throw obstacles in Peony’s way, and this is where things become dark and difficult. Peony is removed to the city, away from her beloved grandfather and little sister and farm, to work with her mother in one of the big city houses. The episode of her removal from the farm is fairly traumatic, and the two worlds – city and country – could not be more disparate.

In fact MacDibble’s vision of the future is fairly bleak. Human rights are eroded – the children of the farm are broadcast ‘lessons’ on loudspeakers in the morning while they work – there is no universal right to education. Once in the city, Peony is a servant rather than merely staff – workers’ rights too seem to have been eroded. What’s more, there is unpoliced domestic abuse and cruelty to children. Poverty is widespread and there is no welfare system net in place.

But for many children, they will not read into the bleakness of this. Peony’s move to the city is an adventure, and she swiftly makes friends with the girl of the house – Peony’s kind nature and selflessness shining through. And there is an uplifting ending with Peony’s love for family and nature winning the day. Mainly because Peony’s voice is so lively and uplifting, and her shining adoration for the farm, her immediate family and nature triumphs against everything dark and evil.

The book is well paced – short sharp chapters, with quick forward movement like the bee pollinators themselves, the reader is propelled forwards on Peony’s adventure. The reader feels an enormous amount of empathy for this small child in a frightening world – having a more all-seeing terrain of her story than Peony does herself.

For all its shortness, MacDibble breathes plenty of life into the book. There are complex dynamics between characters – particularly the mother/child bond, and also an unabashed look at inequalities in society.

MacDibble writes with confidence and ease – the book feels different, atypical, which makes it shine brightly in the field of current children’s fiction. It turns out being is a complicated business, but with books such as this, children will buzz with excitement about their ability to influence their own futures. You can buy your copy here. I would suggest as 9+ years, but beware some of the darker episodes. Young teens who are reluctant readers will love the story’s depth whilst appreciating the brevity of the text.

First Day of Spring

This week heralds the official first day of Spring, apparently named because in the 14th century ‘springing time’ was a reference to the time of year when plants were ‘springing’ from the ground. And so, a few nature books for you, to usher in the return of migratory birds and draw inspiration from the natural world.

bird houseBird House by Libby Walden, illustrated by Clover Robin
Beautifully designed, with lift-the-flap features, this is a perfect first nature book for little hands. Adorably shaped like a house, the book endeavours to teach about different bird species and their homes. The first page deals with ducks, and man-made duck houses, but also features nests, and gives the names for male and female ducks, groups and babies.

The book goes on to cover pigeons and doves, woodpeckers, swallows, sparrows and owls, with hints at the back for how to create a bird-friendly outdoors space. The book is as sturdy as you’d want a bird house to be, with earthy colours throughout, and much green. The illustrations are cartoon-like rather than anatomical, but layered with wonderful textures, and give a true indication of colouring.

Also available is Bug Hotel, with facts about favourite garden insects and instructions for building your own bug hotel. An attractive, lively and informative start for young readers. You can buy it here.

 

 

earth verseEarth Verse by Sally M Walker and William Grill
Something completely different in this stunning picture book that tells the story of the Earth through poetry and illustration.

A haiku on each page simply suggests the beauty and majesty of the planet we live on, starting with a pulled-back image of the Earth as seen from space, with swirling blue and white. The book progresses through a host of illustrations that draw near or zoom out – from the outer crust to layered sediment, huge cliffs and fossil finds, to small flowers perched upon sand dunes.

Each has a concentrated description in this briefest form of poetry, and each illustration in coloured pencil is an impression rather than a factual diagram – a brushstroke of nature. It suits the poetry, which aims to inspire and to emote, (with further reading resources given at the back). The illustrations also suit the sensibility of the book, which is child-friendly and dreamlike in tone.

Colours stream throughout the book – blue to start as we see the planet from space, startling red for fire, then stripes of wonder as the rocks shift and layer with sediment.

The words resound with magnitude, as Walker gallops through dramatic natural events – a volcano, a tsunami, a storm – showing the violence and force, as well as the calm of a gull wearing ‘sand socks’ as it leaves footprints across the shore.

