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Christmas Books Roundup 2017

““Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo” (Little Women), but for me, presents means books. So, if you’re looking to treat your children to some rectangular shapes in their stockings and under the tree, here are my highlights…

Picture Books


Oliver Elephant by Lou Peacock and Helen Stephens (Nosy Crow)
My top pick for the season is definitely this heartwarming Christmassy through-and-through tale about a Christmas present shopping trip, in which mummy has a long list, a pram to manoeuvre, her children Noah and Evie-May, and Noah’s toy elephant. With sparkling rhythmic rhyming, and huge attention to detail in the department store colourwash illustrations, this will make every reader feel that magical Christmas time aura. There’s much to love in the familiar tale of a temporarily lost toy in a large store, but Peacock and Stephens manage to inject their own personality onto the book, with lots of love, expression and minute detail. I love the mittens on strings, the busyness of the store, the flushed faces of the customers, the diversity of the cast, and the wonderful emotion on the face of the mother (tired yet happy), and Noah (small in a world of big things). His playfulness with the elephant, and the frustrated sympathy of his mother is pitch perfect. And of course, there’s a happy Christmas ending. You can buy it here.


The Princess and the Christmas Rescue by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton (Nosy Crow)
This hilarious picture book for Christmas manages to combine fairy tale allusions (it is about a princess after all), feminism (girl engineers), and an ironic Amazon-like present-picking machine all in a neat sing-song rhyme. But mainly, this is an adorable rhyming picture book about finding friends. Princess Eliza loves to make things, but her parents are worried at her lack of friends. When the Christmas elves run into trouble in the busy lead-up to Christmas, Eliza steps in to help, and finds that as well as being a super duper inventor, there’s fun in friendship too. Exquisite illustrations in bright colours that mix the essence of Christmas (ribbons, elves, cosy armchairs by the fire) with ‘Wallace and Gromit’ type inventions. Christmas bliss. You can buy it here.


All I Want for Christmas by Rachel Bright (Orchard Books)
Rachel Bright is superb at wrapping moral lessons in her books, and this Christmas treat is no different. It’s not an illustrated version of Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit, but it does carry the same message – as well as cookies and trees, and presents and roast dinners, what this Big Penguin really wants is love. Yes, this is about penguins, not humans. Shown first in a snowglobe on a mantelpiece, the story opens up to explore the penguins’ world in the lead up to Christmas. Cute illustrations, and a fabulous spread in the middle that shows miniature vignettes of Big Penguin and Little Penguin busy doing the ‘hundred things’ to get ready, this is an adorable read. You can purchase it here.


Last Stop on the Reindeer Express by Maudie Powell-Tuck and Karl James Mountford (Little Tiger Press)
The next title also features a family with a missing adult, but here they are human, and there is a more pronounced emphasis on families who can’t be together at Christmas time. Mia’s dad can’t come home for Christmas, but luckily for her, she stumbles across a magical postbox with a door to The Reindeer Express, which manages to convey her to her father for a Christmas hug, and still be back with her mother for Christmas.

Karl James Mountford’s illustrations feel globally Christmassy, with muted earthy tones, in particular a profusion of rusty red, as he conveys a timelessness to the images – from the dress of the people, which feels old-fashioned, to the takeaway cups of mulled wine, which feel up-to-the-minute. With maps and explorers’ articles, and a globe-trotting reindeer, the book feels as if it’s digging into a magical time of exploration and discovery, as well as showcasing a homely setting with snow outside the window. Our heroine wears glasses and is an eager and curious child. But what sets this book apart is its production. With thick pages, peek-throughs and cut-outs, and the most tactile cut-away cover, this truly feels like a gift. Romantic and yet curiously real. You can purchase it here.


A Christmas Carol: Search and Find by Louise Pigott and Studio Press
Another beautifully produced book, with silver foil on the cover, this classic Christmas story is retold with search and find scenes – both the characters and setting are illustrated at the outset, with a brief summary of author and text, and then the story is told through double page illustration scenes, alongside an illustration key, which asks the reader to find certain people and objects (such as five red robins, a wistful scrooge, and the ghost of Christmas yet to come).

Through minimal text but large illustrations, both the characters and their narratives are revealed. It’s clever, and wonderfully appealing, in that it’s a book that could be shared, and certainly pored over, as each scene is so wonderfully detailed. Answers, are of course, at the back. You can purchase it here.

Chapter Books:
Three chapter books for you, each from an established series, but this time with their ‘Christmas theme’ stamped all over the cover and narrative. My testers (little kiddies) adore all three series, and couldn’t wait to read them – so they won’t be under my tree!


Polly and the Puffin: The Happy Christmas by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty (Hachette)
I have the distinct feeling that the children and I like this book for very different reasons, but that’s the joyous element of this book, which is written to be shared by being read aloud (with references to hugs, and an authorial voice).

Polly and Neil (her real puffin) are all ready for Christmas, but it’s only November, and such a long time to wait. And then things start to go wrong. Will it ever be Christmas? Will the puffling hatch? Will Wrong Puffin find his way home? There is a huge infusion of wit and personality here – from Polly’s moods, and her quirks (from calling the toy puffin Wrong Puffin, to her grumpiness with her real puffin, Neil) to the illustrator’s humour (see the contented yet oblivious cat lying on the sofa, the wine bottle from Christmas Eve and bleary parents at Christmas Day morning). The narrative voice is warm and comforting, just right for Christmas Eve. There are loads of extras at the back too – recipes, activities and jokes. Buy it here.


Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Jingle Bells by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton (Nosy Crow)
This pair of cake-baking, crime-solving dogs are never far from mischief, and the delight of these little books is that they each contain three stories in one book – good for short attention spans and first readers. Only the first story is Christmas-themed, with the delightful Santa Paws, but the other two tales are equally strong and eventful: Sea-Monster Ahoy! and Lucky Cat. With plentiful illustrations in two-tone colour, lots of lively language, and fast plots, these are lovely little bursts of entertainment. You can purchase it here.


