fiction

The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller Extract

the night i met father christmasI’m delighted to be able to share with you an exclusive extract of The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller. (Please click the title to read my review). I’m sure most children have dreamed about coming downstairs on Christmas Eve to find Father Christmas in the act of emerging from the chimney through the fireplace, with his bulging toy sac over his shoulder, ready to deposit all those lovely goodies for Christmas Day. In Ben Miller’s book, a small boy waits up all night to do just that. But when he does meet Father Christmas, the most extraordinary thing happens – Father Christmas begins to tell him the story of how he became Father Christmas – and it’s not at all how you might expect. This extract takes place just after the boy hears bells ringing and rushes into his living room to see lumps of soot falling into the grate. Father Christmas is coming….

 

 

 

 

 

You can buy The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller here.

 

Younger Fiction

There have been some beautiful stories for younger children recently – books for newly independent readers (those comfortable enough to tackle chapter books by themselves).

legend of kevinThe Legend of Kevin by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Reeve and McIntyre, of Cakes in Space fame, bring their zany storytelling to this new magical tale about a rotund flying pony, blown from the outermost West to a tower block in Bumbleford. The over-riding theme is friendship but there’s a pervasive feeling of community throughout, and an understanding of providing solutions for problems, no matter how peculiar the problem (mermaid hair styling), and how outlandish the solution. There’s acceptance of difference, and an emphasis on ordinary heroes.

The success of this author/illustrator pairing, and there are those who wait ravenously for each new book, is that the text and pictures work perfectly in harmony. Gaps in the text are filled by the pictures, humour in the pictures is enhanced by the text. The pair know exactly how to pace the book, when to digress and when to pull back to the plot. With their trademark mermaids and naughty sea monkeys, this is a delight (for slightly younger audiences than their previous books), and marks a determined shift towards reality, as the Outermost West comes to a city not unlike the reader’s, complete with mundane shops, headmasters and mayors. You can buy it here.

sherlock and baker street curseSherlock and the Baker Street Curse by Sam Hearn

Super sleuthing comes to the younger fiction department in this glorious play on the trope of Sherlock Holmes. Transported into a school, the Baker Street Academy, Sherlock is just a school boy solving mysteries. But it’s the use of media that works so well here. The plot is relayed through a series of different text formats – Watson’s diary, comic strip illustrations, notice boards, webchats, emails etc. There’s a mystery to solve of course – and the reader can solve alongside Holmes, Watson and Hudson, as long as they don’t get misguided by a red herring.

In this book in the series, Sherlock and his friends have to solve a ghost mystery, dating back to when the school building was a family home. There is a great warmth that exudes from the text, and the dialogue feels authentic and friendly. A slick introduction to mysteries. You can buy it here.

ivy and beanIvy and Bean: One Big Happy Family by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I had my favourite American characters when I was little – Ramona Quimby and Amelia Bedelia spring to mind instantly. I don’t know if it was their spunky characters or their derring-do adventures, or perhaps the setting – in a school grade system I didn’t understand, with towns boasting large white houses with sweeping driveways, and vibrant lawns with tyre swings hanging from trees. For the next generation, and slightly more down-to-earth, is Ivy and Bean. This delightful friendship between quiet Ivy and rambunctious Bean, two seven-year-olds who live in the same street, is a celebration of old-fashioned values and community America. But mainly it’s just a fun chronicle of two girls and their neighbourhood adventures. What appeals most is the amount of free time the girls have to indulge their passions and make their own fun – rather like The Secret Seven did.

Barrows seems to have an understanding of the limitless possibilities offered by the best childhoods, and she includes all the fabulous childhood obsessions from glitter, to being made to tidy up, to sharing. This eleventh book in the series celebrates being an only child, or rather not being spoiled. You can buy it here.

first prize for worst witchFirst Prize for the Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Another series that should be celebrated for its longevity is The Worst Witch. Not only bearing my favourite character names, Mildred Hubble’s and enemy Ethel Hallow’s images are burned onto my brain – those illustrious illustrations of schoolgirl witches hanging on broomsticks with plaits flailing behind them, dangling untied shoelaces, and the haughty thinness of Miss Hardbroom. The utter enjoyment of seeing Mildred learning from her mistakes continues to this day, with Mildred battling to be chosen as Head Girl, against all the odds. Although the first in the series was published in 1974, this latest (and reportedly last) lives up to the high standard set by the first, and is an utter nostalgic joy for the adult reader, and an excellent gentle introduction to chapter books for new readers – it’s humorous, accessible and still relevant. You can buy it here.

nelly and monster sitterNelly the Monster Sitter: the Grerks at No. 55 by Kes Gray, illustrated by Chris Jevons

Repackaged in August with new illustrations, although the original text was first published in 2005, these hilarious books sit comfortably between Horrid Henry and The Bolds as accessible, funny, highly illustrated chapter books just right for newly independent readers. Nelly likes monsters, and happily takes care of the little monsters in the neighbourhood after school whilst the parent monsters take some time off. She’s in high demand, but has no idea of the type of monster she’ll encounter before she arrives. Each adventure showcases Nelly’s wit and quick-thinking – she’s a brave, down-to-earth and likeable protagonist, and as one would expect from Kes Gray, there is plenty of word play, great visual description (enhanced by the illustrations), and a lively exuberance that permeates the text. The winning formula here is that the monsters’ lives are so mundane. You can buy it here.

oscar and catastropheOscar and the CATastrophe by Alan MacDonald, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Another skilled writer for this age group is the indomitable Alan MacDonald, author of the Dirty Bertie and Superhero School series, among others. His straightforward easy to understand style is great for flourishing readers, and enables them to zip through his books at speed, promoting confidence and fluency. Oscar and the CATastrophe is the third in this series about Oscar the talking dog and his owner Sam. In this latest adventure, Oscar has been shocked to silence by the appearance of a neighbourhood cat and Sam is worried about the jewel thief in town. Gentle humour and basic plotting, but perfect for growing readers. You can buy it here.

