general knowledge

What’s Where on Earth Atlas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy your own copy here.

Lots by Marc Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highest Mountain Deepest Ocean by Kate Baker and Zanna Davidson, illustrated by Page Tsou

highest-mountain-deepest-ocean

The introduction to this over-size book tells the reader that it is a story of superlatives. The longest this, the largest that. It’s a celebration of the natural world, exploring amazing feats of nature, wonders around us, and inspirational marvels, all illustrated in a calming and muted colour palate, with intricate pencil work and astute attention to detail.

There’s no narrative to this book, it’s just a collection of facts, which many children will adore. But some pages do hold longer explanations, for example describing lunar and solar eclipses. What’s lovely about the text though, is that as well as being told in fairly simple explanations, there is a luscious sample of descriptive vocabulary, so that eclipses are ‘eerie’ and mountains are ‘majestic’. Temperatures can be ‘scorching’ while gases ‘spew’ through space. There are also touches of folklore here and there, weaving stories with facts.

But this is a book in which visual illustrations rule, obvious from the cover where the illustrator, not the author is credited. Illustrations are not to scale, nor all scientifically accurate – this book is about visual beauty leading the reader into the book, in the same way that the visual beauty of the world can give pause for further thought. And yet it also feels rather museumy, as if the Natural History Museum has come into your house, which is no bad thing. Illustrations are all captioned, sometimes with a label, sometimes a key, but no picture is superfluous to the whole – each illustration has a reason for its placement.

The book also gives an insight into cross-references, for example under the heading ‘Burrowing Animals’, it not only explains the deepest living animal ever found and at what point, but also, on the same page, extrapolates the deepest point ever visited by humans (there’s not much difference between the two measurements), as well as the deepest tree roots – so comparisons can be easily made and wondered at.

Stunning to look at, particularly the world’s largest butterflies, and the page entitled ‘Hottest, Coldest, Driest, Wettest Places’, which takes a round intersection of the Earth with different parts of the semi-circle annotated as to the four extremes. It’s a book that immerses the reader in a compendium of facts, as well as presenting the information in a way that feels almost historical, almost classical in approach.

It is part of the new golden era of children’s non-fiction, enticing children to make discoveries about scientific facts through beautiful presentation. It certainly sucks me in every time. A perfect holiday gift. Age 8+ years.

You can buy a copy here.

Animal Non-Fiction

I have been wondering about the ratio of children’s non-fiction books about animals, to children’s books about anything else. So many seem to feature animals – in the same way that picture books often use animals as a way of exploring human foibles, or pointing out the differences between humans and animals in a subconscious way. For children, animals can be the way into various topics – geography about where they live, how the food cycle works, our emotions and behaviour (through the differences and similarities with animals), the way we portray animals in art and photography, and the environment and how human behaviour affects it. Animals are an excellent frame of reference. After watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2 with children, it’s easy to see how exciting animal life can be.

lesser-spotted-animals

Martin Brown’s Lesser Spotted Animals
From the illustrator of Horrible Histories comes this adorable non-fiction approbation to all the brilliant beasts that never quite make it into your average animal encyclopedia. Who needs further facts about flamingos or information about iguanas when you can read about the Lesser Fairy Armadillo, the Dagger-Toothed Flower Bat or the Yellow-Footed Rock-Wallaby? The latter is not a pop star wannabe, just a wallaby.

Funny from the book’s dedication onwards, Brown separates the ‘celebrity animals’ we all know and love, such as the koala, from the animals featured in his book. Each creature receives a double page spread, with a large illustration and accompanying text and facts – size, eating, habitat, status etc. The text is informative, but also a cry for help – as some of them are endangered.

Brown gives each illustration its own animal personality – with rolled eyes, or sneaky smiles or in the Gaur’s case, a death stare. This makes the book wonderfully amusing at the same time as hugely memorable and informative. I can definitely picture many eight year old children entertaining me with their facts about creatures who may sound made up, but actually exist. It’s telling that this was one of my review copy books that was appropriated by a child almost immediately. I learnt that a male lesser fairy armadillo is called a lister. (if you follow me on Facebook, you’ll see why that tickled me). Buy a copy here and have a good giggle.

wilderness

Wilderness: An Interactive Atlas of Animals by Hannah Pang, illustrated by Jenny Wren
Although not purporting to do anything particularly new in the realms of children’s non-fiction, this is a particularly appealing book for the young non-fiction readership. It firmly places animals within their geography, teaching chosen facts about specific animals, as well as placing them within their habitats so that everything from common animals to more exotic, surprising species are highlighted.

