middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

What’s Where on Earth Atlas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy your own copy here.

From Ant to Eagle by Alex Lyttle

Warning, this review contains spoilers.

They say write what you know. Canadian paediatric oncologist Alex Lyttle has certainly done that, but this novel is about much more than childhood cancer. It’s a tale of sibling love, and the healing power of friendship.

Eleven-year-old Calvin Sinclair is bored. It’s the summer before sixth grade, and his parents have moved from big city to a small town, leaving him with no local friends, and only his six-year-old brother Sammy to play with. To alleviate his boredom, and to express his sibling dominance, Cal comes up with a series of tests for his brother to pass in order to move up the various levels of a made-up chart – battling from lowly Ant through to the awesome Eagle Level, where Cal sits. The chart is meaningless, of course, and Cal hasn’t done anything to deserve Eagle Level, it’s just a simple display of power. The tests include everything from shooting hoops to disturbing a wasp nest.

Then Cal meets Aleta, a girl of his own age who is also new to the area, and the two of them go off on day long adventures, leaving Sammy at home. Cal gives Sammy a series of tasks to complete in his absence. As the summer progresses, so does Cal’s friendship with Aleta, but also Sammy’s number of sick days. From being unable to keep up with Cal and Aleta on a bike ride, suddenly Sammy is too ill to stray far from the house. When a collapse at school leads to a serious diagnosis, Cal has to re-evaluate whether he himself passes the test of decent big brother; does he himself even deserve the status of Eagle Level, or were the challenges he set Sammy essentially mean-spirited? For now, with a series of real tests in the hospital, Sammy has to show true bravery.

The text is beautifully readable, and the setting highly visual – from the countryside Cal and Aleta explore, to the contrasting confines of the hospital. But the main focus of the book is the sibling relationship – Cal’s feelings of annoyance at his little brother quickly turn into guilt when Sammy gets sick, but also love and protection…something that’s actually been there all along. As well as this, the reader sees how much Sammy looks up to Cal too – something that Cal comes to recognise through gradual self-awareness.

Cal’s voice is honest and direct, which at times of course, is brutal in its direct confrontation of a fatal illness, but also incredibly moving. And through this honesty, the book is admirably empathetic of all characters – doctor, parents, patients and siblings. There are some lovely touches – a fascination with the Goosebumps series of books, as well as the emotional understanding displayed by Cal in gaining the trust and friendship of new girl Aleta.

This book isn’t for everyone – with intensely adult themes, including the death of a six year old, this will be a hard book for some to swallow – yet it’s so honestly written, so tender, that for those willing to confront life’s darker side, it deserves a wide audience. For 11+ years. Please note that this book was initially published by Central Avenue Publishing in North America, and may not be as widely distributed (yet) in the UK. It is, of course, available on Amazon.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

When I was twelve years old a new English teacher started at my school. She was young and glamorous, and I wanted very much to impress her, especially as she taught my favourite subject. Then, one day she handed out our homework assignment on the text we were studying – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She wanted us to depict a scene in a comic strip. I was devastated. Drawing wasn’t literature, I thought. My level of drawing barely matched Wimpy Kid levels, my love for my teacher plummeted as swiftly as Sir Toby descends into revelry. The effort I put in matched my grade. Low.

But it remains one of the Shakespeare plays I best remember. The cross-garters (easy to depict visually), the gender disguises, the triumphant reuniting of the twins. And perhaps that was to do with having to try to make a visual representation.

One of the ways in which the children in my library club best engage with the books I’m reading to them is if we use the books as inspiration to discuss and draw the contents. We may do craft, or create our own story, or redesign covers, or simply draw our feelings.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth is a series of comics presented in paperback book format. In fact, the publisher very kindly sent me the first three, which I devoured with glee, chortling nonstop. Hilo comes crashing down from the sky, clad only in silver underpants, and has no idea where he comes from, or what he’s doing on Earth.

DJ, a normal kid from an overachieving family, and his friend Gina, try to figure out where Hilo comes from, and by the end of the book, how to fight robots in order to save the world!

The comic is fast-paced – action leaps from frame to frame, but the book goes much deeper than that. DJ has pretty low self-esteem, believing that he lacks the skillsets he sees in his siblings. With the friendship of Hilo and Gina, he grows in confidence, and finds out what it takes to be a real hero.