A Very Christmas Roundup

how winston delivered ChristmasThe first book on your radar for Christmas should be How Winston Delivered Christmas by Alex T Smith. This is the most sumptuous book, but a word of warning, you need to give this present early. The neat conceit is that the story has been written in 24 and a half chapters, one chapter to share every day in the lead up to Christmas – ending with a final special story time for Christmas morning. Now, I like advent calendars with chocolate windows, but a book with a story behind every window is even better. The story is about Winston, a homeless young mouse with an important mission, and a special message about the joy of little kindnesses rather than just the material side of the festivities.

But more than just a story, there are also activities throughout, such as writing a letter to Father Christmas, making Christmas cards, a recipe for mince pies and so on – all the traditional things a family might do in the run up to the holiday season, but here with a neat tie-in to the story. There are also ideas that might be new – but feel traditional: making an orange pomander, stained-glass window biscuits, and even a pompom robin.

Not only are the activities fun, easy and related to the season and story, the story itself combines all the attractive tropes of Christmas narratives – the old-fashioned department store, gingerbread men, a nativity scene, toys and snow. And of course, there’s a happy ending and the lyrics of carols at the end.

This is a perfect Christmas book, lovingly produced with a green bookmark ribbon, a fabric spine, and beautiful colour illustrations, through which the warmth of happiness radiates – a lit shop window, a kitchen all a-glow, a dolls’ house, headlights in the snow. Magical and heartwarming. You can buy it here.

pick a pine tree
If you’re looking for a picturebook, there is a glut of tie-ins but for something original, Pick a Pine Tree by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Jarvis might tick the box. It’s also suitable for the run-in to Christmas itself, being all about choosing and decorating a tree. It’s unabashedly Christmassy, with nothing held back in its glorious rhyming list of the things needed to turn a pine into a Christmas tree. The text is magical in itself, a gentle rhythm that speeds up with the excitement of Christmas, but the illustrations imbue the book with light and warmth again, whether it’s the brightness of the children’s faces around the tree, or the up-close inside tree drawing of baubles, paper angel dolls and pine needles. You can buy it here.

jingle spells
Another book that seems to fall in between the start of autumn and Christmas itself is Jingle Spells by James Brown, a rather delicious mash up of Halloween and Christmas, as Trixie the witch prefers Christmas to Halloween, although her fellow witches think that’s strange, and the Christmas Elves judge her on her appearance and reputation (fearful of tricksy witches). In the end, Trixie helps the elves and Santa get over their winter colds with a warming potion, and they help her to bring Christmas to everyone. Heartfelt, and gloriously illustrated with lots of colour – an emphasis on red and yellow against a blue background helping to bring that magical Christmas warmth again. You can buy it here.

very corgi christmas
Royalty is all the rage at the moment, with a King in waiting, a new baby on the way, and the memory of a couple of weddings this year. But, if you prefer your royalty corgi style, then A Very Corgi Christmas by Sam Hay, illustrated by Loretta Schauer will suit. It tells the simple story of the youngest corgi – enthralled with the rush and excitement of Christmas – who gets lost in London and befriended by a more worldly dog. The book works as a paean to London, showcasing an illustration of a dazzling silhouetted London skyline through a window before honing in on the corgi experiencing Piccadilly Circus (a bit too bright for her), a London bus, the London Eye, Big Ben unscaffolded and a London theatre. Even a London litter bin is given central stage. There are plenty of union jacks too – this is a London Christmas to the top of the tree. And of course a happy ending. You can buy it here.

sammy claus
From dogs to cats, Sammy Claws: The Christmas Cat by Lucy Rowland and Paula Bowles understands a cat’s life. Sammy Claws will sleep anywhere, but when he falls asleep in a box on Christmas Eve, he finds himself wrapped in a present and due for delivery with no way of telling Santa of the mix-up. Hiding in his box, Sammy hears of Bad Billy’s and Mischievous May’s plans to steal Santa’s Christmas presents, and finds that yowling fiercely and jumping out can quite seriously shock robbers. This is a delightful Christmas rhyming tale, and although it borrows heavily on other picture books in which canny animals outwit stupid robbers, there is enough dastardly action and colourful Christmassy illustrations to win over every child. At its centre sits a cat with a huge personality. Watch out for smart touches in the illustrations such as Santa’s sleigh goggles, clever rhyming in a bouncy lively text, and the neat ending too. You can buy it here.

how to hide a lion at christmas
If you do like tie-ins, How to Hide a Lion at Christmas by Helen Stephens retains the magic of the original in this Christmas story of Iris going to visit family for Christmas and being made to leave the lion behind – because he is a little large and might offend their hosts. Many parents have negotiated with children about leaving toys home when they travel, and this is a rather sweet tale of the lion deciding to follow of his own accord. With trains, snow, carol singers and Father Christmas, this also brings to mind old-fashioned Christmases. Stephens has an astute understanding of how to draw her lion to look realistic (reclining on a tree) but also to make him naturally fit within the domestic sphere too – this lion always reminds me of The Tiger Who Came to Tea – I wonder who would get all the Christmas dinner if they were sat at the same table. You can buy it here.

the snowman
If you’re revisiting classics, the key title has to be The Snowman by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Robin Shaw. Yes, this is based upon the original story and drawings from Raymond Briggs, but to mark the 40th anniversary of the original picture book, this year the publishers have released a brand new novel. At first you may ponder why such a re-imagining is necessary, but there is a simple continuity in Morpurgo’s version, a nod to modern sensibilities, and an understanding of the gentle care it needs to revisit this classic Christmas tale.