Each page is a different environment, from Desert to Fresh Water, for example, and species within the latter include the common frog and the kingfisher as well as the diving bell spider, which spends its whole life underwater. What’s particularly appealing is the 3D visual interactive features of each page – in Fresh Water, the common frog is bullet-pointed with facts about the tadpole-to-frog-story, but enhanced by the visual spinning wheel which illustrates each stage, complete with matching bulleted-numbers for easy reference.

The page on the Hot Savannah features such beauties as the African thorn tree and the sociable weaver bird, but also encourages the reader to go on safari themselves, as hiding beneath the camouflaging grass illustration is information about the grass itself and the lion and zebra. One ostrich egg opens to reveal the number of hen eggs to which it is equivalent in size. Read the book to find out!

Few readers will forget which pole is where, as the Arctic sits firmly on top of the Antarctic -the latter being portrayed upside down.

The first page gives a quick guide introduction – explaining the definition of habitat, giving a key to the different types, and explaining the hemispheres, but all in very simple basic language that is easy to understand.

Each page is a hardy cardboard, allowing for the 3D visual elements – such as the pop-up mountain, but also lending a longevity to this colourful, and thoughtfully put-together animal book. You can buy a copy here.

secrets-of-the-sea

Secrets of the Sea: Discover a Hidden World by Kate Baker, illustrated by Eleanor Taylor
The sort of children’s book that doubles as a coffee table manual, or a tome that could be smuggled under the duvet and inspire future generations of marine biologists. From the publishers of Botanicum, Animalium and Historium, comes a new scientific study in illustration – life beneath water.

From rockpools along the shore, to the deepest depths of the ocean, Eleanor Taylor zooms in on fascinating sea dwellers to show the reader the intense beauty and incredible detail of a rarely photographed or illustrated world.

Each page is given over to a different species, from the wondrous pygmy seahorse, ordinarily only 2 cm in size, here magnified to over 20 times, and in a glorious illustration that shows it clinging to its host sea fan by its tail. Text details are given alongside – from its size to Latin name, behaviour, habitat and other facts. The reader can look at even more minute creatures though, such as the 2 mm in size sea butterfly – a marine snail that uses its heart-shaped muscular foot as a pair of wings.

Or perhaps, look at something larger, but under a microscope. Taylor illustrates fish gills as seen under a microscope – they look like feathers, or leaves from an exquisite tree.

The book is split into sections – swimming from the Shallows, through Sea Forests, Coral Gardens and finally into the Deep. The use of background colour throughout the book reflects this, so that by the time the reader is studying creatures in the deepest part of the ocean, the book has turned almost black, yet with a grainy bubbles feeling, a swooshy watery sensation so that the pages almost look as if they are floating in water.

The artworks are a combination of various forms including ink and charcoal, although coloured digitally, and the effect is quite mesmerising. Seeing images in such microscopic detail does make the reader think twice about what exactly it is they are looking at – zooming in at such an intensity magnifies the beauty.

The text is informative, but also fairly descriptive – definitely aimed at a confident and learned reader. However, even the youngest sibling may be enamoured by the description and picture of ‘sea sparkle’, a single-celled organism that lights up the sea at night – otherwise known as ‘sea fire’ or ‘sea ghost’. Who wouldn’t be won over? This is very stunning-looking non-fiction book to inspire future generations and delight older ones. Age 8+ years. Buy your copy here.

on-the-trail-of-the-whalewhere-is-the-bear
Supersearch Adventures: On the Trail of the Whale by Camilla de la Bedoyere and illustrated by Richard Watson, and Where is the Bear? By Camilla de la Bedoyere and illustrated by Emma Levey
Doubling as an activity book and fact book, this is another non-fiction book in which the reader learns through play and fiction narrative.

The fold out glossy cover flaps show panoramic artwork and creature spotting tick boxes to work through as the reader goes through the book. On the Trail of the Whale follows Otto the Octopus as he tries to find his best friend Hula the humpback whale, whilst Where is the Bear? follows Suki the hare looking to deliver a present to a bear called Ping.

Both books allow the reader to traverse through particular landscapes spotting animals that live there, and finding out facts about them.

The drawings are cartoon-like and colourful, appealing well to the target readership, children aged five and over. The instructions are rhyming, but the facts written clearly, as speech bubbles from the various creatures. The story nicely splits up the facts, so that there is plenty of movement on each page – the adventure doesn’t stop.