Walker uses personification to bring the haikus close to readers – the intimacy of the fiery fingers, the tiptoes of the creatures. The hotheaded mountain throwing an igneous tantrum. The words and images are both appealing and familiar.

And together Grill and Walker add elements of where there is an Intersection of human involvement in nature, an interaction with our planet.

There are also pages of prose information at the back; the reader is guided to these by a visual key of nine symbols, including minerals, fossils, glaciers, groundwater. These full paragraphs explain their topic well, but the diagrams accompanying are unlabelled and therefore tricky for a novice to decipher.

One for inspiration and awe. 8+ years. You can buy it here.

treesWhat On Earth? Trees by Kevin Warwick and Pau Morgan
For full-on, comprehensive knowledge, What On Earth? is an immensely high quality non-fiction series. This particular book covers all aspects of trees (for the very young), and also ties the basic scientific knowledge into hands-on activities, as well as interconnecting it with culture and history – something for which cross-curricular teachers will be grateful.

The first section takes a look at the different parts of a tree – with an in-depth look at leaves and their shapes and sizes, followed by information spreads on seeds and dispersal, needles and trunks. Interspersed between the information pages are spreads labelled ‘investigate’ or ‘create’ and these contain activities. Both artistic – creating a tree on paper using fallen leaves, to scientific – testing how far seeds travel – there is something for everyone.

The ideas are simply explained and easy to execute, but inspirational and fun. Drawing in other cultures and their stories adds a new dynamic, and of course there is the requisite section on global warming and the effect upon trees.

The digital illustrations are colourful, bright and friendly, and encourage the reader to really engage with the natural world, looking at what grows around them and giving clear step-by-step guidance on the activity spreads. The book will not only teach about trees, but about how to conduct first scientific experiments of exploration and investigation.

There’s an easy conclusion to draw here – this is a fantastic piece of non-fiction in which every page earns its worth – the tree this book originated from would be proud! 6+ years. Buy your own here.

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy

brightstormThe great era of exploration is over. Much of our world has been seen and documented, but humans haven’t lost their drive to be the first, to make their mark, and certainly haven’t let go of the idea of heroism. But so often the marks humans make, the braveries people display, are small acts of heroism in a known world. So, we turn to fiction to replicate that experience of exploring the unknown, of seeking out a new world and experiencing new adventure within it.

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy is doubly exciting, because it is not just the reader who is doing the exploring, but the protagonists too.

Twelve-year-old twins, Maudie and Arthur Brightstorm hear that their explorer father has died in an attempt to reach South Polaris – the very southernmost point in their world. Not only that, but he broke the moral code of explorers, stealing fuel from his competitors on his way. The daring twins are intent upon not only clearing their father’s name, believing he would never do such a thing, but also exploring the region for themselves – after all they are Brightstorms.

What could be a run-of-the-mill adventure story, Hardy turns into a fresh, insightful and clever novel of exploration with her clear-eyed writing, and her host of memorable characters.

Maudie possesses exemplary engineering skills, using her analytical mind to solve problems and provide technical solutions. She may be sited in a fantasy landscape, but she approaches technical tasks with a modern outlook – pragmatic and able – there is no gender discrimination here. She forges a prosthetic iron arm for her brother, but has the foresight to see that when they are lost, with the addition of a pool of water, it could act as a compass.

Indeed, Arthur is almost the only male in this female dominated cast, and it is he who shows his sensitive side – painfully aware of the feelings of others, sensing shifts in body language, danger in the air. But he too is an explorer – brave and intrepid.

Maudie and Arthur join Harriet Culpepper’s expedition to track back to South Polaris, on her ingenious sky-ship that uses water as fuel in a new environmentally friendly development, much to the admiration and envy of her peer explorers. What’s more, her ship has a canny disguise, to avoid saboteurs, and even I was envious of this quirk.

The environment is touched upon further with mentions of whale huntings, and humans’ domination of the landscape, all cleverly woven into the story without being preachy or self-congratulatory.