The original Snowman picture book is wordless and doesn’t feature Father Christmas as a character, but Morpurgo has merged the collective memory of the book and animation into his new story, imagining a boy named James with a stutter who takes a magical Christmas Eve flight with his Snowman to a party, where he does meet Father Christmas. In Morpurgo’s version there is the introduction of a Grandma figure, who not only reads The Snowman to James but eventually takes flight with him too. It’s an interesting dynamic to add to the tale, showing the inter-generational relationships that exist, and profiling how James and his grandmother relate to each other. Nice touches include Brussels sprout buttons for the Snowman, and the newly found confidence James develops. I would quibble that some of the Christmas gifts feel dated already, but the gentle tone sits nicely alongside the original. Extras at the back include instructions on how to make the perfect snowman. You can buy it here.

the night i met father christmas
Lastly, The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller, the comedian, is a mash up between A Christmas Carol and Elf. A small boy with avid curiosity wants to know how Father Christmas became Father Christmas. When he meets him on Christmas Eve, he hears the story from the man (or rather elf) himself – a story within a story format. The tale he recounts is about the elf Torvil, now miserly and mean, who is shown Christmas past, present and future by red-nosed reindeers and magic trees. It’s a pure spin off from Dickens, but told in a spritely jovial way with old-fashioned hot chocolate warmth. As well as the first person narration from the small boy, and the third person narration of Torvil’s story, there are also narrative asides, which seemingly may come from Torvil or the boy, but feel much more as if they come from Miller – hoping the reader never has an accident, waxing lyrical on the joys of sled-rides. It jolts the reader slightly from the narrative, but the whole is so easy to read, so joyful and formulaic (how could it not be, following past, present and future), that it feels familiar and new at the same time. I read an early proof so couldn’t see the illustrations, but the publishers promise illustrations throughout from Danielle Terrazini. Look out for an extract of the book on my blog in early December. You can buy it here. Happy Christmas shopping.

NNFN Jewish Foods and Festivals

The theme for this year’s National Non-Fiction November is ‘Food and Festivals Around the World’. I couldn’t help but jump onto the bandwagon with a look at Jewish festivals and their food, seeing as every festival has a distinctive and mainly yummy food associated with it.

rise and shine
Shabbat falls every week on a Friday night and is the time for families to come together to share a meal. The food most associated with this is challah – a braided bread. Rise and Shine: A Challah-Day Tale by Karen Ostrove, illustrated by Kimberly Scott, tells the tale of when Sammy and Sophie find a crumpled bit of paper in an old cooking apron but can’t read the writing. Their grandmother explains it’s a recipe in Yiddish for baking challah, and with the help of family members, they bake it in time for Shabbat. This sweet story exemplifies the importance of inter-generational activities, cultural inheritance, and of course the joy to be found in baking bread. You can buy it here.

whats the buzz
At the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, it is customary to celebrate the wish for a sweet new year by eating sweet foods, in particular dipping apple in honey. This could also be tzimmes (typically a sweetened dish of carrots), or my favourite, the honey cake. Of course there’d be no honey without bees, and What’s the Buzz? Honey for a Sweet New Year by Allison Maile Ofanansky, photographs by Eliyahu Alpern, takes the reader for a photographic tour around a bee farm, exploring how honey is extracted from the honeycomb and how a hive operates. A good non-fiction resource, there’s a fun fact section at the end.

all of a kind family hanukkah
Hanukkah lasts for eight days, and is known as the Festival of Lights, but most children welcome it for its glut of doughnuts. Jewish people typically eat foods fried in oil, such as latkes and doughnuts, to celebrate the miracle of the oil lamp and the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem. However, it’s not krispy kremes but a special type of doughnut called sufganiot, which the Jewish bakeries sell. Gooey jam inside, sprinkles of sugar on the outside – these small round treats are light and fluffy. Just published this year, All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Paul O Zelinsky takes the All-of-a-Kind Family from the original book by Sydney Taylor, set at the turn of the last century in New York, and revisits them in 1912 in the tenements of the Lower East Side of NYC as Hanukkah approaches. This beautiful narrative gives a significance to the immigrant experience as it explores the sights and sounds of Jewish immigrant family, and shows how the cultural customs have lasted. You can buy it here.

purim superhero
Purim is a popular holiday – a time of dressing up and play-acting and the retelling of the story of Esther, who saved the Jewish people in ancient Persia. The hamantaschen is the food of choice, a triangular-shaped pastry or biscuit filled with poppy seeds or jam (and nowadays even chocolate) that is said to represent the hat of the baddie in Esther’s story. Perhaps representation can feel a little thin in some Jewish children’s books. The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner, illustrated by Mike Byrne, focusses more on the costumes than the food of Purim, but strikes an important message for our times. Nate wants to dress as an alien for Purim but all his friends are going as superheroes. Taking inspiration from Esther, as well as from his two dads, he devises a super alien costume. This is a bright and happy picture book, which not only shows what a modern family does at Purim, but also features a non-traditional family. You can buy it here.