There are even some maths problems lineated inside the book, asking the reader to work out numbers of legs and suchlike. Fun, bright, and following a simple narrative. Buy On the Trail of the Whale here and Where is the Bear? here.

knowledge-animal

Knowledge Encyclopedia Animal
It may not feature the lesser fairy armadillo, but this is a fairly comprehensive look at the animals of the world, using computer-generated artworks to capture the variety of the animal world, and the details of each individual animal.

Starting with the basic question of what is an animal, the book then breaks it down into classification and explores types of animals with sections on invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals – colour-coded for ease. Fully comprehensive, there is a scale for sizing, glossary, and a section on general animal science, including parenting and migration.

As this is a DK encyclopedia, the text is accessible without being patronising. It’s not chatty but not too dry either. It feels like a hefty purchase, with a myriad of different ways of putting across information including factfiles, closeups, skeletons and diagrams.

There is lots of white space, illustrations that are sharply annotated and labelled with captions that give oodles of information. The text is concisely edited, giving the maximum amount of information in the fewest words.

The Galapagos tortoise double spread includes fact titbits such as the age it lives to, but also close up of growth rings, the armour plate, information on its bony carapace, its beak and rivalry, as well as the difference between its front and hind feet.

Fully checked by the Smithsonian Institute, the book has also been rigorously looked at to suit the national curriculum up to Key Stage 3, covering components such as habitats and ecosystems as well as senses and respiration. What an incredible way to learn. You can purchase your copy here.

 

Under Earth, Under Water by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski

under earth under water

As a children’s book reviewer, it’s difficult to balance non-fiction and fiction reviews. With a swift glance at my in-box, I think only about two per cent of the books I am sent are non-fiction titles, and many of those are requested, when actually non-fiction sales make up about 12 % of the market (excluding text books/study guides). At the moment there is reported growth in non-fiction across children’s publishing. For example, Penguin reported growth of 38% in their children’s non-fiction publishing in 2014.

It’s hard to work out what percentage of non-fiction sales are licensed titles, such as Minecraft and activity books, which also fall under non-fiction, and how many are actual fact books. However, luckily for me (and you) the non-fiction that does reach me tends to be of extremely high quality.

The latest is Under Earth, Under Water from the authors of Maps, and it is quirky, random, factual, and absurdly moreish.

It endeavours to portray segments of the Earth stretching down from the burrowing animals near the surface, through pipes, tunnels, caves, and mines, to the Earth’s core – and then, turning the book over – goes down again through the water’s surface – lakes down through the oceans, oil harvesting, human sea exploration and its history, and ending up just past the Mariana trench.

The Mizielinkskis have a distinct style of illustration and annotation (info bubbles, arrows and numbers) and have used it well here, depicting the narration with representatives of what they are trying to show rather than attempting illustrative likenesses. For example, the illustration of Sima Humboldt explains what a cool phenomenon it is, but motivates the reader to look up photographic evidence of it too.

In fact the entire book is inspirational non-fiction rather than pure factual telling. This may be one reason why the book doesn’t have a glossary – it’s a book for dipping into – finding out new discoveries, and then researching more if inspired.

The graphics work well in trying to explain scientific or geological happenings – especially sink holes, and buoyancy, both of which I stumbled across while ‘dipping’, because they aren’t chapter headings and I found them at random. Step by step illustrations explain both processes, and the accompanying text is simple and effective. For a non-scientist or growing child, the explanations are fascinating.

The authors/illustrators use of colours is fabulous too – the cover’s striking red and blue (one side earth, one side water), indicative of what’s inside. The coral reef is fairly vibrant, but colour is used most effectively in some of the diagrams – for example in explaining water systems below the earth, the authors use different tones for rain water, sewage, industrial waste, suspension and eventually clean water to explain how they all diverge and intersect.

under earth under water 2

Some spreads are general in topic, whilst others, seemingly randomly, pick out specific examples. For example tunnels is general, then the authors describe specific metro systems. Similarly, mines are described in general, then the Mponeng mine is shown (with map) to illustrate the deepest mine. However, not all specific examples have maps, not all terms are explained in graphics.

All in all the cleverness of the duality of the book, the random selection of facts and information, the compulsion to revisit and find out more beguiled me. This is great family reference for inspiring knowledge; love of learning for its own sake, and inspiring future generations. This is not the answer to a specific google search, it’s an oversize exquisitely packaged bundle of information.

For age 6+ years, and you can buy it here.