There’s a Dragon in My Stocking by Tom Nicoll, illustrated by Sarah Horne (Stripes)
Lastly, and for slightly older readers, this Christmassy addition to the fabulous ‘There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!’ series continues the adventures of Eric, who was first introduced when he discovered a mini dragon (Pan) in his takeaway dinner. In this funny sequel, Pan’s parents arrive down the chimney. Looking after one dragon and stopping fires was bad enough, but now Eric has three on his hands, and his parents are entertaining on Christmas day. When disaster hits their lunch plans, it might just be that three little dragons come in useful. As well as being huge fun, Nicoll captures the family personalities beautifully, especially annoying Toby from next door, and his Mum (complete with mobile phone!). You can buy it here.

Happy Christmas shopping.

Chris Wormell’s Studio Tour


Chris Wormell is a celebrated children’s author and illustrator, a self-taught print-maker of considerable talent, and also happened to have opened our primary school library. From the cover of award-winning H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, to his own picture books of Two Frogs and George and the Dragon, Wormell consistently produces striking illustrations to match the most wonderful narratives. His most recent book, Dinosaurium, with text from Lily Murray, is a wonderful addition to the Welcome to the Museum series, and an excellent tome for dinosaur enthusiasts. Here, Chris opens up his studio for you to see where and how he works:

This is where I do my wood engraving and lino cutting. I use the magnifying glass when engraving in fine detail.


Here’s a close up view of a block and some engraving tools.

This is where I do much of my drawing. The sketch is for the Marine Reptiles image. Underneath it is a light box – very useful for tracing.

Computers and drawing tablet. I draw on the tablet much as one would on a piece of paper. Behind the computers you can see some engraved blocks on the shelves.

Here’s a closer view of them. This is just a tiny fraction of all the blocks around the house.

This is my printing press – an Albion press, made in 1846. It’s not actually in the studio but downstairs. There are a few blocks in here too. The large tube in the middle there has a roll of Japanese paper in it, but originally contained a five metre roll of lino.

Beside the press are inks and rollers (the crown engraving was for a school crest).

With huge thanks to Chris Wormell for the fascinating tour of his studio. You can buy a copy of Dinosaurium here.

My Autumn Picture Book Round Up 2017

It has been so hard to narrow down this list of picture book choices – there have been so many delightful books landing on MinervaReads’s desk this autumn. But here are my absolute favourites this quarter:

Oi Cat by Kes Gray and Jim Field
You might have thought by now, after Oi Frog and Oi Dog, that this series would have become a little jaded. Judging by the colour of this new one though, you’d be completely wrong. Fresh as ever, bright and vibrant, the characters keep developing and the rhymes keep evolving. It’s all about changing the rules – depending on who’s in charge – the Dog, the Frog or the Cat. Giggly it certainly is, bright and cartoon-like, with masses of personality. There are even rhymes with alpacas, flamingos and lemurs, and a vibrant pink flip up page at the end. A book at which you must take a look. It must be catching…You can buy yours here.

Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex
And following swiftly on from rhyming animals, here be rhyming fruit. It’s long been a statement of fact that nothing rhymes with orange, but Adam Rex explores how that might make Orange feel. If grapes can wear capes and hairy pears are tied to chairs, the fruits get a little carried away and start to sing a rhyming song – except they leave out Orange. Yes, this book is as zany as it sounds. With images of real fruit stuck in a kind of weird illustrated landscape with drawn on expressions and text that looks as if it has been written with a sharpie pen, and mentions of Nietzsche, it’s a strange kind of picture book. Except that somehow it works – it certainly teaches about exotic fruits, but it also explores feeling left out and how to include someone. A bizarre and yet rather striking addition. Rhyme yourself silly here.

The Squirrels Who Squabbled by Rachel Bright and Jim Field
Another moral lesson to be learned in this picture book, with squirrels on the front who would fit in well in Oi Cat, (the illustrator Jim Field has been busy). This book about competitiveness, sharing and friendship brims forth with autumnal charm in its illustrations, and with wit in Bright’s brilliantly evocative and poetic text. It also rhymes – one squirrel is called Cyril, for example, but the rhyming here is less forced and provocative than the above picture books. The descriptions are plenty: the sky rages red, the forest towers, and the frosting of winter glitters ahead. The text tells the tale of the squirrel who saved nothing for winter and the squirrel who has an abundance. When they fight over securing a last pine cone, there is immense danger in the quest. The competitive squabbling ends in much mirth and an acceptance of sharing with friends. Great momentum, phenomenal nature landscapes – this is an autumn treat I want to share with everyone. Buy your copy here.

The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
More animal companionship, and another classic author/illustrator pairing in this tale about a duck and a mouse who get swallowed by a wolf, and decide to live in his belly. We’re back to the slightly zany here, with influences including Jonah (stuck in a whale’s stomach) but also Aesop, in animal tales that impart morals.

Turning pre-conceived ideas on their head, it turns out it’s not so bad for the mouse to be swallowed by a wolf – after all it’s rather comfy inside, and it removes the fear of being hunted. Especially when there’s a companion already within (the duck), who explains that “I may have been swallowed, but I have no intention of being eaten.” There are plenty of laughs – the stomach seems fairly well equipped; there’s even a painting on the wall, and to complement the rather old-fashioned tone of the interior – candlesticks, grapes, red wine – the language is that of old fairy-tales set in woods – ‘flagon of wine, hunk of cheese, beeswax candles’. Things turn a little strange when the animals party with a record-player (children might wonder what this is), but then strange is expected with this author/illustrator pairing. Muted grey and brown colours lend a warmth and an old-fashioned vibe. There’s a nod to being flexible and adaptable in this tale, and a hint of karma when the hunter becomes the hunted. Explore the narrative here.