But as well as being aware of our modern leanings towards gender equality, saving the environment and STEM solutions, Hardy also shows us a mirror of our own world in the inequalities of hers. There are the slums of Lontown, the drudgery and hard work. There is the indignation of those of the Third Continent, who do not like to be called by such a derogatory name. And there is also, of course, a villainous explorer who will stop at nothing to sate her ambition.

But among the cogs and compasses, there is humour too: the cook Felicity and her penchant for endless cups of tea, Harriet and her dashing ways of pushing through the darkest moments.

Small flickers of other inspirational books light the path for readers too – I sensed a glimmer of Pullman in the ‘sapient’ animals of the Brightstorm world, who are less present than the daemons of Northern Lights, but also crucial to the plot, as well as the helpfulness of wolves from Piers Torday’s The Last Wild, and many more besides.

But mainly, Brightstorm feels fresh and modern – because although Hardy has veered into fantasy by creating her own world for the Brightstorm twins, she shows us its beauty through its simplicity. None of the landscapes are hard to envisage, none of the ships’ whirrings hard to grasp. This is a beautifully written children’s novel, matched by exquisite production with foil on the cover and a map on the gatefold.

It is testament to the accessibility of Hardy’s novel that it makes the reader think at the end, in the same way that the talking wolves ask the question to the twins – why is it that humans have the need to explore? When it is not for food or shelter – is it to seek the truth? Or to discover the beauty and complexity of the world? Like fiction, it is both and more. To discover a bit of ourselves, and a taste of the possibilities that are out there. Brightstorm is a triumph – it’s time to take the adventure. You can buy it here.

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

Eye of the NorthA timeless, icy, steampunk adventure, this is a really interesting and intriguing debut novel.

Arresting from the first sentence, O’Hart tells the story of Emmeline, a girl constantly on her guard, taking ‘always be prepared’ to the next level. So when she is kidnapped, and stolen away on a ship to the far north to be used as a bargaining chip to get her scientist parents to awaken a giant mysterious creature (the Kraken) buried deep beneath the ice, she must use her wits and her anxiety to whittle herself free.

The book is dense, and surprisingly gripping, and positively teems with ideas. Emmeline meets a stowaway on her first sea voyage, a nippy little figure named Thing, as well as an organisation trying to prevent the evil kidnapper from taking further control of the world – this organisation is named The Order of the White Flower (with headquarters in Paris). With tentative allusions to underground opposition groups in World War Two, such as The White Rose, the complexity of O’Hart’s plot begins to show itself here.

The reader learns that this underground organisation has many members who have been working against Dr Bauer (the kidnapper) for a long time, but little detail is given, although the group sound intriguing and each member fascinating; O’Hart keeps the reader completely in the dark (to the end). One member has built an intensely complex flying machine, which Thing endeavours to fly to rescue Emmeline. As with everything within this detailed and wondrous book, my issue is that the contraption sounds so terrific, so fantastical, that it is difficult to envisage in one’s mind’s eye. The same happens numerous times – with the denouement, in which Dr Bauer constructs an engineering contraption to extract the Kraken from beneath the ice, using mirrors  – the idea is so highfalutin, that it is difficult for the reader to picture.

As Emmeline moves through her adventure, so O’Hart throws more and more at the reader. We learn that the world has been submerged in much water (presumably the effects of global warming), and so Paris is much nearer the sea than it is in the real world. As with the characters of The Order of the White Flower, this idea isn’t completely developed though, which is a pity.

At every stage in the adventure, from Emmeline meeting an almost mythological horse, (which sounds as if inspired by the old Guinness advert in which the horses morph into waves – powerful like the gods), to Emmeline meeting the Northwitch, who splinters into ice shards and then re-forms with a spellbindingly cold evil chill, the inventiveness is powerful and spellbinding, and O’Hart smashes the imagery out of the park. The only issue is that the images are so extreme that the fantastical is hard to pin down in one’s imagination.

There are some wonderful touches – the tribal people living on the ice, with their sledges and their fear of outsiders, although again, this is underdeveloped as a concept, which is a shame.

The Eye of the North is a sensational story, but this book alone could probably have been developed into about three volumes – so that each part could be extrapolated more.