FCBG National Non-Fiction November: Celebrating Maps

The first time a child sees a map may well be in a children’s book. My first was 100 Aker Wood – who could resist the lure of the ‘Sandy Pit Where Roo Plays’, or feel for Eeyore immediately, stuck in his ‘Gloomy Place’. Before the story even begins, the narrative starts in the map – with setting, character, and potential story.

Non-fiction maps also tell stories. Not all non-fiction maps need to be drawn to scale, to accurately represent their size and place in the world – sometimes they can be drawn in such a way that they are just telling their own story – which is the case with my featured book today.

50 States

The 50 States by Gabrielle Balkan, illustrated by Sol Linero
One of our favourite games as youngsters was to try to name all fifty states of the USA. It’s not easy – some invariably get left out. No longer though, after reading this weighty, comprehensive, unique book on the states of America.

The endpapers open with a map of America, easily divided by colourful sections into the fifty states, each with page numbers – a pictorial contents page. The states are not to scale – it’s not an atlas, but a book that aims to divulge the character of each state.

50 states contents

Each page highlights a different state in similar ways – showing influential and inspiring people connected with the state, key facts, history, capitals, places of interest, size, bordering states and much more.

For example, Pennsylvania features famous people such as Andy Warhol and Taylor Swift – depicted in cute little illustrative framed portraits – it also features famous landmarks such as the State Capitol and the world’s oldest operating wooden roller coaster, and key moments from the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg to Hershey breaking ground in 1903 for his new chocolate factory. It’s an eclectic mix but tells a good story.

The introductory text on each page is simple, informative, and explains the importance of each state – Pennsylvania is the ‘keystone state’ and the book explains why. The language is not dry though – Penn is described as being “something of a spiritual home for history lovers” and the author explains how a visitor can travel back in time to experience some of the highlights. It’s friendly and fun, reflected too in the choice of typeface.

The page on Mississippi explains the meaning behind the name, as well as revealing that “the river is as much a hero of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as Huck and Jim”. It contrasts hugely with Idaho, in which forty per cent of the land is covered by forest. Describing Maryland as big in personality, this state, purported to be “America in miniature” was home to the first American passenger railroad.

And each state is shown by its shape on the double page spread – with its borders – the angles and twists and turns of geography laid bare.

There are key facts on each state boxed off and labelled so that a quick flick can give the reader the all-important quiz facts such as each state’s capital, state bird, motto, tree, time zone and much more.

There’s also a comprehensive index, mini illustrated framed portraits of each American president up to Obama, and a table of the state flags.

The tone is excellent – pitched perfectly at a curious mind, not too fact heavy, not too light either. It invites you into each state and gives you a flavour of what you can find. I’m set on visiting all 50 – each has so much to offer.

With this book the reader gains a comprehensive insight into America – the history from the native Americans to the battles fought, signing of the Constitution to civil rights, the discovery of oil to the current president. The geography, from the acres of farmland, forests, length of rivers, mountains and plains. Culture – from Bob Dylan to Frank Sinatra, from Tennessee Williams to EB White, even weather from Maine’s Ice Storm to Louisiana’s Hurricane Katrina, as well as a sense of place from Missouri’s Gateway Arch to New Jersey’s Atlantic City boardwalk, sports too, and quirky eccentricities.

A reader can compare and contrast the difference and similarities between states, the sheer amount of space and history. There is so much to pore over on each page – it’s lucky the book’s dimensions are so big. This is one to savour – for every geographic nerd, non-fiction aficionado, and for anyone who’s ever tried to rattle off all 50 states and not quite managed it.

For 8+ years. You can buy a copy here, or see the sidebar. With thanks to Wide Eyed Publishers for sending a review copy.

A Stepping Stone To Books

When I talk to parents whose children aren’t keen readers, I often mention how important it is to find another way into books – to make reading a habit. One brilliant stepping stone to engage children who aren’t ready for a lengthy book is to turn to a periodical. These are still relevant for keen book readers – many of the keenest readers adore my first featured periodical for its ability to tell a story and wait breathlessly for their Friday installment. The three periodicals featured below are informative, engaging, interactive, and interesting, and also work as an extra treat for the most dedicated book readers.

Phoenix

Phoenix Comic
I’m starting with The Phoenix because it celebrated its 200th edition last Friday. The Phoenix is a weekly comic for children aged about 6-12 years. Rather than just containing comic strips, it also features adventure stories – serialised week on week. In fact you may have seen some of these produced as books, including Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy. This comic strip appears in The Phoenix each week and brings back from the dead a famous character from history, supplying excellent non-fiction snippets, and cringe-worthy jokes (the book was shortlisted for the 2015 Blue Peter Best Book of Facts Award). Evil Emperor Penguin by Laura Ellen Anderson (a prolific children’s book illustrator) also features weekly, and Anderson’s Penguin adventures were also published as a book this October.