Hic! By Anushka Ravishankar and Christiane Pieper
Something slightly more human in this well-crafted book about an issue that can flummox a child, but about which I’ve never seen another picture book: what to do when you have the hiccups. The simple premise of this book is the extraordinary advice given to a child as to how to rid themselves of the hiccups. The girl tries everything from the sublime to the ridiculous, and the more ridiculous. With each ‘cure’ attempted, the next hiccup is even more disastrous (as I suppose it would be if you licked mustard off your nose!). The illustrations are a delight, kept to yellow, blue and black, it lends a distinct look to the book, and the expressions of the children are energetic, humorous and endearing. Cleverly, each remedy rhymes with hic, but alas, there is no solution. Try not to catch hiccups here.

Lines by Suzy Lee
A wordless picture book that starts with a pencil line and evolves into a skater dancing her way across the ice white page. She’s small against the size of the page, but wonderfully fluent in her movements. She feels real, she seems to move. Her red cap and mittens stand out against the white, but the reader will be most entranced by the movement of her legs – the few simple pencil strokes that indicate her direction of travel, her spins and loops, her swirls and twirls. The reader will marvel at the power of the pencil. But when she falls and tumbles, it turns out that she has been nothing but an artist’s impression and the paper is crumpled.

The ending is happy. Once unfolded, the paper once again becomes an ice rink, although cleverly, not so smooth anymore, and our skater is joined by others. No words are needed to explore the narrative here: the freedom of our skater, the joyfulness of the ice rink, and the stretch of the imagination. Stunning. You can find it here.

 

Cool Physics: A NNFN guest blog by Dr Sarah Hutton

I am delighted to host Dr Hutton on the blog today. With a doctorate and teaching career in physics and now a published author of a physics book, Dr Hutton comes well-equipped to explain why we should all have an interest in this cool subject.

I think that I have always been fascinated with Physics and trying to understand the world around me. One of my earliest memories is of trying to take apart electronics because I wanted to see how they worked. Over time, my parents learnt that they should never leave me alone with a screwdriver, but on top of that they also helped to fuel my curiosity. They taught me that it’s not wrong or ‘stupid’ not to know something, but that there are ways in which you can find answers through books or, in today’s world, the internet. They even showed me that we don’t have all the answers yet and that there are still things that we don’t understand or that are yet to be discovered.

My love of Physics stayed with me through school, fuelled by my wonderful (if slightly eccentric) Physics teacher, Mrs McCann. But as I grew older it became more specialised and I found the area of Physics that I could never find out enough about: space. My enthusiasm for wanting to know more about how the Universe works, and how NASA can produce such breath-taking images of phenomena so large and so far away that we can barely understand the numbers, fuelled my drive through my undergraduate Physics degree and into my Astrophysics PhD. It was during my PhD that I found out that, while I enjoyed research and trying to piece together the infinite puzzle of the cosmos, I really came alive when explaining what I knew to others. I found that I really wanted them to understand what I was saying, and spent time coming up with analogies that I could use to explain complex physics ideas with everyday items. Overtime my passion for my outreach work grew, and I found myself wanting to pursue this career path once I finished my doctorate.

I was lucky enough to work for a time as the Outreach coordinator in the UCL Physics and Astronomy Department with the Ogden Trust, a Physics educational charity. While I loved my role enthusing children and adults alike about the wonders of Physics, I found that very few people considered Physics to be something they were good at, or something they wanted to do as a career. This was especially true for girls. I was asked, time and time again, ‘what can I do with Physics?’ and ‘what is Physics good for?’ Each time I would answer with examples of how Physics influences the world we live in, from the physical, mechanical laws that govern how we move and understanding the patterns in the stock market, to the design of their TV at home. In truth, people with a Physics background, whether A-level, degree or further study, work in a huge range of fields beyond the typical research scenario; engineering, finance, software design, film production, journalism and analytics to name just a few. There are even several high profile fiction authors with Physics degrees.

Physics teaches you to think in a very analytical way. It encourages you to interpret the information you receive, and think about whether it is sensible or realistic; an excellent skill to have in today’s world of media bias and ‘fake news’.

Whenever I ran events aimed at the general public I found that, while many people find Physics interesting, they would never consider a career that uses Physics because they ‘didn’t understand Physics at school,’ or had no idea how to go about getting into a Science career. Because of this reaction I found myself increasingly working more and more in schools, both primary and secondary, focused on changing children’s perception of what a career in Physics really entails. I tried to encourage them, particularly the girls, that it was a subject they could enjoy, and more importantly be ‘good’ at, because they found it interesting. When I was approached by Pavilion Books to write Cool Physics I jumped at the chance, as it gave me the opportunity to try my hand at explaining some of the most interesting and complex phenomena in Physics in a way that was accessible to a younger audience – something that is not often attempted! I wanted to include a mix of explanations and practical experiments that could easily be carried out at home and, hopefully, inspire some of those who read it to want to know more, or even consider a career in Physics one day!

Today I work as Head of Physics in a North London girls’ school, trying to inspire girls about Physics and show them that it’s a subject they can understand and enjoy, and that is relevant to the world in which they live. I aim to inspire my students in the same way I was inspired at school by Mrs McCann, and between myself and the other Physics teacher we must be doing something right as Physics is currently the 4th most popular subject for A-level in the school! However, through my teaching I can only inspire the students who come into my classroom, whereas with Cool Physics I have the opportunity to reach a much wider audience. Hopefully it will encourage an older audience to give Physics another try, or show the next generation how awesome Physics can be, and more importantly how much we still don’t know. I hope some of them will be encouraged to work towards something yet to be discovered!

Cool Physics by Sarah Hutton is out now, £9.99 hardback, published by Pavilion, and you can buy it here. There are ten Cool books in the series, covering Architecture, Art, Astronomy, Maths, Mythology, Nature, Philosophy, Physics and Science Tricks. You can read MinervaReads review of Cool Mythology here 

 

Malala’s First Picture Book

Some say that there is nothing you can’t put into a children’s book – everything is game, from the darkest nightmares to the scariest truths: children will take from the text and pictures at their own level of understanding; most will pass over their heads, and the rest will be absorbed. So, if Malala were to present her early story as a picture book, what would she include?