It touches on humans’ environmental impact on the world, scientific explorations and contraptions, evil beneath the ice, mythical horses, an evil ice queen, good versus evil organisations, greed and power, as well as anxiety and bravery.

It fits beautifully into the zeitgeist of the moment, with a wintry landscape, a future blighted by our environmental impact on the world, and a protagonist with parent scientists who have high stakes in the action. Blending a timelessness with technology and environment, and featuring children who perpetuate their scientist parents’ ideas by attempting to prevent harmful agents, but taking the best part of the science and seeing it through.

The two children are intensely likeable. They are feisty and free-thinkers. Emmeline’s character is strong at the beginning; she is determined, holds onto her comforts, remains quick-thinking and suspicious, but I wanted even more character development from her. Likewise with Thing, who has issues with his haunting past, yet has a strong determination to hold onto a person with whom he’s made a connection. Because their characters ring so true, the reader wants to stay with them.

This is a storming adventure story for the age group, ambitious and hugely entertaining, and there’s no denying this is a powerful book. I just think it could have been about three. You can buy it here.

Sky Dancer by Gill Lewis

So, the Arts and Humanities Council is attempting to find the UK’s favourite book about nature. This is no easy feat. There are so many wonderful books about nature, but I think the children’s book world excels in this. My book of the week the other week was The Lost Words, and you’d be hard pushed to find a better paean to our natural world. Yet, there is another writer who is doing a great deal to draw the attention of the nation’s children to the natural world and our environment. I reviewed Gorilla Dawn by Gill Lewis a while ago – a revelatory novel that brings the world’s attention to the gorillas affected by coltan mining, but in Sky Dancer, Lewis hits a spot closer to home, basing her novel here in the UK, and returning to the style and themes that led her to write Sky Hawk in 2011.

Her latest novel for children, Sky Dancer, addresses the issue of the hen harrier, one of the most threatened birds of prey in the UK, remaining rare due to habitat loss, weather and illegal killing. It’s this last aspect that Lewis tackles in her book, but this novel is not an ‘issue’ book – it’s an incredibly insightful, emotional picture of who we are, and how we are shaping modern Britain.

Three children trek the landscape of this startlingly astute novel: Joe, reeling from his father’s death, and caught in the middle of a battle for the fate of the hen harriers who nest in the heather of the moorlands where he lives. There’s also Minty, the stylish confident daughter of landowners who use the land for grouse shooting, and for whom the hen harriers are a nuisance, and lastly Ella, who seems to be a naive and rather insecure urbanite, but who manages to think as an outsider – finding solutions to which those in the midst of the struggle are blinded.

In the end, these three unlikely friends, find their way forward, and a way forward for the hen harriers. They are each drawn terrifically authentically, with clear ideas of their roots and social class, and their struggles and difficulties. Whether it be divorced or deceased parents, or simply parents with whom one disagrees, Lewis portrays the different make-up of families, and the way in which the children deal with their different situations.

Joe, in particular, is fascinating. He is at the centre of the struggle, torn sometimes between the two girls and their different views of past and present. He also has to face up to how his father acted and the consequences of that, as well as how his older brother is currently acting – what’s morally right, what’s right for his family, and what’s right for the environment. When these things aren’t the same, he has to reconcile his conscience with how to act. Told from Joe’s point of view, the reader is privileged to see what happens in his head, particularly as he’s a quiet child, loathe to speak in many cases. Lewis has accomplished a great character here, complex, sensitive and real.

Not only is the book a gripping read, but it also sparks thoughts on a range of topics: the fate of hen harriers, and the impact, and other preoccupations of the modern world such as accepting difference, the meeting of technology and nature, town and country, and questions of heritage; which traditions should continue and what needs to adapt.

Of course the book explores life on a hunting estate, in which grouse shooting is fundamental to its past traditions and current livelihood, and although that might feel remote to many young people reading the book, Lewis cleverly explores how it is not dissimilar to anywhere a child is growing up, in that there are the same battles and choices – the intertwining of community, loyalty, family and friendship.