sweet passover
In the spring, and hovering around the same time as Easter, is the Jewish festival of Passover. Celebrating the story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt (the Exodus), the narrative explains how they didn’t have enough time to bake bread for the journey, and so left with bread that wasn’t risen – matzah. Today, Jewish people celebrate with a whole selection of symbolic foods on the table during the telling of the story at the holiday meal – the seder. But matzah is always the first food that comes to mind, mainly because most people dislike the ‘cardboard’ like texture of the crackers. This sentiment is echoed by Miriam in A Sweet Passover by Leslea Newman, illustrated by David Slonim. By the last day of this eight-day festival, Miriam is “sick, sick, sick of matzah” despite having eaten it with a whole variety of spreads including chocolate, jam, cheese, tuna and egg. Her grandfather encourages her to try his matzah brie – like French toast but with matzah instead of bread. The book is almost as delicious as matzah brie itself, managing to slip in the exodus story and make insightful little comments too.

Zebras and Lollipops

On route to take my younger children to school, we have to cross four roads. Two are minor, and two are main roads, neither of which two years ago had a zebra crossing. I decided to use my campaigning skills to petition the council and Transport for London to install one on the school’s road. And to my delight, a year later, they did. Now I use it about four times a day, and it serves the local park too.

phantom lollipop manAnother school that has a zebra crossing outside, is Izzy’s school in the Pamela Butchart book, The Phantom Lollipop Man, illustrated by Thomas Flintham. This seventh book in the ‘Baby Aliens’ series continues the exploits of Izzy and her friends and their school. In this title the friends are shocked to discover that their lollipop man has disappeared. Instead, they feel an unsettling coldness even when wearing tights, and start to see wispy clouds in the playground. Could he have died and now be haunting the school? So Izzy and her friends determine to find out.

On the surface, this is another exuberant adventure from brilliant comedy writer Pamela Butchart. The text flows with Izzy’s characteristic breathlessness, driving the reader through the plot and as always staying true to the brilliant friendship group, each member clearly distinguished by their character traits.

But what makes the book so endearing, other than the CAPITAL LETTERS, illustrations and energetic use of dialogue, is Butchart’s complete comprehension of schools. From her understanding about the importance of blu tack through to school office workers’ signs and the attitude of lunch supervisors, this is imperative as young readers feel a sense of familiarity with the world being created.

And although the books are hilarious – this one in particular had me laughing out loud every few pages and is definitely the funniest so far – there is an insightful compassion for the community of a school – the way that each component is dependent on another, and some real truths about what we value in society.

Izzy and her friends point to the lack of value we place upon certain people – lollipop workers included (but also perhaps, the school officer workers, the librarians, careworkers etc) and how important their roles are, and how they should be recognised. It’s a subtle message underlying the hugely comedic text, but a vital one. And Butchart also points out the loneliness that can be experienced in old age – when juxtaposed with the intense intimacy of Izzy and her friends, it becomes even more apparent.

This is a superb book that deals with community, values and society, and rounds off nicely with good use of the library and empathy for other people. A riotous, happy, storming success. A really top series for newly independent readers. I hope they keep coming. You can buy it here.

zebra crossing soul songOn a similar theme, but for teen readers is Zebra Crossing Soul Song by Sita Brahmachari. This is a book published by dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke, and is suitable for a reading age of 8, even though its subject matter is for teens. But it’s an enjoyable read for all.

Lenny has spent most of his eighteen years crossing the nearby zebra crossing, aided by the singing ‘zebra man’ Otis. But when Otis isn’t there anymore, Lenny, who is himself struggling as he sits his psychology A-level, looks back on his memories of them together, through music, and finds a way to move forwards.

Cleverly, the fixed point of the zebra crossing gives a clear focus for Lenny to look back on his school years from nursery to A-Level as he reaches a crossroads in his life. And the shared passion of music gives Lenny and Otis a clear bond, and also a vehicle for Brahmachari to use music as a distinguishing feature in her novel, as the story is written in music memory tracks – music as a recall mechanism, but also as a form of writing in its own right – like a poem.

When Otis disappears, Lenny uses his knowledge of psychology and memory, as well as music to find out what happened in Otis’s past to affect his future, and discovers that not only does music hold a bond with the past, but a vital component of Lenny’s life going forwards.

This is a cleverly woven piece, with a sympathetic bond between two people, and, as in Butchart’s light-hearted book, an awareness that although some people aren’t highly valued by society, they are highly valuable as individuals and in the role they play. Lollipop men and women are there to save lives – and sometimes literally do, and they play a positive role in shaping the community they serve. Sometimes it’s the quiet people who make the difference. You can buy it here.

 

 

Skycircus by Peter Bunzl (Book Three of the Cogheart Series)

skycircusWhen I was reading Skycircus, I couldn’t help but think of The Greatest Showman. The success of that film wasn’t down to critics, who panned the movie on its opening weekend, and I went to see it (somewhat reluctantly and with low expectations) with the children, and now own both the DVD and the soundtrack and secretly play them when the children are at school. Is it the music, or is it perhaps the emotions that circuses inspire that proved it such a great success?

The Greatest Showman is based very loosely upon PT Barnum, remembered for his travelling circus. Ironically the film sets out to show acceptance of difference, despite Barnum being known for his exploitation and sometime racism.

Circuses have long been a source of inspiration and imagination for novelists. Many children’s book characters visit the circus at least once in their series – Pippi Longstocking, Madeline, Doctor Doolittle, Claude, Paddington Bear all went to the circus, and some of my favourite stand-alone literature is set in the circus – The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll, Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfield.