As well as the captivating story-telling in the comics, and the humour, and the facts contained within Corpse Talk, parents love that there are no gimmicks – no adverts, no plastic toys.

Without them realising, it gets children reading, teaches them to look for visual clues, provides different styles of writing, explores story arcs and offers a way into storytelling like no other. Many of the reading schemes I work with in schools have comics as part of their new titles now – it’s a good way for children to break down a story and see how a plot unfolds. The vocabulary in The Phoenix is great too – from onomatopoeias of comic genius, to sacrifices, explorers and rebellions related historical strips. As the publisher, David Fickling says “libraries and schools are deliberately stocking our comics because they see them as a link to books, not competition to them.”

The 200th edition has a beautifully illustrated cover by our children’s laureate, Chris Riddell, and a preview for the new strip called John Blake coming 2016 written by Philip Pullman, and illustrated by Fred Fordham. This edition also sees The Phoenix being stocked in WHSmith for the first time.

First news

First News
Another weekly that is fought over by children each week (“I’m reading it first!”) is First News. A weekly national newspaper for children, it features news told in a non-patronising but accessible way. Each news story assumes little prior knowledge on the history of the topic, so gives the story context, and tries to present it in an appealing way with graphics where necessary.

There is general news, home news in snippets encircling a map of Great Britain, world news presented likewise, but with reference numbers for each piece of text corresponding to the appropriate place on the world map (geography has never been so interesting), picture news, science, animals, entertainment and sports news. There are also weekly features including a comic strip, jokes, amazing facts, interviews, book reviews and a book corner, puzzles, and a great section called ‘Your News’ in which children send in their own reports about interesting experiences they have had.

It sounds comprehensive – and it is. It manages to tackle sensitive issues, such as refugees, bullying and the environment well, without resorting to sensationalism or being too simplistic.

The special editions, which are printed as an in-depth look at certain subjects, are also well presented. The Election 2015 edition was particularly well done.

The weekly newspaper does contain adverts, but having seen almost 100 editions, I’ve yet to find anything too objectionable. It’s an excellent source for knowledge about current affairs for children. A print version of the wonderful Newsround from the 1980s.

aquila

Aquila
The ultimate magazine for young non-fiction fans, Aquila is a monthly issue rather than weekly. Aimed at roughly 8 years and over, it features one topic per month and delves into it in a range of fun, interactive and informative ways. Next month is Life on Mars, this month was Invisibility.

The team behind the magazine deal with each subject in an imaginative way. Invisiblity is addressed not only as when you might feel invisible (such as starting a new school) but also what’s invisible in the natural world – because it is camouflaged. The Invisibility edition features an activity to help the reader make an invisibility cloak, a science experiment to make an object invisible, information on static electricity – which of course you can feel but not necessarily see, a double page spread on archaeologists ‘seeing’ what’s invisiible, and the history of priest holes, which are ancient hiding places – the sort that some Catholic priests used for hiding places to escape capture following the Gunpowder Plot.

There are also stories, puzzles and competitions. As with The Phoenix, there are no adverts, just a very full letters page with enthusiastic feedback from readers. It’s for curious children everywhere, and is delivered by post.

 

 

 

Back to School: Information Books

Information or non-fiction titles can be used in so many ways. Some are inspirational with amazing photography or diagrams, others provide activities, and many are good with straightforward facts for helping with homework. As the children start school at the beginning of September, I’ve handpicked a few titles, old and new, to assist and stimulate.

Toby and the Ice Giants

Toby and the Ice Giants by Joe Lillington
A leading non-fiction writer once told me that the best non-fiction is told with a running narrative – a story lives through it. Toby and the Ice Giants embraces this to its full extent. From the endpapers at the beginning, which illustrate a map of the world 15,000 years ago showing the ice coverage, to the introduction that explains what an ice age is, the book gets off to a flying start. It follows the travels of Toby, the bison, as he wanders the globe discovering the creatures who lived in this period. On each page Toby meets a different animal, and the author gives facts and illustrations about each. The book is simple and effective, although as pointed out by the author, this wasn’t a journey that the bison could have actually taken. The text is basic, but the book triumphs with its muted yet expressive illustrations. The exquisite detail is inspirational as well as informative, motivating the readers to learn more about the topic. There are size comparisons to modern day children, and easy to access vertical strips of simple facts. A beautiful way to learn about the Ice Age for primary school children.
You can also learn to draw a woolly mammoth with Joe on the Guardian website. Just click here. You can purchase the book here or click the Amazon side bar.