Lewis writes with terrific empathy, eking out the reader’s sympathy for different characters at different stages of the novel, and she also evokes an extremely visual landscape, at the same time as propelling the plot – it darts along swiftly.

A captivating read that will make you think, and also imagine that you’re striding across the moors, scanning the sky for dancers. You can buy it here.

Earth Day Books

So, time to admit to you, I don’t normally celebrate Earth Day. I did rejoice in 2016 at the signing of the Paris Agreement on Earth Day, but hadn’t taken much notice of it until now.

As a Londoner, noticing increasing noise about air pollution, and as a human being, noticing that some politicians seem to be disregarding climate change altogether, Earth Day seems ever more important. It takes place annually on April 22nd, and aims to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

So two books for your youngsters to show them the wonders of our Earth, but in very different ways.

The Earth Book by Jonathan Litton, illustrated by Thomas Hegbrook

Aptly named for Earth Day, The Earth Book is large and comprehensive, although also of course, highly selective. In fact, this is one of the issues with children’s nonfiction. There is so much knowledge to impart to children, and only limited time to draw their attention, and limited pages within a book. So, although Litton has attempted to explore Earth in this large format illustrated book, he has had to be highly selective in his material, and in some places this shows up weaknesses.

Overall though, knowing children who love to dip into this kind of crammed information book, there is still plenty to admire.

Litton lays out the premise of the book at the beginning – to attempt to explore the physical Earth, then life on Earth, the regions, and finally the human element of the planet – yes – all this in one book.

With quotes from Carl Sagan, Mahatma Ghandi, and others introducing sections, the book shows that it is as much about dreaming and inspiration as stating fact. And Litton’s conversational tone helps to lighten the load. There are complex ideas and concepts here, which Litton delivers in an accessible way – explaining the layers of the atmosphere for example, or the layers of the Earth down to the core, and later on in the book, extremophiles and ocean zones.

Hegbrook’s graphics are a delight for the most part, the diversity of the illustrations capturing some of the diversity of the Earth, but overall, sadly they are quite dark, not perhaps as pastel-toned as they could be, and so the text (small for older eyes) is hard to read against the dark backgrounds. The animals are a little dead-eyed, although the challenge thrown to the illustrator in terms of the amount of different information he has to delineate (from volcano structures to recognisable human portraits) was clearly tough.

My main concern in terms of selecting material are the choices of influential humans – to include the maker of the windscreen wiper in such a selective group seems strange to me, but there is a wealth of information on human impact upon the planet, speculation for doom as well as hope, and a fascinating choice of interesting cities. There is a factual error (regarding New Zealand penguins), but mainly the facts seem on point.

Despite the few weaknesses, I did enjoy reading the book. There is a distinct feeling throughout that although each of us is a tiny speck on this great and awesome planet, we bear a responsibility towards the planet on which we live. A good message to carry through. You can buy it here.

If The Earth Book makes you feel small but important, this next book from Nosy Crow publishers in conjunction with the National Trust, will make children feel active, important, and part of their surroundings.

50 things to Do Before You’re 11 and ¾ (illustrated by Tom Percival) was published last year, but lasts throughout childhood. Perusing the pages with an urban-dwelling ten year old, we discovered that she had accomplished about three quarters of the activities already, and the other quarter of ideas gave her inspiration and aspiration.

It’s kind of laid out like a tick list, with a signature space for each activity accomplished – and these range from such pleasures as ‘climb a tree’ to ‘find some frogspawn’. It’s the kind of list that Topsy and Tim accomplished quite happily during my childhood, and that some parents may find condescending, and yet with statistics showing that our children are less and less likely to spend time playing and exploring outside, I can’t help but feel this is a necessary and apt guide.

The book is well-designed – with an attached elastic bookmark, a pocket pouch at the rear, and many many colourful pages inside, lots to fill in, as well as a quiz to see what type of adventurer the child is, and puzzles towards the back. If planning a day out or a road trip, it would be a perfect companion. I’m a little older than 11, but I’ve never done number 38. I think it’s time I did. Buy the book here to see what number 38 is, and tick off all 50 yourself.