Malala’s Magic Pencil is an autobiographical tale of her early life, and although it obscurely touches on her shooting, and the negative impact of those who would withhold human rights, this is ultimately a coming-of-age tale that turns negative experiences into enormous hope for the future; a story of magic and positivity. Malala has an understanding of how to reach people through words, and this is what she does here, inspiring and enthralling young readers and future leaders.

The book begins by asking the reader if they believe in magic. Malala is pictured with large curious eyes, and importantly, paper and pen in hand, school rucksack on her back. Malala harks back to her favourite television programme about a boy with a magic pencil, a hero who protected people with his supernatural pen powers. The book then documents simply and effectively the hardships of Malala’s early life, the poverty of her neighbours, her love for her family, and yet also the restrictions on girls’ educations and freedoms in her country.

Before long, the war and ‘powerful and dangerous men’ intrude upon Malala’s life, stopping her from attending school, and so the book delves into Malala’s struggle to get her voice heard – using illustrations of endless papers and reading, computers and TV, before blackness falls on the next page. There is no blatant description of what Malala suffered, but she is seen wearing a hospital gown and bracelet, and simply:

“My voice became so powerful that dangerous men tried to silence me.”

From then, the book’s illustrations burst into light again with pastel shades of dress, banners and posters, people and delegates. Malala finds magic, not in a supernatural pencil, but in the power of her words.

The message is not just one of hope – but of working hard and persevering. The watercolour illustrations are as simple and effective as the text, and the subtle gold that filters through the book lends it that positivity and light – the wonder of the world. This is a marvellous introduction to not only Malala’s story, but also human rights, equality and the power of communication.

Below, I am lucky enough to be able to feature some questions and answers with Malala about her picture book.

You have told your story in a memoir for adults and a book for young readers. Why was it important for you to share your story with an even younger audience in a picture book?

I have met many young children who want to know about what happened in my life and why I believe in education for all, so it was important for me to share my story with them. For this age, a picture book felt like the best way – to use pictures and to simplify the events in a way that younger kids can understand. There are scary parts to my story, or details that are complicated to explain, but I wanted to be able to share it with a younger audience as best as I could.

What was different about the process of creating a picture book?

With other books, it was more stressful – so many details to remember and to make sure were accurate and we were always checking dates, and it was a very intense process that involved a lot of work. With the picture book, it was also a lot of work – choosing the artists, the color of the magic, and the color on the cover, and deciding how we should express everything in pictures and if the art felt accurate, down to the cracks in the wall of our home (I had to ask them to add more cracks) – small things that mattered a lot.  And then when the text was paired with the art, we made a lot of small changes that made a big difference. I am proud of the memoirs, too, but to be honest, I enjoyed this process more.


What was it like seeing your illustrators, Kerasco
ët, bring your memories to life?

As I was turning pages, it reminded me of those joyful moments of my life in Swat. Seeing all that in these pictures made me happy, but it also made me miss that life. I had this beautiful past, but I had difficult times as well, and that time is gone now. I was impressed by how the illustrators managed to do everything so accurately and how well the images represent Swat Valley and my school life.

Seeing my story in pictures was nice – it was like seeing my story in a different way.

How did you approach the more serious issues like terrorism, poverty and violence when retelling your story for a younger audience?

I tried to explain it in simple terms and not go into too much detail. Some of my story in reality is horrible and scary, so both the artists and I tried to convey that bad things were happening – that happy moments had turned to bad moments and fear was growing. But the most important thing is that girls couldn’t go to school and I spoke out against this. The attempt on my life was an attempt to silence me, so that’s what we focused on for this version of my story, rather than include anything about the attack itself.

The book touches on the magic and power of our words and actions to create positive changes in the world. What advice do you have for young readers who want to change something in their lives or their community, but arent sure where to start?

The first thing is for young readers to believe in themselves and their ideas. They should never doubt themselves if they are fighting injustice. After that, there’s no limit in this world – whether you want to raise awareness by writing or making a video or talking to your parents. Or if you want to raise money for a cause or join a group or start a group. Sometimes these things look small to us – how will one small action bring change in this big world? – but if we do it together it will multiply. Back in Swat, I didn’t know if my voice would bring any change. But I spoke up anyway. Your voice is powerful and you can raise it in different ways.

What message do you hope children take away from Malala’s Magic Pencil?

I hope that they find their magic pencil. My magic pencil was my voice. I myself am curious what they will learn from this book and I hope they’ll reach out and tell me. I love getting letters from young people.

What is your favourite childrens book?

In our school in Swat, children were limited to their school textbooks and didn’t read extra books. I was considered a big reader because I read 8 or 9 books outside of school. That all changed when I got to the UK. But some of my favorite books that I read growing up were Parvana’s Journey by Deborah Ellis, which is part of a series; and Meena: Heroine of Afghanistan by Melody Ermachild Chavis. It’s not a children’s book, but as a child, I also enjoyed A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking – I loved reading about science.

Could you tell us about your favourite teacher when you were growing up?

Miss Ulfat was my teacher from an early age. I grew up with her. She inspired me to be good and respectful and to obey my parents and listen to my teachers. She inspired me to be a good student, work hard, and study. She gave me advice and would encourage me to participate in different activities.  She always encouraged me to be better and to do better.

What’s next for Malala?

At Malala Fund, we will continue the work we’ve been doing.  And I will continue to travel and speak on behalf of girls’ education.

I’m also excited for this new phase of life at university, and quite nervous, as it will be the first time I’m not living with my family. So many emotions are going through my mind and so many questions – what is my life going to be like? I am eager to find out.