dead or alive

Dead or Alive by Clive Gifford, illustrated by Sarah Horne
For those children who adore spouting weird and wonderful facts, this is a gem of a book. Animals will do anything to survive, and this book includes a plethora of ways that animals have evolved in order to escape death. From opossums’ state of tonic immobility to the long lifespan of the quahog, children will delight in these obscure facts. Sarah Horne illustrates the book with quirky cartoons, from whole page scenes of animal prisoners (dangerous killers) to a spoof newspaper with tales of ingenuity, there is as much to look at and absorb through the pictures as the stimulating text. Gifford is a master of non-fiction for children, highlighting key facts with lively and succinct text. The book also features photographs of animals too so that rarer animals are shown as they are – such as the takahe and the microscopic tardigrade. Fun and engrossing. Look out also for the next in the series, The Ultimate Animal Criminals, looking at more extreme aspects of the animal world. You can buy it here.

Children's Encyclopedia of Space

Children’s Encyclopedia of Space
Another fact book is the newly repackaged Children’s Encyclopedia of Space. This brings together five 100 Facts About Books for which Miles Kelly is known. My review of 100 Facts about Space appeared here, but this whopping encyclopedia brings together other books on space including the solar system, stars and galaxies, astronomy, exploring space, and space travel – 500 facts in total. Of course there is some repetition – there often is in books that have been sandwiched together in this way, but not too much repetition – and most children don’t mind this re-enforcement of some facts. Moreover, it is up to date, with references to space missions to happen in 2016, for example. The book is packed with fun, interesting information, including the history of astronomy to the science behind black holes, star constellations, and missions to space. The text is written plainly but well, with lots of fun comparisons to things that children can visualise – such as explaining how comets in 1994 slammed into Jupiter’s atmosphere at more than 200 times the speed of a jet aeroplane. The book is fascinating and informative – a book to be devoured by all space enthusiasts. Visit Miles Kelly’s website for a discounted copy.

Encyclopedia of History

Encyclopedia of History, consulted by Philip Steele
There are many occasions when children are learning about a period of history and need to access simple, effective facts to answer questions, introduce the topic and give a framework for further study. Miles Kelly’s all-encompassing encyclopedia of history for children does just that. It’s an excellent book for dipping into in order to get the answers, without resorting to unreliable or contextually inaccurate facts on a random website. It’s a mammoth task to document world history in 500 small pages, but this is a brief run-through of events and dates one might need. Each page is dedicated to a topic and is set out with a series of bullet points highlighting key facts. Miles Kelly have demonstrated impressive skill with their brevity – summing up events in complex areas of the world such as the Middle East in a mere 350 words.
There is a lot of white space, which helps to make the book feel clean and easy to access. The pictures are a mixture of photographs and illustrations, each serving their purpose, but like the text, minimal and informative – this is not a showy book. The sections work chronologically from pre-history through the ancient civilisations to medieval times and finally into the modern world, dating up to events that occurred in 2014. Highly recommended as a first look at world history. Click here for copy.

diary of a time traveller

Diary of a Time Traveller by David Long, illustrated by Nicholas Stevenson
For those who like their history to be inspirational, Diary of a Time Traveller provides another quick dip into the past, but in an entirely different way from an encyclopedia. This is another non-fiction title told through narrative text, focussing on the people who have influenced history. Nine year old Augustus falls asleep from boredom in his history lesson, so his teacher Professor Tempo asks him to write down which events in history he’d like to learn about, and then takes him back in time to the events. There are 29 events covered in the book from cavemen and the discovery of fire through to the first Olympic Games, Mexico in 1200, the Gutenberg Press in 1439 to spotting Einstein in 1935 in New York. These are not key battles, wars or kings, but rather a global exploration through culture, invention and adventure. History told through its most inspirational people.
The main text on each spread is told from Augustus’ point of view – it is colloquial, using words such as ‘awesome’, ‘guys’ and ‘cool’, and the illustrations are captioned with the Professor’s facts. This very extra-curricular way of looking at history is refreshing and exciting. Delving into just one spread, for example on the end of slavery in the USA in 1865 is a wonderful way to stimulate further reading and discussion. The illustrations are dominated by people – those who have forged history – each spread manages to be distinct and yet form part of the whole book – large vivid whole page illustrations which feel textured and luxurious. The facial and bodily features change on the people from event to event, continent to continent, and it feels friendly and warm. This title publishes on 1st October. Pre-order it here.