The circus arena is a great site for storytelling. As with theatre there’s the theme of appearance and reality, what’s hidden behind masks and costumes, but the circus also brings a daredevil nature to the stage – acts that seem impossible, daring and courage, excitement and danger. And an inherent subversive nature. Whether it’s the people behind the circus – seen for such a long time as ‘other’ – or the arguments over mistreatment of animals in the arena, the dichotomy of both providing entertainment but also making money, and the long history and argument of exploitative acts versus acts celebrating freedoms.

Peter Bunzl had already incorporated elements of this into his Victoriana steampunk series that  begins with Cogheart, an adventure story that subverts history and science, featuring mechanimals, penny dreadfuls, clocks and cogs, the author supposing that mechanicals were more advanced than they really were – that humans had reached a scientific equivalent to robots and AI but without computing leading the way – instead using mechanical parts.

Skycircus, the third in Bunzl’s Cogheart series, transports the characters from Cogheart – Lily, her mechanimal fox Malkin and her human friend Robert into a circus adventure. With the energy and tone of the prior books, it adds to the atmosphere a circus in which the people are treated more as prisoners, and circus acts that fuse the mechanical with the derring-do of trapeze acts and escape artists.

On Lily’s fourteenth birthday, she receives a cryptic poem inviting her to a travelling skycircus, arrived in the locale. Not being able to resist the clues, she sets off to watch the acts, little failing to realise that it’s a trap and that before long she’ll no longer be the observer in the audience, but the headline act herself.

With references to the past books, and Lily’s own past creeping forwards to haunt her, the book works both as a stand-alone read but also a continuation of the series. Never shy with words, the book is meaty and dense – an imagined world full of science and steampunk and its accompanying vocabulary.

With a keen nod to today’s preoccupations of gender stereotyping (a plot twist for which I fell cog, sprocket and gear), and liberally littered with allusions to Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the leading thinkers of the time in which it’s set, this is a layered book with much to extrapolate. Of course, there’s much about exploitation, and of animals too, but mainly about how we see others who may seem different from us; whether it’s a seen physical manifestation (perhaps race or a disability), or whether its just about seeing things from another’s point of view. Whom do you trust and how far can science take us?

Despite all this, at its heart this is a thrilling, danger-filled adventure story. I particularly enjoy Bunzl’s small touches of humour and detail that imbue each story with depth of character and charm. The clown who speaks in spoonerisms in Skycircus, the magnificent understanding of the rolling out of the circus, and the allusions to ancient myths and the power of storytelling itself.

This is a grand book with a plot as tense as tiptoeing the tightrope, and bold narration that shouts as loudly as the red and white stripes of the circus tent. You can run away to your own circus here.

Up and Away: The Skies

How often do we look up to the skies? More and more we stretch our necks downwards to look at our phones and fail to take in what’s at eye level. But even rarer is for us to look skywards. These five wonderful non-fiction titles, and one picturebook for children, explore the world above our heads – both in the day, and at night-time.

the skies above my eyesThe Skies Above My Eyes by Charlotte Guillain, illustrated by Yuval Zommer

A follow up title to the hugely popular The Street Beneath My Feet, this is a book that unfolds concertina style to explore the expanse of space above our heads. Very beautifully, the two sides follow different paths: one is countryside/rural-based in that a girl is seen lying on her back staring up through the trees, and looking at migrating birds, spiders ballooning, cloud formations and up to the Solar System past the Northern Lights. On the converse side, which is technologically-based, the girl is seen staring up past skyscrapers, to helicopters, aeroplanes, weather balloons and space rockets into the Solar System. With measurements given along the chart, and information about the atmosphere, history and physics, this is a fascinating guide to the skies above us, and all that they contain.

The book folds out to a whopping 2.5 metres tall – I cannot hold it up fully when standing, but laid out along a school corridor or a living room, this is a wonderful way to explore non-fiction. Zommer’s illustrations lend themselves both to the factual element – his rocket is intricate and cleverly shadowed, but also to the whimsical, with a floating umbrella Mary Poppins style. A well-designed, intriguing collaboration – this is exactly how to fascinate children with the world around us. You can buy it here.

cat's guide to the night skyA Cat’s Guide to the Night Sky by Stuart Atkinson, illustrations by Brendan Kearney

A more traditional guide to astronomy and the night sky in this well-designed and attractive non-fiction book. Atkinson’s long experience of writing about space and astronomy is apparent in the way that he distils tricky ideas into simple sentences, exploring in a down-to-earth way how to star gaze. Beginning with keeping safe outdoors, the book (and its guide Felicity the Cat) takes the reader through the different seasons – the best time of year to view particular constellations and what the reader should be looking for, with explanation about the makeup of stars, the phases of the Moon, the Northern Lights and much more. Atkinson is matter-of-fact about what the constellations really look like, and how to try to view a planet, but Felicity the Cat adds nice philosophical touches, such as wondering if anyone is looking back at her too.

The graphics are excellent, both the phases of the Moon and the constellations well-delineated, and there’s a feeling of immense friendliness and warmth in the domestic images of garden viewing platforms, as well as added humour with Felicity, who dresses according to the season. Includes a glossary and index. Age 7+ You can buy it here.