With thanks to Penguin for letting me host this interview. You can buy your own copy of the book here

Dinosaurs

One non-fiction area in the children’s bookshop or library that’s always teeming with books is the one labelled ‘dinosaurs’. With frequent new discoveries, it’s a fascinating time for anyone interested in the topic. Publishers are increasingly inventing new ways to look at dinosaurs, and these four books couldn’t be more different in their approach and target audience:


Nibbles: The Dinosaur Guide by Emma Yarlett
Nibbles first came to our attention last year, subversively nibbling through the pages of fairy tales, and introducing children to picture books through play and investigation. Now this cute monster is back in a book that attempts to introduce some non-fiction about dinosaurs, in an accessible and friendly, and again, slightly subversive way, as Nibbles tries again to eat his way through the book. (There are numerous cut-outs to see through, and flaps to lift). But this time, Nibbles is not contending with Goldilocks, but with a charging triceratops and a farting diplodocus. Combining story (Nibbles) with facts (dinosaurs), Yarlett introduces dinosaurs for the very young, but never talks down to them.

The book is colourful and chatty, and identifies each species in a friendly way – for example, triceratops was ‘roughly the length of a double decker bus’. Although there are more difficult words for a young reader, such as herbivore, they are only included if important, and mostly Yarlett allows the reader to relate to her text with sentences such as ‘Scientists say they had big bums and large stompy feet’. The whole book is a chase to find Nibbles, all the while exploring different species, and the book ends with a rather delightful joke about comets.

Illustrations are cute rather than scientific, but Yarlett manages to introduce the use of annotations and captions in a clever combination of non-fiction and playfulness. Another winner. Highly recommended. You can purchase it here.


Dinosaurium: Welcome to the Museum by Lily Murray and Chris Wormell
A long-awaited tome, and one of the best suited to the Welcome to the Museum series, this is an exquisite title for anyone interested in dinosaurs. The scientifically-rendered illustrations are actually digital engravings in full colour, although the colour is muted so that it doesn’t feel artificial.

In fact, the whole book has a scientific approach, although it is always clear, concise and accessible. Each species is examined in terms of how they ate, moved, lived and fought, and the book also explores the great span of time in which dinosaurs lived – and how they evolved and changed.

As with other books in the series, each species is given a full page illustration, or a horizontal half spread, with detailed accompanying text with a serious, intense amount of detail and full Latin names. Pronunciation may be a challenge, but the amount of knowledge imparted here is awesome.

Particularly inspiring is the cladogram (dinosaur family tree), and the fascinating chapter at the end on non-dinosaurs (including mammals, reptiles, extinction and survivors).

This is one of the most comprehensive and enticing books on dinosaurs produced recently, and seeing as we are in a golden age of dinosaur discovery and understanding, this is an apt and beautiful addition to the dinosaur canon. You can purchase it here.


Make and Move Mega: Dinosaurs by Sato Hisao
Not so much a book, as a paper making activitity, this pack contains five dinosaur models, flat-packed, to press out, slot together and play. There are levers included so that each dinosaur can move and ‘roar’ when the levers are pulled. T-Rex, triceratops, apatosaurus, stegosaurus and pterandon are included, and no scissors or glue are needed.

However, as I embarked on the venture with a willing ten year old, we found that brains are most certainly needed. This is not a ‘cute’ activity for a young child, but a technically quite difficult paper folding and slotting experiment. The lengthy instructions are laid out in graphics without text, much like an Ikea piece of furniture, and there is just a simple paragraph at the beginning introducing each species.

The good news is that we did succeed. A model was made, complete with levers, although I’m not sure ours was exactly as the toy engineer author intended.

A lengthy task, but the paper is sturdy enough that none was torn during the making, and a satisfying conclusion was reached! An excellent rainy day activity for an older dinosaur enthusiast.


The World of Supersaurs: Raptors in Paradise by Jay Jay Burridge
And lastly, this Jurassic Park novel that sets out to describe a world in which dinosaurs never died out, and humans live side by side with the creatures. From the cover, the reader can already see that living together may not always be harmonious, and there’s plenty of adventure within.

Bea Kingsley’s explorer parents went missing eleven years prior, when Bea was just a baby, and now she is venturing with her grandparents to the Indonesian islands of Aru, ostensibly on holiday, but it’s also the last place her parents were seen. The islands are also home to the elusive Raptors of Paradise, and before long there is trouble.

The book reads like an old-fashioned adventure, and the frequent black and white illustrations enhance this idea (in fact I sometimes felt as if they had been inspired by Westworld or Indiana Jones). The book is set in a fictional 1932 and belongs to a time in which people voyaged by sea, there were trading companies, and girls were expected to behave in a certain way.

This is one of many enjoyable subversive facets to the dinosaur story – in that the protagonist is female, and the author shows her grandparents also adventuring, rather than being discarded at the outset. The text in places is a little clunky, but most readers will happily skip through the story, as the action comes fast, and readers will be eager to use the app that accompanies the text to explore the many illustrations.

The Supersaurs app (crucially available on both android and apple) uses augmented reality with a camera to bring the illustrations to life – they literally ‘pop up’ from the page, and are easy to use and hugely effective (as well as being enormous fun). There’s also an option to ‘play’ with the book too, using the app to seek features in the book. It’s clever and engaging.

The book contains a heavy appendix with dinosaur descriptions.The Supersaurs brand neatly brings old and new together, and is worth noting for super dinosaur enthusiasts. First in a series. You can purchase it here.

 

Bugs: A Guest Post from Simon Tyler

As part of my Back to School Blog in September, I recommended a title called Bugs by Simon Tyler. Simon is a graphic designer with a passion for presenting facts and information in an aesthetically pleasing way, and the book is certainly eye-catching. In 2013, Simon launched the acclaimed infographic poster brand Atomic Printworks, and to celebrate National Non-Fiction November, he writes for MinervaReads about the inspiration behind his graphic design, his love for facts and stats, and how it led to the publication of Bugs

My journey from small child with an interest in bright, bold computer graphics to the publication of Bugs started quite early on. I remember designing a Dr Who monster with a friend. We were about 10 years old, I think, so this would’ve been around 1987. We used an incredibly rudimentary computer programme, pretty much doing it one pixel at a time. We printed it out and sent it to the BBC. I think we were expecting to become internationally famous monster consultants. Predictably, this did not happen.