everything volcanoes and earthquakes

National Geographic: Everything Volcanoes and Earthquakes
Published 2013, but still one of my favourite information books, Everything Volcanoes and Earthquakes is an explosive book with scintillating photographs by an award-winning photojournalist and great verified information. The photographs are stunning and create a great excitement around the subject, and the information is extensive and wide-ranging. The book imparts a wealth of scientific information from types of volcanoes to explanations of the ring of fire and different types of rocks, but also includes hands-on experiments, the history of our understanding of volcanoes, rescue scenarios at earthquake sites, and the benefits of volcanic mud – but all explored with fascinating facts and magnificent photography. The text is aimed at the correct level – “Tectonic plates move at an average of about an inch (2.5cm) every year. Your hair grows about six times faster than that!” It’s incredible to look at the pictures every time the book is opened, and it is truly informative. This remains one of the great non-fiction titles. Buy it here.

 

 

With thanks to Miles Kelly for review copies of their encyclopedias, and to Wide Eyed Publishing and Flying Eye Books for their review copies of Diary of a Time Traveller and Toby and the Ice Giants.

 

Remember Your Rights

whatonearth science magna carta what on earth

When I went to school, subjects were compartmentalised. Kings and queens were history, and mountains and valleys were geography. Finding out where the Vikings landed was history, not geography, whereas Isaac Newton was studied in physics, not as a historical father of the Enlightenment.

magna carta pull out

So when I first encountered Christopher Lloyd’s What on Earth? Timelines I was intrigued by the mix of learning – laid out in a timeline so that you could track that in 1905 Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was published in the same year that Koch received the Nobel Prize for identifying bacteria as disease-carrying agents, just four years after Marconi first broadcast radio across the Atlantic. When you look at things like this, you can start to link events across a spectrum of subjects that make interesting comparisons and links. It inspired me to discover that this was the year that the Russian Tsar Nicholas II granted Russia’s first constitution, but Huckleberry Finn was banned from the Brooklyn Library for setting a ‘bad example’.

Then I heard that Christopher Lloyd was making a Magna Carta themed timeline, drawing a web through history from a single document transcribed 800 years ago this year, extrapolating a litany of freedoms and rights that involve nature and luck as much as heroes and heroines in history. Without the rats bringing the Black Death, would feudalism have ended? Without John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, would Thomas Jefferson have drafted The Rights of Man?

The timeline is starkly visual, with line drawings of famous figures and objects in history, colour coded to denote geography, and dated along the bottom line so that parallels can be drawn across continents. The Magna Carta Chronicle has a guide to the Salisbury Cathedral document itself on the back – as well as, like the other What on Earth Timelines – newspaper articles telling the stories of famous moments in history. This is a great textual way of bringing history to life, and stems from Christopher’s past career as a journalist.

The Magna Carta timeline has been donated to 21,000 primary schools, funded by charitable donations to the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Committee, which is a worthwhile enterprise. The other What On Earth? Timelines, including Natural History, Science and Engineering, and Shakespeare, to name a few, are also available – I personally like the Science and Engineering best. When showing them to schools, myself and other librarians have been struck by how dynamic and accessible they are for children – but if for school rather than home use, would probably warrant the more expensive laminated copies – otherwise the stretchy timelines could be torn by over enthusiastic readers.

In a time when I’ve decried the lack of decent non-fiction available for children, it’s good to have someone looking at how children absorb facts, and trying to use creativity to invent new ways of presenting pertinent information, drawing links between things that help our understanding and pique our curiosity.

You can purchase from Amazon on the side bar or by clicking here for the Science and Engineering Timeline, or here for the Magna Carta Timeline.

 

Where have all the children’s non-fiction books gone?

Once upon a time I used to work for a large (mainly reference, ie. non-fiction) publisher as a children’s book editor. In that time I also contributed some writing to the process, and produced a shelf full of beautifully illustrated/photographic, valuable, information-packed exciting non-fiction books for children.

From an egotistical point of view, sadly, none of the books seems readily available, in fact the publisher (bought out by one huge media conglomerate) now focuses on educational titles and content online. (Educational titles are not the same as children’s non-fiction, for those not in publishing).

In fact, when I look for good quality children’s non-fiction titles in bookshops, I can’t find much.

There’s no media space given to it – when was the last time you read a review in a newspaper of children’s non-fiction?