 

starry skiesStarry Skies by Samantha Chagollan and Nila Aye

For younger children interested in the shapes and patterns made by the stars, this is an elegant and beautiful tactile little hardback with stiff board pages. A die-cut on the cover with an uncomplicated yellow star and a teddy bear with stars for eyes showcases the target age group and the simplicity of the graphics within. The author explains that the positions of the stars tell a story, and each double spread includes a constellation with an imaginative narrative sentence alongside: Ursa Major and minor are seen when ‘Sophia’ and her mom [sic] take a forest path, Pegasus is shown alongside ‘Leah’ on horseback ready to spread her wings and fly. The two-colour scheme of yellow and black works well to really illuminate the constellations, and the book is hardy and practical for taking outside. Age 4+ Stargaze here.

 

 

 

voyage through spaceVoyage Through Space by Katy Flint, illustrated by Cornelia Li

Appealing on another level with a glow-in-the-dark fold out poster of the solar system (nicely attached and easily detached to the book with a perforated edge), is this straightforward but rather cartoonishly illustrated information book about the solar system. Each planet is afforded a double spread – with lovely illustrations of a young female astronaut and her dog peering at each planet. A glare is carefully shaded onto her mask, and she wears glasses near the sun – our courageous astronaut is seen landing on the Moon and optimistically Mars – other illustrations are even more supposed, such as when she views the asteroid belt sitting upon one of the orbiting rocks. But the text is fact-based – explaining definitions, measurements and scientists’ hypotheses.

The colour palette is particularly alluring – Neptune is cast in almost phosphorescent blue, Saturn a golden glow, Mars a rusty brown-red. Captions and annotations help to explore the full-page images, and although short, this is a great introduction to the solar system for intrepid space explorers. Age 5+. You can buy it here.

 

planetariumWelcome to the Museum: Planetarium by Chris Wormell and Raman Prinja

Planetarium is the latest in the Welcome to the Museum series, this time in conjunction with the Science Museum. Wormell’s last collaboration in this series was on Dinosaurium, whose lavishly illustrated creatures set a high bench mark for illustrated non-fiction. This tome, exploring the Solar System, is no less delightful or comprehensive, and maintains the sophisticated authoritative tone of the rest of the series.

Written by Raman Prinja, a Professor of Astrophysics at UCL, the book aims to go further than many space information books for children, starting with an explanation of radiation and light and traversing through the history of astronomy before navigating the Solar System, star life cycles and black holes. The end of the book takes in the incomprehensibility of huge superclusters and Universe expansion.

To accompany these mind-bogging theories, facts and wonders, Wormell’s power of intricate and detailed illustration has been utilised to its full extent. The detailed drawings of telescopes are like dioramas on the page, his intricate etchings of solar flares and coronal loops feel almost three-dimensional in their depiction. This is not an easy book – there is science galore and difficult concepts, but there is a handsome clarity to the text and a sense of wonder that imbues the science behind the illustrations. There’s also some wonderful prose writing:

“They [black holes] can’t be seen, but if a human got too close to one, they would be sucked in by its gravitational pull, stretched out like spaghetti and incinerated in a wall of fire!”

For space fans and astronomy maestros this is one outsized book they’ll yearn to devour. 8+ years and beyond. Explore the museum here.

the space trainThe Space Train by Maudie-Powell Tuck, illustrated by Karl James Mountford

I’ve added a picture book to my ‘skies’ blogpost because often the information and facts we absorb on a topic lead us to daydream about our own or others’ adventures in that area. And because quite often, even though a children’s ‘knowledge’ topic at school may revolve around learning facts, they will often spark off into a piece of creative writing, and this picture book ticks all the boxes in providing educational content, inspiration, imagination and energy. The Space Train is a wonderful lift-the-flap adventure about a boy and his grandma in the future and their attempts to rebuild the space train – a vehicle that propels through space faster than a rocket.

Not only is this a fun and cheeky adventure, but it is richly illustrated with a bold colour palette and a super eye for detail. There are hidden flaps and holes to peek through, and a thrilling mind-whirling combination of ‘sciencey’ words, make-believe and the power of grit and determination, as well as a wonderful relationship between grandparent and child. When Jakob and Granny attempt to fix the old space train, they have to put together the thrusters and combustion chamber by riveting and welding. But there’s intergalactic imagination too – with a Toolbot, a robot chicken, an intergalactic buffet car, an observation deck and much much more. This is an imagined future universe of fun and adventure, but complete with a modern, energetic engineer Granny and brilliantly drawn full page illustrations of what it might be like to live in a future space station. Let your imagination soar here.

The Lifters by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Aaron Renier

the liftersMany of my test readers adore short chapters in their children’s fiction. It might be because they are reluctant readers and getting through the chapters feels like an achievable accomplishment. Or perhaps because they enjoy the cliff edges in the chapter cliffhanger endings, or simply because they can easily find a place to stop at lights out.

The Lifters by Dave Eggers has one hundred and thirteen chapters – not because it’s War and Peace for kids, but rather because most of the chapters are only a couple of pages long. Brief they may be, but they certainly contain a depth of metaphor.

Like many books for children this age, the main character’s story begins when his family move house to a new town. However, unlike anyone else, this boy is called Granite Flowerpetal, which he shortens to Gran as he starts his life afresh in the town called Carousel.

Life isn’t everything he and his parents had hoped in the new town. Gran is not teased at school, more ignored than anything, and his father fails to find the work he hoped would materialise in the new town. Instead, he travels miles away, leaving Gran, his sister and their wheelchair-bound mother.

Not long after they arrive, houses and buildings in Carousel start disappearing into massive sink-holes, and it turns out to be no coincidence when Gran follows a girl into a series of hidden underground tunnels, in which children called Lifters prop up the foundations of their towns.

The metaphor is blatant, but cleverly written. The town, particularly this kind of traditional manufacturing town, is literally sinking or collapsing because of the depth of misery and disheartened thinking, and it’s only the hope for the future (represented by the children) than can help to lift it again.

Granite, named for strength, turns out to be stronger than he thought, and Catalina, the girl who at first had questioned his moniker: “Don’t you realise Gran sounds like you’re a grandmother?” turns out to appreciate his company, especially after he proves his worth in the tunnels.

Although this was written before Trump became President, Eggers skilfully picks up on the US rust belt towns’ feeling of hopelessness: Carousel is a fictional town that was famous for making carousels, but has fallen victim to the new thrill seekers who prefer rollercoasters.

This is no rollercoaster of a novel – it’s more an extended metaphor with plenty of critique of the times in which we live. Adults come across quite badly – they cannot cope with conflict and tend to avoid trying to see another’s point of view at all. When part of the school falls in, the teachers act as if the sinkhole is inevitable and offer counselling to the children by way of individual cubicles and a psychology examination by an automaton on screen.

But although the responsibility for healing the community falls squarely onto the children’s shoulders, there is enough humour to lift the reader’s spirits, and plenty of great writing that keeps the reader turning the page, especially the little universal truths interjected by the writer. Away from the despondency and overplayed metaphor, I really rather enjoyed it. A good choice for older primary school readers looking for meaning behind a story. You can buy it here.

Armistice Day

On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. We know the historical facts about the First World War and we understand the remembrance at Armistice Day, but 100 years on, how do we not only keep the memory of it alive, but also make it relevant for today’s children. Two very different stories bring the topic to fresh generations by using issues that are forefront in the minds now, to illuminate how those same issues were a part of society then. It’s often said we’re living in a time of identity politics, and these two books both highlight individual identity within the context of the First World War.

white featherWhite Feather by Catherine and David MacPhail
This powerful tale is about how we remember somebody after they have died. The war is over, and everyone is celebrating, except Tony who is still mourning his brother Charlie who never returned from no man’s land. What’s more, Tony is given a white feather during the Armistice, a sign that his brother is remembered as a coward – executed for running away from Frontline service. Tony doesn’t believe that his brother was a coward, and sets out to find the truth, so that he can remember his brother – and that his brother can be correctly identified as a brave soldier.

Just as now, with first-hand recollection gone, the truth about the First World War may seem more misty, more distant. It’s important that we understand the facts of what happened, but also that we see through poetry or novels the individual’s experience, so that we can better empathise with the realities of that time. White Feather is about the search for truth – told as half a mystery and half a ghost story in a quest to uncover what really happened on the Front Line. With sympathetic characters, this novella provides a great talking point for how we understand the horrors of the time, as well as the importance of an individual’s identity, even after death. You can buy it here.

 

respect walter tullRespect: The Walter Tull Story by Michaela Morgan, with illustrations by Karen Donnelly
Another short novel, this time based on the true story of a First World War hero, pulls in today’s children for two reasons – firstly it’s again about identity – Walter Tull was a black man and suffered from prejudice because of this, and secondly because it ties football to the First World War, pulling in a raft of children who may be reluctant readers. In fact, even though this was first published in 2005, there is still a dearth of books for primary schools with strong black role models, and this fits the bill nicely.

Although Morgan has fictionalised Tull’s story, she has used a mixture of illustrations and photographs to highlight events, with a map too, so that a reader can see the primary sources behind the story. Tull was the first ever black professional footballer, and also the first black officer in the British Army, and his story is fascinating; one of great courage and resilience. You can buy it here.

You may also want to read about Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer here. All books published by Barrington Stoke, specialist publishers for reluctant and dyslexic readers.

World Science Day

Saturday 10th November is World Science Day. But every day is science day in our house. Whether we’re working out how much baking powder will make the cake rise, to calculating our speed at running up the steep inclines near the house, to gathering different types of fallen leaves outside the front door. Because, for children, science doesn’t necessarily slot neatly into a named discipline, but fits into everything they do, everywhere they go. In the same way that these books aren’t chemistry or physics text books, but a wonderful mix of non-fiction picture books, non-fiction narrative, fiction etc; and they introduce science into children’s lives in a range of different ways.

Max EinsteinMax Einstein: The Genius Experiment by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein, illustrated by Beverly Johnson

“Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born.”

This bouncy fiction title from best-selling American author James Patterson is a typical adventure story, but it oozes science and is all the more winning for doing so. Twelve-year-old orphan Max lives above stables in New York City, and is obsessed with Albert Einstein. She’s a bit of a genius herself, fabricating records to get a place at NYU. Then one day, she’s recruited by a mysterious organisation, taken to a gathering of the world’s other child prodigies in Israel, and asked to take part in a competition to lead world-saving projects. With teamwork and creativity, Max overcomes various obstacles, and nasty ‘oligarch’ baddies to win the day, providing globally conscious, humanitarian solutions to various scientific problems.

The setting of part of the book in Israel is down to the fact that the book is officially approved by the Albert Einstein Archives (housed at Hebrew U in Jerusalem) and so Patterson liberally sprays his text with Einstein quotes (they all work within the plot and are great fun), as well as simply explaining with a deft writer’s touch ideas such as The Theory of Relativity. These science bits are sprinkled throughout and are lovely touches – buried within the story so as not to feel too sciencey, whilst also clearly imparting knowledge.

Holding many of the ingredients for a key ‘girls in STEM’ title, such as learning about teamwork, caring for the planet, new technology, resilience, kindness to others, and the pursuit of creativity as well as knowledge in problem-solving, this is an excellent story with a warm protagonist who should win hearts everywhere. Includes glorious science-themed black and white illustrations. Find your inner genius here.

The QuentioneersThe Questioneers Book 1: Rosie Revere and the Raucous Riveters by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
I turn to the Rosie Revere picture books time and again for all sorts of purposes – the rhyming, the illustrations, the scientific message, feminism, the humour, characters, and so much more. Now, engineer Rosie has her own chapter book starring her friends architect Iggy Peck and scientist Ada Twist.

In this first of a series, Rosie’s Great-great Aunt Rose introduces the children to the Blue River Riveters, a group of women who built aeroplanes during WW2. One of them, June, wants to enter an art contest but has broken both her wrists in a motor-scooter accident, so needs Rosie to invent something to help her be able to participate.

The book is smart and fun, despite losing the rhyme, and continues the theme of girls in science as Rosie confronts the historical lack of women in traditional science jobs, as well as providing new themes of cross-generational bonding. As always with Rosie, there is learning from failure and experimentation and developing her persistence and resilience, and also a nod to science with the graph paper backgrounds and illustrated inventions. With its short chapters and two-tone illustrations, this is a good follow-on to younger fiction for those who have read the picture books so many times that they need something new. I can see Rosie going from strength to strength – just like her inventions. Ask your questions here.

Secret ScienceSecret Science: The Amazing World Beyond Your Eyes by Dara O’Briain with Sally Morgan, illustrated by Dan Bramall
I really approve of a comedian writing science books for children. Although I generally dislike promoting celebrity books, this hits a good note with me. It isn’t meant to be high-level science, and is delivered as a narrative strand – much like a comedian delivering a standup routine. And yes, amongst the sciencey bits are plenty of fart jokes, and the text is punctuated (probably almost more than necessary) with a huge number of WORDS IN CAPITALS, different typefaces, and many cartoons. This book covers the science that you can’t see – hormones, forces, energy etc, aiming to answer questions that children will spontaneously ask – why does hair stand on end, how do giraffes sleep? There are some lovely descriptions, including how a jet engine works and comparing it to a hose pipe, as well as parts that describe what stress does to the body and how to relieve it. Luckily, there’s a cool index at the end so that you can dip in rather than read the text all the way through, as it can be quite a noisy book. There are also the now necessary warnings about climate change and the environment. An entertainingly busy read. Discover the secrets here.

 

 

Before we tackle the large non-fiction, I must also draw your attention to a new periodical. The Week Junior has long been a favourite of mine for its bright photographs, news round up and excellent cultural coverage, but now there’s a The Week Junior Science and Nature magazine. This monthly 60 page magazine holds multiple entry points – a reader can dip and discover, absorbing fun facts or reading a feature. The first issue was in September, and featured such current topics as the secret behind Fortnite’s success, but also an in-depth feature on superhumans. Each month will have an eight-page Lab section with experiments and a monthly guide to the night sky for budding astronomers. Really excellent quality. You can order it here.

 

 

the speed of starlight

The Speed of Starlight, written by Colin Stuart, illustrated by Ximo Abadia
Subtitled ‘A Visual Exploration of Physics, Sound, Light and Space’, this is an elegant title with simple text and sharp colourful graphics that uncovers the mystery behind basic quantum physics.

It goes beyond starlight to investigate the science behind space but also how we explore the Universe. Divided into the four sections named in the subtitle, the book explains, using simple graphics, Newton’s Laws of Motion, the insides of an atom, soundwaves, photosynthesis, the colour spectrum and then goes into space.

Any author who’s had an asteroid named after him in recognition of his work to popularise astronomy must know a bit about what he’s writing. Not only does Colin Stuart have the expertise and enthusiasm, but he can explain it in the simplest terms without resorting to cliché. Find your speed here.

 

 

 

the element in the roomThe Element in the Room by Mike Barfield, illustrated by Lauren Humphrey
From physics to chemistry in this illustrated guide to the chemical elements. Any book on chemical elements will feature the periodic table, plus a small handy guide to each element, detailing its name, symbol, atomic number, key characteristics and so on. But here, as well as this basic information, the book is set out as a sleuth story, solving the case of the element in the room with a detective (Sherlock Ohms) whose catchphrase is ‘Elementary’ of course. To add spice and fun to the mix, the text is interspersed with full page comic strips, the first of which, for example, is a fun guide to Aristotle’s belief in the four elements – earth, air, fire and water.

There’s so much information packed into this book it would feel bamboozling if it weren’t for the sheer creativity of the author and illustrator, who explore where in the house the element can be found, (sodium in urine, zinc in nappy cream etc), fun experiments (building an electric lemon), and clever explanations of basic chemistry. You can buy it here.

 

 

first book of quantum physicsMy First Book of Quantum Physics by Sheddad Kaid-Salah Ferron and Eduard Altarriba
The very friendly illustrations, and quite large font size in this book belies the difficultly level of the subject matter and text in this absorbing yet challenging physics book. This book goes in a slightly different direction to the two above, exploring theoretical physics as much as the practical stuff. So, you’ll find pages on Schrodinger’s Cat as well as a page exploring waves and particles. This is an exciting book in that it leads to further thought and investigation rather than just imparting knowledge. There are good colourful graphics that attempt to illuminate the harder principles, such as The Uncertainty Principle or the Mystery of Antimatter, and illustrations that will explode the mind, such as the Tunnel Effect. I liked the graphic representation of the periodic table here – building blocks fitting together like Lego, and CERN represented as a toy train track. Amusing, stimulating and challenging – an awesome if ambitious science book. Explore theorem here.