Some years later, applying for university, I had convinced myself that I wanted to be a scientist, but soon after starting a degree in biochemistry at Imperial College, I realised I was absolutely not cut out for the process of actually doing science. I guess I was more interested in the idea of it, rather than the reality of highly involved lab experiments that went on for days and days. So, I moved to UCL to study the history and philosophy of science, which suited me far better.

However, it did take a long time before I would put it to good use. I had got into graphic design, and one day I was idly messing around with some colours and shapes which became the first design – called the Deepest Trenches – for my poster company, Atomic Printworks. It suddenly occurred to me that there were all sorts of things that I could represent in a similar way. The idea being that kids would find the information presented interesting, and adults would actually want to hang up the designs around the house. One of my favourites is the Geological Timescale design – I think it succeeds in communicating the main message – how much time is involved, and how much has been packed into the most recent part of that history – whilst working as an attractive graphic object in its own right. My criticism of many other educational posters is that they tend to be covered in lengthy passages of text, which detracts from the explanation of the particular concept.

I also wanted to avoid dumbing anything down. For example, when I was working on the Dinosaur Evolution design, I was amazed by how many of the full binomial Latin names my (at the time) three-year-old daughter and her friends knew. Thanks to TV programmes such as Octonauts, they’re already little experts. Ask an Octonauts fan about hydrothermal vents and prepare to be amazed!

The publicity the posters received led to the Bugs book, which I wrote and illustrated for Pavilion. I wanted to apply the same design thinking – the clean, bold and colourful approach – alongside a depth of information that would interest and inspire a wide age range. I like the idea of kids’ books that adults get something out of too. I’m currently working on the sequel to Bugs – a book about the exploration of space, both in terms of space travel and visual exploration from Earth – astronomy – and that subject also lends itself very well to the wide-appeal approach.

Bugs by Simon Tyler is out now, £14.99 hardback, published by Pavilion, and you can buy it here

The Beautiful Game

Football has always been a part of my life. I’ve never played, but I’ve watched and been lucky enough to visit many stadiums in Europe. But the reason I call it ‘the beautiful game’ is because for many of my reluctant readers, football can be a great pull into reading. This latest crop of books appeals in many different ways – each book may be ‘football themed’, but each is distinct in its approach and subject.

Striker Boy by Jonny Zucker
Nat has spent most of his life travelling with his father, after his mother died, leaving them both heartbroken. Most particularly, he spent a year in Brazil, honing his incredible football talent. When Nat and his father move back to England when Nat is thirteen, he is appalled at the house his father has bought, and completely fed up. But then he plays a footy game in the park, and every boy’s dream comes true for him – he is spotted by a scout.

The scout is from Hatton Rovers, the team he supports. However, there is more than one problem. Hatton Rovers is facing relegation and the club needs saving. Nat is only 13, but tall enough to pass for 16. Will they break all the rules and sign him up for professional football?

When the unthinkable happens and he starts training with the first team, it turns out things are even more complex than he thought, and the club’s veteran striker takes an instant dislike to him. As Nat suspects all is not what it seems, a sports reporter suspects the same about Nat…

This is a fun, exciting and pacey book with a solid main character. What’s more, the plot goes beyond football and delves into thriller territory with plenty of action on and off the field.

Footballing readers will envy Nat for his rare talent and luck in being spotted, but there is also evidence of much camaraderie among certain team mates, and the volatility of training – the on/off days, injury and team selection. Overall, Zucker shows that players are rewarded for hard work and loyalty, but that even within the golden world of top-flight first team football, there are moral dilemmas to face.

The most striking quality about Striker Boy though, is the complete zest and enthusiasm Jonny Zucker shows for the game, his characters and the story. It makes the reader want to be a teen again, to be trying out for a team again, and retain the dream of playing for a top side.

Nat is so engaging as a main character, a fabulous yet flawed boy with an empathetic nature and a good heart, so that the reader can’t help but root for him, even when he makes wrong choices. Every manager would want this kid in their team, and every librarian will want this book in their library. An excellent novel for age 8+ years.

The book has been re-published to raise awareness of mental health, after the very sad passing of author Jonny Zucker. Profits from the book are being donated to the charity Mind. You can buy it here.

Kick by Mitch Johnson
Twelve-year-old Budi works full time in a sweat shop factory in Jakarta stitching, or, if the foreman’s feeling mean, boxing football boots. He dreams of playing for Real Madrid like his hero Keiran Wakefield. But Budi’s life is a million miles away from his hero’s. Life in Jakarta is hard: he doesn’t live in the deepest slums, but there is no money for his education, and his family are struggling to get by.

One day, when he’s playing football with his friends, and they kick a ball through the window of local landlord and gang leader The Dragon, Budi will have to risk everything to pay his fine or end up dead.

This is a startlingly refreshing football novel in that it introduces a whole new way of looking at the beautiful game, and also gives an interesting perspective on a very different way of life, far removed from its Western world readers. Although some of it may be shocking to some young readers (it does contain a reference to prostitution and does climax with some violence), and the way of life itself may shock others, it also shows the similarities between football-mad children across the world. The things that Budi has in common will resonate here, such as an ongoing interest in food, football mania – both watching and playing – and most of all friendship.

In fact, above all, this is a beautifully perceptive tale of friendship between Budi and his older friend Rochy. Rochy is certainly more worldly wise, but he lives in even worse circumstances than Budi. In the end, though, the sacrifices he makes for Budi pay off, and the novel ends surprisingly, although without resorting to complete fairy tale transformation.

There is also the burgeoning relationship between Budi and his grandmother, as she relates stories to him that help him to make sense of his world, and his place within it, as well as steering him towards making the right choices in life.

The one weakness in the text is the reader’s difficulty in envisioning Budi’s entire situation. The streets and his home don’t feel described fully enough to visually create a sense of place in the reader’s mind, but Budi as a character is so well-rounded and his dreams so delineated, that it’s easy to fall under his spell.

This is a clever way into discussing other issues in the guise of a football story, and as the pundits say, ‘nice one’. You can buy this novel for 9+ years here.

  

Ultimate Football Heroes: Iniesta, Bale and Gerrard by Matt and Tom Oldfield
I honestly can’t get enough of this series of books, and nor can my library kids. These three are the latest to pop through my letterbox. The books have now divided into two series: Ultimate Football Heroes, which features popular players of the moment such as Iniesta and Bale, and Classic Football Heroes (which everyone wants to be eventually), which focusses on retired all-time favourites such as Gerrard. Each book is a self-contained biography of the individual player, but written in a child-friendly accessible way.

With each there is much to admire. Particular highlights for me are the amount of dialogue within each text – there is lots of engaging conversation to move the story along – and also the underlying message in each text, that no matter the person’s talent, it still takes an incredible amount of hard work, determination and ambition. No one wins medals by taking their journey for granted. In the Iniesta book, the authors are keen to show his innermost thoughts and fears at the start – a young player being away from his family, but kept in check and reassured by teammates. The language may not be the most literary, but as a way into reading for the target age range, this is a great jumping off point.

These newer additions also have some extra data and YouTube web links at the back of the book for watching videos of key moments. I’m not a huge fan of web links – they are so easy to get wrong, but the few I tried worked, and it’s a neat way of enticing the reader. Pick your player here.

F2 Football Academy: How to Play Like a Pro by F2 Freestylers
If you’re a fan of YouTube and football, then this last book will probably appeal. Written by Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch, known as the F2, these two men present football entertainment, tutorials on skills, and banter on their YouTube channel. The book is a spin-off; the text reads as they would speak it: “Our tekkers was bang on form.” It’s certainly not for everyone, but for fans, it treks through Brazil, tactics, skills, injuries, interviews, and is packed with full colour photographs and solid advice, such as to keep on trying. You can buy it here.

Sisters Working Together

A deliciously dark fairy tale, Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara tells the story of a small girl who is afraid of her shadow, and plots to get rid of it. With delightfully descriptive phrases such as ‘wolfish woods,’ combined with the onion turrets of Russian architecture, the book has a distinctive style. Throughout, the author and illustrator manage to give a warmth to the snowy landscapes with the innocence of dotted pastel illustrations, and a subtle simplicity within the text. 

The menace in the tall trees matches the menace Hortense sees in the stretch of her shadow, but in the end her happy ending comes when she sees that the shadowy figures in the background can be more frightening than her own shadow. Without her shadow, she is smaller. With it, despite its darkness, she grows in stature and confidence. With an allusion to Peter Pan via a sash window guillotine, and the hints of fairy tale, this is a picture book that comes from the literary canon that preceded it. 

Author Natalia and illustrator Lauren are sisters. They were born in the North of England to an English father and an Eastern European mother, and now live in London. MinervaReads asked Natalia and Lauren to discuss working together, where their ideas come from, and writing alternative modern fairy tales. The sisters, being sisters, interviewed each other. This is their conversation.

Natalia: In a way, Hortense and the Shadow was your pick, because I came to you with six or seven story ideas and asked which you liked best. What attracted you to the story?

Lauren: It felt by far the most personal of the stories you’d come up with, and also the weirdest and least commercial. Those are qualities we both seem to be attracted to. It also seemed like it didn’t have a bat’s chance of getting published – I remember us saying we’d cut our teeth on this one, and do something commercial later. Actually it was kind of liberating, feeling like we could just play and learn because nobody would ever want to publish this book.

Natalia: It surprised me when you said just now that Hortense and the Shadow was a personal idea. What do you mean?

Lauren: I don’t know if I can put it into words but there’s something about that story that always spoke to me on a personal level. It had a message about self-acceptance I loved. Remember, that was the time when I was coming out of that dark period in my life, and working hard to accept myself and my flaws. And both of us struggled with low self-esteem when we were children. I think we were just lucky that we’re not the only ones who’ve had experiences like those, so it felt personal to some other people too.

Natalia: We talked about Hortense being a kind of modern incarnation of the fairytale princess and about gender quite a bit when we were making this book. What did that mean to you?

Lauren: Well if you remember, when we very first started working on the book there was a moment where you considered making the hero a little boy. But I remember us both feeling that wasn’t the right solution at all. Because this story has a message about accepting your darkness and holding onto your imperfections. I think of course that’s important for everybody, but with the world being how it is, it’s a crucial message to give to little girls.

Natalia: Who are your favourite illustrators of fairytales, and why?

Lauren: I think the first illustrated fairytale I fell in love with was Errol Le Cain’s The Snow Queen. His illustrations for that book are just so evocative and magical. The beautiful snowy landscapes and talking animals and flower-filled gardens… I remember copying out some of the illustrations when we were little, and I feel like they worked their way into my head and found their way out again when I was illustrating Hortense and the Shadow. As you know I also love Jiri Trnka, Lisbeth Zwerger, Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen…

OK my turn! Were you ever surprised by how I interpreted your writing?

Natalia: Not really. When you showed me your first drawings the feeling was more like – “Oh there it is!”. You were developing a new style because you were illustrating for the first time, but at the same time what delighted me was how you were channeling the books and illustrators we loved as children – Jiri Trnka, Errol Le Cain, Mirko Hanak. Probably because of that your illustrations felt familiar to me.

Lauren: Do you think our Eastern European background influences the kind of stories we tell?

Natalia: How could it not really? There are subtle ways it influences us, like the mood of melancholy and nostalgia that comes from being born into a family like ours, where every generation until ours, people had to go into exile to escape horrible political events. Then there are more obvious ways, like the fact your illustrations look a lot like the hand-me-down mid-century Soviet books we had at home. Or the fact I love to write strong female protagonists, which is quite common in Slavic fairy tales where the princess often rescues the prince. So yeah, I think it’s everywhere, just like our English heritage is everywhere.

Lauren: Why do you like writing fairy tales?

Natalia: Fairy tales often seem simple and sweet, but underneath they’re full of complicated emotions and ideas that can take many readings to uncover. If it’s a fairy tale, people have an expectation that all that depth is in there and they don’t mind digging for it. Fairy tales grow up with you; they give you darkness and complexity when you’re ready for them. That’s why I love fairy tales, and why I believe they’re full of magic.

Photo credit: Charlotte Knee Photography. You can buy a copy of the book here

All Things Bright and Beautiful: National Non-Fiction November

National Non-Fiction November (a month dedicated to the sometime neglected category of children’s information books) is not only in November because of the alliteration – November is also the peak period for buying children’s non-fiction in the scramble for Christmas gift options. I have a huge pile of amazing non-fiction books on the floor at home – they are too huge to fit on the shelf, and this way they can dazzle me daily as I trip over them on the way to the computer. For dazzle they do. Children’s non-fiction grows brighter and more beautiful every year.

Today, the highlights of new animal and nature non-fiction.

DK Explanatorium of Nature

Watching Blue Planet II on Sunday night was magical. As Sir David Attenborough explains, cameras now have the ability to show us things that weren’t possible even a decade ago, and the daring and bravery and patience of the cameramen is quite striking. DK capitalise on this power of photography in their stunning non-fiction for children.

With jaw-dropping photography to inspire, simple facts laid out, and a comprehensive layout, this is quite an encyclopaedia, that also lives up to its name, for it certainly does explain things. Each spread is entitled ‘How something works’, starting with Life, and it doesn’t just state the facts, but it actually explains them. In ‘How Life works’, the authors explain the seven characteristics that all forms of life share, as well as describing how humans have divided living things into seven major groups called kingdoms, and exploring the essential element of water. It’s comprehensive, but told well and simply, and illustrated to perfection – the main image here is a close up photo of a squash bug and its babies on a leaf.

Every page in this large book is dominated by a bright, annotated or captioned image, usually photographic, so the eye is constantly drawn and interested, and there are smaller diagrams and illustrations to explain in more detail. For example, the spread entitled ‘How Starfish work’ has a large photograph taken from underneath, but also an illustration to show how seawater tubes run through their bodies, seeing as starfish don’t have a heart or blood vessels. It also explores the internal skeleton, tube feet, how they eat, how they regrow limbs, and the use of its star-shaped body.

There are numerous questions answered in this huge compendium, including bioluminescence, how insects see, how a crocodile can breathe underwater while still holding prey in its mouth, why birds fly in a V formation, and many more.

Ten chapters include the basics of life, microorganisms, plants, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and habitats. A fantastic visual feast. You can buy it here.

Urban Jungle by Vicky Woodgate
As an urban adult with urban children, this was a delightful find. We live in the heart of London, where our access to nature comes from crossing a footpath through two fields to get to school, and gazing out at our small patch of London green, marvelling, this time of year, at the red beauty of the acer gracing the middle of the lawn. But even within these small landscapes, there is huge scope for nature, and this wonderful book opened our eyes to the multitude of species that inhabit our urban spaces.

The book is a sumptuous collection of colourful city maps, highlighted with illustrations of the different abundant species that make their habitats in the city. Of course there are foxes and pigeons in London, but Vicky Woodgate focuses not only on the seen, but also on the unseen.

In New York for example, terrapins turn up at JFK airport in June to lay their eggs in the sandy turf near the airport. In Hong Kong, the masked palm civet eats fruit in the lush trees of the city’s parks.

Woodgate also highlights the danger humans pose to these urban dwellers. Pollution in Thane Creek in Mumbai has led to the disappearance of about 50 marine species, and in Sydney, the destruction of their habitat means that the common brushtail possum have now adapted to urban living and find roofs in which to nest.

Each animal illustration is labelled, and there are many small snippet paragraphs of information to absorb. On each double spread, a small map indicates where the city lies within its country, and there are large opening continent spreads that give an atlas view as to where the cities are in the world. In each city, green spaces, airports, zoos and animal sightings are given in a key.

Of particular interest are the ‘boxed off’ animal stories, supplementing the main information. These may be about migration, or natural disasters, or a particular animal that has a story in that city.

The idea is to inspire sightings and nature watching even in the most over-populated places on Earth. With a comprehensive index, and a huge number of experts who helped with the book listed at the back, this is a phenomenal piece of new non-fiction. You can buy it here.

How Animals Build by Moira Butterfield and Tim Hutchinson

Lonely Planet approach animals slightly differently in their new title about animal homes. Told with facts, but in a colloquial, jokey manner, the book roams across the planet looking at animals that build their homes with clever strategies. From coral reefs, to termite mounds, hives to webs, the placement of each animal is fairly random, and there is no index.

Instead, the book is incredible fun. Fully illustrated in colour, each page contains either small flaps to see inside an animal’s home, or a full page opener that shows what’s going on behind the scene. The first spread, for example, shows an illustration of a European oak tree. The flap reveals all that’s going on inside the one tree, from woodpeckers’ holes to a wasp nest, to a burrowing wood mouse at the bottom. The title of the page ‘Apartment Block with Branches’ gives a clue to the tone of the book.

There are a lovely couple of spreads about underwater living, brightly coloured, with an illustrated diver too, and lots of information including the meaning of sand circles on the sea bed, hiding places for octopuses, and a fact trail about how reefs are constructed.

Further on, the beaver is awarded the prize for best animal building for his dam and lodge, and there’s even a section on animals who make their homes in human habitats.

This is a lovely introduction to studying nature in a specific way, and would serve the purpose beautifully for a school project. Colourful, interesting and just light enough on information to inform its young audience without overwhelming. You can buy it here.