Actually, you may well answer Christmas. This is the only time – it’s when a few high quality, beautifully packaged (for gifts) titles do the rounds. I can reel off the ones produced for this Christmas – some were amazing – although one bestseller had a grimace-inducing grammatical error in it.

The main argument you’ll hear is that children nowadays don’t look up stuff in books! They use the internet. Even in school, the children tell me they all look up things on websites. Excuse my scepticism – as a young editor I also trawled the internet to provide safe, quality content, ‘internet-links’ for the ‘internet-linked’ books that we published. The worthy websites were few and far between, and they certainly don’t appear at the top of the Google search results. The reason is that to produce a quality non-fiction book we had highly skilled writers explaining concepts in tight, concise, careful language. The books were fact checked by consultants, and editors, rechecked and rechecked. Then consideration was given to picture content, explanations and labels. It took time and skill.

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Not unlike a school librarian (also in sharp decline), we editors/publishers of non-fiction meticulously gathered fact-checked accurate information, and presented it in an attractive, accessible, inspiring format to stimulate children’s curiosity.

And yet I know first-hand that for many boys (and some girls) non-fiction is the essence of their love of books. In the school library the boys head for the non-fiction section. In the public library they decry the lack of modern non-fiction titles. As a reviewer, I have a lovely stream of fiction entering my house, and yet every day my son asks ‘did any non-fiction come today?’ He’s desperate for it, and he’s not alone.

As well as producing a generation of book lovers, I also want children to know that they can trust books to give them the correct information, that ‘google’ isn’t the answer, but merely the question. I want children who can analyse different types of text in front of them – fiction, information, instructive, newspaper report, review, commentary, discussion. I want children who know that they can escape into other worlds through fiction, but can also make sense of their own world through non-fiction. It is costly for publishers to produce, but with some help they can do it. Let’s celebrate it more in the general media, let’s give it airtime, newspaper columns, blogposts, shelves in bookstores. Let’s hand our children the key to the future. It starts with a few expert checked facts.

Four Fabulous Non-Fiction books

story of stars

The Story of Stars by Neal Layton

The Story of Stars uses pop-ups, cut outs and a range of devices to actively involve smaller children in the mystery of the universe. It takes one topic and runs with it in the most exciting way possible, exploring facts through creativity. Although some of the concepts are very difficult, even explaining to young children that people lived thousands of years ago, and without computers!, the book introduces basic definitions, such as supernovas, white dwarfs etc, and explains the history of humans’ relationship with space, as well as posing a whopping discussion point at the end of the book. Perfect to share with young children looking for their first interests, and slightly older children to accompany school learning. (You can’t get pop-ups and cut-outs on the internet).

lift the flap general knowledge lift flap gen know inside

Usborne Lift the Flap General Knowledge

Children adore general knowledge. They love reciting facts. They have competitions to see who knows the most facts about countries/animals. Listen to them – their knowledge can be quite astounding. Usborne books do a tremendous job producing quality non-fiction. Just published, Usborne Lift the Flap General Knowledge is an irresistible treasure trove of knowledge, with fact flaps just waiting to be lifted to find out more underneath. There are sections on entertainment, living things, science and timelines. It even labels the ends of the ship for those who aren’t sure. (The bow’s at the front, stern at the back!) It’s engrossing and illuminating, and above all, just a fun book to dip into.

DK Dinosaurs

DK Dinosaurs: a children’s encyclopedia

Dinosaurs, transport, animals and space. The coolest subjects for little boys, only to be trumped by volcanoes and earthquakes as they get older. Information on space and transport changes continuously, but dinosaurs more or less stay the same. This is an all-encompassing massive reference title with everything inside. Divided into classifications, the encyclopedia introduces prehistoric life – where life began and the timeline of life before honing down into invertebrates, early vertebrates, dinosaurs, birds and mammals. Each section introduces the type of life before breaking it down into species and giving key facts – habitat, period, size etc. The pictures are stunning – it’s visually easy to read and appealing. There’s a detailed index and glossary and the text is clear and precise.

make a universe

How to Make a Universe with 92 Ingredients by Adrian Dingle

This book isn’t newly published, but is an excellent example of how to present non-fiction in a new, interesting, and fascinating way. The book essentially talks about the periodic table – but not how you or I ever learnt the periodic table. It breaks down every day things into its core elements using illustration and fun text and educates at the same time. For example it explains what you would need to make your own human being, how fireworks work, and what makes a safety match safe. With super headings such as ‘really cool science bit’, ‘Alfie (and his brother) go boom’, and ‘who’s the daddy?’, this is a science book that’s definitely not just for geeks. Thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing.