history

Shakespeare 400

As you will know by now, 2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare died. It’s quite difficult to review Shakespeare books for children, as most adults come to the plays with at least a gist of the plot line, and also with a preconceived notion of who Shakespeare was and the influence he wields over our inherited culture, whereas children are approaching him afresh. As someone who studied Shakespeare at university, it’s hard to separate existing knowledge from the presentation of Shakespeare in children’s stories, but seeing as it is a big Shakespeare year, I thought I’d reach out to children’s publishers and see what they are producing for the commemoration. And this is what I found.

to wee or not

To Wee or Not to Wee! By Pamela Butchart and Thomas Flintham

Pamela Butchart is a favourite children’s comic author, and she has tackled Shakespeare with aplomb. After taking part in the BBC School Radio Shakespeare Retold project, she has tried her hand at retelling four of the best known Shakespeare plays in this little collection: Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet.

Each story starts by introducing the role call of characters, as one would at the start of a play, but then each story reverts to prose. The stories are told by a contemporary child, Izzy, who is something of an expert on the stories, and likes to show off how things that happen in her life can be related to Shakespeare plays.

For example, her friend Zach is totally indecisive, and she compares this to Hamlet – and proceeds to tell her friends the story. Likewise, a feud between her mother and her friend’s mother over invitations to a party is relatable to the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. Sort of.

It’s completely tongue in cheek, and made me snort out loud, not only in the tenuous connections between Izzy’s life and Shakespeare, but also in her retellings. For example Ophelia is fed up that Hamlet doesn’t want to marry her, not only because he’s mean to her, but also because her wedding dress is non-refundable.

Izzy explains how the Capulets and Montagues fell out over a hoover. Izzy thinks Macbeth should have de-stressed a little by doing a Sudoku instead of burning Macduff’s house down to the ground and killing all his family. Butchart brilliantly conveys the excitement, madcapness, blood, gore and love twists in her stories, but also adds a brilliantly modern childlike prose style to capture emotions.

Some fabulous illustrations accompany the text – as well as much of the text being in huge capitals or squiggles to convey when people are POISONED, or MURDERED or IN LOVE.

They are funny, thrilling and funny again. Never before has the retelling of Hamlet made me laugh so much. And of course there’s always Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has a man called Bottom in it. Perfect for children of all ages – even the grown up kind. Highly recommend. You can buy it here.

boy and globe

The Boy and the Globe by Tony Bradman, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones

With precision and acute attention to detail, master storyteller Tony Bradman illuminates the time of Shakespeare with a brilliant little story about Toby, a young orphan on the streets of London during the time of Shakespeare.

Sent by a Fagin type ringmaster called Moll Cut-Purse, Toby tries his criminal luck pickpocketing at the Globe. But he stumbles across a certain famous playwright, who needs Toby’s help in more ways than one. Before long, Toby is staking out rival players at the Rose theatre, helping Will with sticky plot points, and even acting in a play himself.

The story whizzes along in a jaunty and happy style. The young Toby is peppy and interesting and perks up the character of Shakespeare, who is portrayed as slightly jaded and in need of some youthful spark. Bradman has set his story towards the end of Shakespeare’s London playwriting career, so that his reputation already preceded him.

The story is fun in itself, but the huge amount of historical detail simply dropped into the story means that the reader comes away with a good picture of how life was in Shakespeare’s time. Added to this, are the production touches given to the book itself – from the endpapers (covered in Yorick skulls) to the fake splodges of ink on the pages, which lend themselves to the idea of the book being written by quill, and the contents – laid out like the beginning of Shakespeare plays, complete with the cast, the time and the place. Tom Morgan-Jones has inked his own unique illustrations, beautifully illuminating scenes and emotions.

The story manages to explain the idea behind The Tempest, the role of the players, the rival theatres, and Shakespeare himself, all in short chapters and encapsulated within a ‘ducking and diving’ action story.

The activities at the end of the book add further colour, with street scenes and Shakespearean insults. And it’s dyslexia-friendly too. Read this and you certainly won’t have “a February face, So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.” You can purchase it here.

wills words

Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk by Jane Sutcliffe and John Shelley

A phenomenal book, with wise words and witty illustrations, drawing attention to which words Shakespeare created and brought into common usage – so much of our language today. It cleverly describes, in a few well-chosen words, what it was like in Shakespeare’s time – from the streets of London to inside the Globe, and backstage. Each double page spread shows a hugely colourful illustration packed with people and historical detail – almost a Shakespeare Where’s Wally.

Jane Sutcliffe summarises what’s happening in the scene, using words and phrases that are now in general usage thanks to Shakespeare – either words he invented himself, or words that he simply brought into common usage. A box-off at the side explains the phrases, any changes in meaning, and which play they come from.

It’s an ingenious concept, superbly executed – I could have read pages more. The illustrations are worth poring over. The packed London scenes include the stocks, pickpockets, sedan chairs, and different classes of people in the hustle and bustle of an ordinary day. John Shelley shows us old-school bridges with houses and buildings stretching across the Thames, as well as the first printers – churning out leaflets to advertise Shakespeare’s new plays.

The scenes in the Globe portray different plays, as well as a cross-section of backstage, which is brilliantly done – a trapdoor, a costume room etc. The audience too is amazingly detailed – you can see whether the audience is shocked by the tragedy, roused by the history, and amused by the comedy. There’s even a fascinating explanation of the theatrical phrase ‘box office’.

The text is easy to read, and well-written – and hugely enjoyable, as is the postscript from Jane at the end, which winningly describes the relevance of Shakespeare. He made his audiences feel – and this book too makes the reader feel – it’s inspirational and makes you want to delve further into Shakespeare. Standing ovation all round (except of course, most of them were already standing at The Globe!) Get this one here.

romeo short sharp

Short Sharp Shakespeare Stories: Romeo and Juliet retold by Anna Claybourne, illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones

It’d be remiss of me not to include a series of Shakespeare books that retell each play singly, so that readers getting to grips with Shakespeare can pick and choose which play they want to learn about. These Short Sharp Shakespeare books really break down each play, and as above, they are illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones, who manages to inject each illustration with wit, and personality.

After introducing the gist of the story and the who’s who with a strangely complicated graphic, the story is told in prosaic chapters with contemporary language, although with the authentic elements left in, such as duels, swords, candles and silver platters. Every so often an illustration features a speech bubble with the original language, and this is extrapolated at the bottom of the page to explain difficult words and phrases.

The text reads with enough wit and pace and fun to grip the reader:

“…he suddenly saw the most enchanting, heart-stoppingly pretty girl he had ever laid eyes on. It was not Rosaline. Rosaline was forgotten at once.”

The pages at the back provide extra tidbits for project work, including explanations of the difference between prose, dialogue and stage directions – writing as a play as opposed to a novel, breaks down the play into acts, gives some context to Shakespeare and the stage, as well as introducing the main themes within the play. A really perfect guide for readers being introduced to the plays, either before studying the original, or before viewing on stage. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

shakespeare sticker

Usborne Shakespeare Sticker Book, illustrated by Paul Nicholls and written by Rob Lloyd Jones

This is a completely different way to approach Shakespeare of course, but leads with factual elements, overseen by an expert from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, so is reliable information. The first few pages set the scene by describing the idea of ‘players’ to perform plays, and go on to discuss life in London at the time, and the Globe playhouse – bringing history to life with intricate details. Each spread has a small amount of text and a large backdrop and then it’s up to the reader to drop in the stickers where they like.

This is where the fun begins. The stickers are light-hearted and hilarious – from the overly dramatic expressions of the players to the spectator who is clearly bored and asleep. There is a lovely selection of rats to place in the scenes of London life, and some brilliant sword-fighting stickers for the scenes at The Globe. The last few spreads are dedicated to a few select plays, including The Tempest, Midsummer, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Illustrator Paul Nicholls has gone to town on the witches for Macbeth, the fish in The Tempest, and fairy wings for Midsummer. Hilarious and captivating. I can’t wait to start sticking. Especially the numerous angry Romans with blood-dripping daggers in Julius Caesar. Try it here.

It’s Shakespeare Saturday this weekend, 23 April. See here for participating bookshops, and grab a Shakespeare Saturday tote bag as part of Books Are My Bag campaign.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

Hell and High Water

Opening with a filmic scene of main character Caleb and his father staging a Punch and Judy show, this scintillating excellently-written historical novel never lets up momentum. Caleb’s father is shortly thereafter accused of theft and transported to the Colonies. But Caleb knows his father is not guilty, and so he sets off on a journey to both find his only other living family – an estranged aunt, and to prove his father’s innocence.

When a body washes up on the beach near where his aunt lives, Caleb is swept into a world of smuggling and intrigue, mystery and lies, which leads him and his new-found family into terrifying danger.

Landman captures the eighteenth century brilliantly – from the clothes and transport, to the marketplace and food, not to mention the hardships and hierarchies that penetrated society.

In fact, for all that the plot is fast-paced and exciting, Landman also deals deftly with perceptions of race, gender and wealth, and their accompanying inequalities. Caleb has dark skin, and is treated like a leper in places, and mistaken for a slave boy. Meanwhile his aunt’s stepdaughter is given a lovely gender ‘twist’, as although a girl, she takes on all the boy’s roles – rowing the boat, hefting heavy items, even adopting the role of puppeteer, despite the negativity associated with female performers. Tanya plays beautifully with perceptions here – putting a historical setting to good use in exploring how our world has progressed (or in some cases not) in how we view race and gender.

The other inequality that Landman manipulates is wealth distribution – describing the hierarchy of society, and delving into questions of morality and generosity, or the lack thereof. Her descriptions are wry and satisfying:

“Both bonnet and gown seemed designed more to scream aloud their vast cost than to show her face or figure to their best advantage.”

Her key plot hinges on the different types of thievery – the starving petty thief’s need for sustenance versus the morally corrupt landowners who claim tax and insurance in illegal circumstances.

The historical references are rife and intriguing. Set specifically in 1752, Landman has fun playing with the Act of Parliament that lost the country 12 days so as to set the country in time with the rest of Europe. She also explains in the ‘author’s note’ at the end that her tale is inspired by true events of a villainous smuggling landowner and the sinking of his ship, the Nightingale in 1752.

The sea too is a huge inspiration for Landman – her descriptions of the landscape are atmospheric and dark, using tidal rivers to great effect from the sweep of the water, to the mud flats, and water penetrating the land. With many allusions to other literature, exploration of the role of parents and family, as well as themes of loyalty, bravery, and being morally upstanding – this is a work of beauty.

It is so well-written, the words stay even when the story is concluded:

“When Letty moved, she moved quietly, but sound behaves differently in the dark. Each creak of floorboard, each rustle of cloth is magnified. A breath becomes a shout, a footfall akin to the blast of a cannon.”

With descriptions of dead bodies, and an exhumation, moral corruption, and a growing love story, this is for the upper end of my age scale – recommended for 12+ years. You can buy it here.

 

With thanks to Walker Books for sending me a requested review copy.

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.

The Boy Who Drew the Future by Rhian Ivory

The Boy Who Drew the Future

Although marketed as a Young Adult book, and about two fifteen year old boys, I would be happy to recommend this for 11+ years. Ivory tells the story of two boys, 100 years apart, who both have a mysterious gift – they draw pictures that tell the future. For Noah in contemporary England this is something of a curse – his parents find his ‘gift’ troubling and try to stop it – he too finds it awkward and embarrassing, yet is compelled to draw. For Blaze, in the 1860s, his ‘gift’ is even more dangerous – the threat of being killed for witchcraft is very real.

In both her tales, Ivory depicts the conundrum of the teenager brilliantly – the dichotomy of the outsider, the teenager who wants to stand out from the crowd and be special and unique, and yet also wants to fit in and be part of the group. Alternate chapters tell the story of Noah and Blaze from the first person narrative perspective, stepping inside the teenagers’ heads. The tension builds throughout the novel as Noah is desperate to share the secret of his gift with Beth, a new friend; and Blaze moves closer to danger with every new fortune he tells. For me, the boys’ gift worked almost like a modern-day superpower – it enables the character to transcend and rebel against the constraints and powerlessness of childhood.

The two stories are linked by geography as well as the boys’ gift, and the reader is left to tie up the strands between the two. The story is sad and poignant and the characters are beautifully drawn. Noah’s burgeoning romance with Beth is told with delicacy, and his relationship with his parents and their past is stunningly depicted – I can’t give away more. Blaze is parentless and friendless, contrasting sharply with Noah, but he has an incredibly moving relationship with his dog.

This is great historical fiction for children. It drips information about the past so that the reader hardly realises how much history they are absorbing. It is subtle and fascinating. The stories of the past tie themselves to the present; remaining relevant, interesting and in some cases life-changing.

A compelling read that works across genders and up the age scale. Some of the dialogue doesn’t ring as true as it should, but the story is so gripping, you’ll be transported to another place and time with ease. To buy a copy, and I recommend you do, click here.

I reviewed an uncorrected proof version of this title.

I, Coriander by Sally Gardner

I Coriander
Republished by Orion in a special edition to celebrate its 10th anniversary, this is a historical novel for children that is brilliantly crafted, well-told and beautifully researched. Coriander is the daughter of a silk-merchant in 1650’s London. By candlelight, she tells the story of what happened to her after her mother’s death during the shaky period when Oliver Cromwell took power in England. Coriander’s father is a Royalist and after marrying a Puritan for protection, flees for France, leaving Coriander with her stepmother. Sally Gardner weaves fantasy into her historical novel, transporting Coriander to a fairy tale world for passages of the book, but this is brilliantly juxtaposed with her very real re-imagining of the politics and physical setting of London Bridge in the 1650’s. It is gripping from the beginning, summoning a vivid historical London, as well as setting a rapid pace for a plot paved with twists and turns. The characters feel authentic, even those within the fairy tale world.
Readers will delight in the fact that reality and fairy tale overlap – wicked stepmothers, princes, good and evil – the strands are so well integrated that it lends to the discussion of how fairy tales work and why they are told. The violence and abuse in the 1650’s scenes starkly contrast with the beautiful landscape of the fairy tale world, but both worlds portray good and evil in their various guises.
Told in the first person, Coriander is a well-defined and likeable feisty young woman, rebellious and brave, both straddling two worlds and torn between them. The reader cannot help but root for her. A thoroughly enjoyable read, for children aged ten plus. It won the 2005 Nestle Children’s Book Award.

With thanks to Orion for the review copy. To purchase your own, click here.

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.

 

Countdown to the Election

General elections throw up a lot of questions. Who shall I vote for? Is our electoral system the right one? Why are television debates so long? It can be hard to answer the questions, and harder still when they are asked of you by your children!

There is so much to cover when explaining politics that I wanted some books to help children navigate the political landscape. Actually I found very few books on politics for children. There are many that serve an agenda, such as highlighting conflict or understanding refugees, but very few that simply define what politics is, what an election is, and how the system works. In the end I chose just three books.

the election

The Election by Eleanor Levenson, illustrated by Marek Jagucki
This picture book for young children explains what happens when two families support two different parties in an election. The parties are simply drawn and illustrated – one is spotty and one is stripy. The book defines an election, campaigning, debating and voting in simple language. The pictures show typical families in an attempt to illustrate that the election is something that affects everyone; there are drawings of a lady in a wheelchair, a person cycling, and people of different ethnicity and age. For the adult reader there are certain jokes contained within, such as a political reference to the Acropolis, the industrial revolution, and more mundane observations such as a Dad about to fall on marbles and various poses of people looking at their mobile phones. It’s not subtle, but it serves its purpose very well, and is the only book of its kind to illustrate a British election so succinctly and simply. Buy it from Waterstones here.

whos in charge whos in charge inside2

Who’s in Charge? How People and Ideas Make the World Go Round
This non-fiction gem explains the idea of politics from power and the different types of leadership through political ideas, the building of society, the economy and people’s rights. For me it works well because to explore politics, you need to have some understanding of history – and that’s what this book gives as well. It illuminates ideas of democracy, theocracy, monarchy, anarchy, and dictatorship, as well as giving definitions of the state, a citizen, government, a politician, and isms. From the timelines showing how different civilisations were borne, to the introduction of monarchies and leadership, populations, and land as a way of explaining how different political systems were thought up and needed, to illustrating the different ideas of the state in a ‘rainbow of ideas’ from communism through to fascism, the book also explores capitalism, the economy and local politics. The beauty of the book is that it speaks in generalisations, rather than homing in on specific countries, leaders and governments, so that the child gleans a view of what is possible and why politics exists without forcing any agenda or giving room for pre-imposed political leanings.
whos in charge inside1
What’s more this isn’t a dry book at all, the graphics are exciting and playful – from a local politics jigsaw to a monopoly board of capitalism, flow diagrams, venn diagrams, comic strips, quizzes and a mix of illustrations and photographs. The foreword is by Andrew Marr, and it is great for reading through cover to cover, or just dipping into for a particular topic. This served its purpose very well too. You can buy it here.

Accidental Prime Minister

The Accidental Prime Minister by Tom McLaughlin
Lastly, I wanted to have some fun with politics. After all, I grew up on Spitting Image – there was no greater vehicle for getting people young and old interested in politics. Tom McLaughlin’s book manages to introduce the idea of politics for a 7+ readership with some serious points, but mainly with laugh-out-loud humour. It tells the tale of Joe, who makes one great speech that goes viral, and he ends up as prime minister. There are slight misrepresentations – most of our prime ministers were voted in, not just handed power – but the book makes some serious points amongst all the silliness. It begins by bringing politics to street level – Joe’s ambitious speech starts because the government want to close his local park, and he wishes to keep it open. Other serious points include those adults who are just in politics for the ego-trip, the ‘spin’ that can be put upon events, and the randomness of war – but essentially the book is packed full of humour – because what would happen if a twelve year old were in charge? There are jetpacks, bouncy castles, a Queen who rollerskates, ice cream and whoopee cushions, and the author’s delight in writing this satire comes across with his very 1980s pop song chapter titles, including Fame, Parklife, Don’t Stop Me Now, as well as his parody of Thatcher’s famous speech: “Where there is grumpiness, may we bring giggles”. A riotous laugh. He also illustrated it himself with some winning cartoons. Grab yourself a copy before the election, click here.

For Holocaust Memorial Day

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Elie Wiesel

Teaching children about traumatic events in our collective history can be difficult, and when picking a book on the subject it’s more important than ever to judge content more than appearance. There is fierce debate on how old children should be before they are taught about the Holocaust or other genocides. Teaching the historical context of the Nazis, of death and what’s morally right and wrong can all be taught much earlier, but it’s hard to teach the meaning and mechanics of mass murder before secondary school. Even some adults have a hard time grasping the enormity of it. The national curriculum dictates that the Holocaust should be taught in key stage 3 – Year 7, 8 or 9, which is the first three years of secondary school (ages 11-14).

“Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory” – Jane Yolen

Firstly, I’ve chosen three works of fiction. They are all picture books, but that doesn’t mean they’re for small children – in fact they are best for age 10+ yrs. I’ve chosen them for their exploration of the Holocaust from different viewpoints, and as starting points for serious discussion about the Holocaust. None of them should be read in isolation, but rather explored after an initial insight into what did happen to the Jewish people during the Second World War.

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon
This is a cat’s eye view of Kristallnacht. Benno is the neighbourhood cat, who visits Sophie on Shabbat, and is fed schnitzel by the Schmidts after church, and gets titbits from the kosher butcher. All is seemingly well. Then gradually Benno realises that there are fewer scraps, and the neighbourhood people are growing ever more impatient, and that there are now new black boots stomping along the pavement. Then Kristallnacht happens, Benno’s paws are sore from the broken glass on the pavement, and Benno doesn’t see Sophie and her family any more, nor Professor Goldfarb. It’s a simplistic animal tale of a neighbourhood changing, but the masked horror of the Holocaust pervades the story. The implied disappearance of the Jewish people of the neighbourhood leaves it up to the reader to imagine what may have prevailed that night. The Afterword explains Kristallnacht in a little more detail, telling what that night was about and what did happen to the Jews in Germany. However, the last paragraph is a little emotive, which is a shame for a page that should remain factual. However, it is a clever introduction to the build-up of the Holocaust in Germany.

Star of Fear

Star of Fear, Star of Hope by Jo Hoestlandt, illustrated by Johanna Kang
Another simplistic story, which belies the terror underneath, is Star of Fear, which tells the narrative from an old lady’s point of view – looking back on those things that she couldn’t comprehend as a little girl. Helen remembers growing up in France after the German invasion of 1942. She remembers her childhood friend Lydia, and the yellow star Lydia was forced to wear on her clothes. It’s a story about friendship, and how little girls can say things to their friends that they don’t mean – and ultimately live to regret. Helen regrets more than most, as in a spontaneous angry outburst she tells Lydia that they are no longer friends, little knowing it was the last time she would ever see her…it is supposed that Lydia was taken away by the Nazis the next day. The simplicity of the text and pictures adds to the poignancy.

whispering town

The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro
Published last year, The Whispering Town tells the story of the Danish Jews through the eyes of a little girl. The Danish story itself is quite remarkable. As a nation Denmark actively resisted the Nazis’ plan to round up the Jewish people, and managed to smuggle a huge percentage of their Jewish population to safety in Sweden. They relied upon the goodness of their people, and The Whispering Town shows how the shopkeepers and neighbours all helped the hidden Jews in one cellar in Gilleleje to escape by boat from the harbour. The illustrations depict the Nazis as menacing, gun-wielding soldiers and the Danish people with simpatico faces. Cleverly, the Jews hiding in the cellar are simply white pen lines on black – a shadow almost. The colours throughout are muted – pale greens, much black and grey – other than the stark red of the Nazi symbol on the soldiers’ shirtsleeves. This may be a story of hope and salvation, but the events happened in a terrible time. My feeling is that it’s important to teach children that there is hope despite the horror of six million Jews and many other people losing their lives during the Holocaust. It is vital that children understand there are pockets of goodness and humanity. If a whole nation can rise up against the Nazis, then it is possible for goodness to overcome. This link describes the Danish efforts well.

usborne holocaust

After a wealth of discussion of story, it is worth consulting some reference too. One such title that sets things out clearly and easily for children is Usborne: The Holocaust. In a matter-of-fact tone, but with excellently precise vocabulary, Susanna Davidson sets out the narrative of the Holocaust, encompassing the roots of anti-Semitism, the Nazi definition of whom they defined as being Jewish, the treatment of other minority groups, the advancement of Germany through Europe, the increasingly harsh treatment of Jews and minorities, before going on to address ghettos, and the final solution. It also covers small acts of defiance in the face of certain death, both from Jews and non-Jews, which is really important. It’s simple to understand, crams a mass of information into short digestible chunks, and does its very best to explain a seemingly inexplicable event. Despite its conciseness, the book does contain graphic information on the killing of Jews, including shooting at mass graves and the death camps. It also quotes people from the time, and includes graphic images, including the painting ‘Gassing’ by Auschwitz survivor David Olere. There are many photographs too, including those of a survivor at the liberation of Belsen. Be warned, this is not a book for young children, but would do well to accompany those studying the Holocaust at Key Stage 3. The afterword throws up some questions that children may ask afterwards, and doesn’t try to answer them, but instead finishes on the note that the Holocaust is not something that should ever be forgotten.

DK Holocaust

I’ve not included a comprehensive review of DK Holocaust, a title that I worked on myself, as sadly, it appears to be unavailable at most good bookstores. However, if you can get a copy it’s an all-encompassing examination of the Holocaust for older children, which I worked on with the superb writer Angela Gluck Wood. I can self-promote shamelessly as I receive no royalties.

Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th.

 Usborne Holocaust was very kindly sent to me by Usborne Publishing