Winick evokes great humour in his portrayal of Hilo, who has no idea what food and clothing are for, and yet absorbs new information at a startling rate. He introduces catchphrases for the friends, and references other comics and movies.

The books are bright and bold – the colour screams from the page, and the characters are wonderfully empathetic and emotive in their depictions.

There’s long been, and still is, a snobbery about comics, and yet by using them for readers who don’t want to be confronted with a large chunk of text, comics can easily imbue children with great storytelling skills.

One of the great things about comics is that they explore the angle of a scene – like assessing the point of view. The reader can explore each individual picture to see why the illustrator has drawn it in that way – what is shown in this scene, what is not – where is the ‘camera’ looking from, is it a close-up? The language has been carefully selected – after all there’s only so much the author can fit into each square – why did he chose those particular words? And more than that, what is the narrative stream between the different frames? – the connectivity of panels relates to the connectivity of sentences in a narrative text.

With a diverse cast, a cliffhanger ending, and a message of friendship, loyalty and bravery, this is a great new series. For 8+ years. Discover it here.

Dragons to Light Your Fire

Dragons have generally been tarnished with the evil/badass brush for most of their mythological lives. Western mythology certainly paints dragons as evil beings designed to be fought by brave knights. But in the East, dragons are favourable creatures. They can bring good luck – and can even be helpful. Three excellent dragon books flew into MinervaReads recently…and although they did not battle, they certainly set MinervaReads on fire.

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
This silky smooth, deliciously alluring middle grade novel, about a young dragon who gets turned into a human with a penchant for chocolate (making, crafting, and eating), was devoured like a smooth cup of hot chocolate in the middle of a harsh winter.

I’m generally not that keen on fantasy stories, but this brilliantly-told adventure tale navigates the fantasy realm and yet also manages to stay rooted firmly in the friendship/adventure book stable, completely twisting up that ‘new girl moves into school/village’ premise.

Aventurine the dragon decides to prove to her family (including her ridiculously talented older siblings) how fierce and tough a dragon she is, by leaving the safe mountain cave, and venturing out to capture prey all by herself. However, the first human she meets tricks her into eating enchanted chocolate (who could resist the aroma?), and she is turned into a human.

The bulk of the novel follows Aventurine as she moves into a human town and tries to make something of herself – most particularly as a chocolate maker’s apprentice, for she cannot resist the allure of chocolate.

There are some stand-out qualities to this novel that take it from the realm of the fairly mundane fairy tale about transformations and dragons, into a really excellent novel.

The characters are all wonderfully drawn, with just a hint of mystery behind them. Silke, Aventurine’s ally and friend, is as feisty as a dragon herself, yet also wily, loyal, and brimming with emotional intelligence. As is the owner and chef at the chocolate shop who employs Aventurine (notice how they’re all female). Each character comes across as startlingly real and three-dimensional – they lose their tempers and metaphorically breathe out fire occasionally, but they are also graceful in their presentation, and fierce in their passions.

There is, of course, much love for chocolate. It’s hard to read the book and not want to eat some, which shows how well the descriptions work, but also there’s some interesting detail on cocoa nibs etc.

But I think my favourite quality is the excellent use of observation. Aventurine comes into the human world without having a clue about it, and it’s her witty ignorance that fills the book with humour – from the hair on people’s faces, to the clothes they wear, the things they value, and the similarities in family structures between her dragon family and human families. Much is made of class, greed and hierarchy in the book, and it works well, and can easily lead to further discussion. Patronage, corruption, bureaucracy and blame are addressed too.

Of course the overall message is not to judge by appearance. Aventurine has the same personality whether she wears a dragon skin, or inhabits a human skin. There’s also a great message about fear of failure – how failure can destroy confidence, and yet above all what’s needed is grit and determination. Hard work pays off. Loyalty is rewarded.

For a contemporary audience, I loved how the images of chocolate fit with today’s taste for spicing up chocolate with flavours, such as chilli chocolate etc. It’s a sweet and flavoursome book, which you’ll devour like a dragon. For ages 9+ years. You can taste the book here.

Build the Dragon by Dugald Steer, illustrated by Jonathan Woodward and Douglas Carrel
Part activity, part book, this is great for all dragon enthusiasts.

A comprehensive guide to dragons frames this Build the Dragon kit, which includes 46 pieces that are easily slotted together to make your own 3-D model. The dragon comes with moving parts – a jaw that opens and shuts with a lever, and a windup motor that makes the dragon’s wings flap. Once the model was built (taking an eleven year old child just over an hour on their own, with only a slight struggle with the motorised wings), we set to exploring the accompanying text.

my dragon (which went down a treat in the school library)

This is a 32 page large full-colour exploration of everything dragon, from a definition, to legends, habitats, anatomy, diet and reproduction. The author has split the world of dragons into Western and Eastern, highlighting the extreme differences between the two, and then used tales of dragons from mythology to highlight their various characteristics as if they were real.

Each paragraph of information is accompanied by an illustration or diagram, some captioned, and the text is neatly written – easy to understand and containing a dense amount of information in bite-size chunks.

There is much to learn here – from the Guardians of Flaming Pearls to the Venom Spitter, a dragon that didn’t breathe fire, but was referenced in a London pamphlet in 1614, which explained that the dragon had used its violent poison to kill both men and cattle. Other highlights include the map of the world showing global myths, and the dragon scales chart.

The book ends with a sumptuous colourful dragon guide, highlighting earliest representations of dragons, which vary from written references in AD 680, to depictions on Egyptian bowls in BC 4000.

It is excellent and thoughtful of the publishers to provide duplicates of the delicate wings in case they tear, because the motorised wings were fiddly to build and we didn’t think would hold up to much play once built, but the rest of the model is constructed from robust cardboard. I also would have loved to know the authors’ key sources for their information.

Invest in your dragon model here.

The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook by Katie Haworth, illustrated by Monica Armino
Another comprehensive tome that takes the premise that dragons are real. This is fiction masquerading as non-fiction, a guide to looking after dragons – almost like a ‘bringing up baby manual’ – with fabulous full-colour illustrations that both give information and lend a comedic element to the book.

The opening letter of the text talks to the reader as if they have succeeded in applying to look after the dragon, and this book is the starter guide – at this point I began to have palpitations in much the same way as I do opening Ikea furniture instructions.

However, the instructions here are much better written, more informative, and massively more fun. There is a wonderful sense of humour pulsating throughout the book from the suggested equipment at the beginning – such as oven gloves for handling anything the dragon has set fire to – to the advice on where learn to fly the dragon – several hundred miles from human habitation.

As well as the fun in the text, the book is hugely interactive. Spinning wheels, flaps to lift, pop up flying dragons, books within the book, and the ultimately hilarious happy/fierce face flip dragon towards the end.

There is a huge amount of information taken from dragon-lore, such as famous paintings that portray dragons, popular stories, and the different types of dragon from around the world. Brilliantly, it would perfectly complement the Build the Dragon book reviewed above, if your child (or you) have a particular penchant for dragons.

This is a book to make you smile and give much pleasure. By the end I felt competent to look after and even attempt to fly my own dragon. Get yourself a similar skillset here.

An Animal Round Up: Spring 2017

Wild Animals of the South by Dieter Braun
Braun made a huge splash with his first book, Wild Animals of the North, because of its gloriously large full-page imagery – and the fact that it was lovingly produced in a cloth-bound luscious hardback with images on uncoated paper. It felt and smelled worthy. This book serves to do the same with animals from the southern half of the globe: from the hot tropical rainforests of Brazil to the cold depths of Antarctica. The portraits dominate the information – so this is a visual treat rather than an information overload. In fact the text is pocket-sized against the largesse of the illustrations, which gives the animals themselves even more emphasis.

The illustrations look tactile, and are highly textured and highly coloured. The artistry is stunning to behold – my favourite a troop of elephants headed directly in the reader’s direction – a backdrop of brown tones, blending with the grey to tea-coloured elephants – with just a suggestion of the dust flying up from their hooves in curvy waves.

The colour is stunning – some animals blended into the background, such as the mantis, others, such as the little egret, standing out proud against its blue watery background. The scratchy illustration and reflections imply a watery feel.

Information is scant, as in the first volume – for example, there is just a picture of the little egret with a naming caption, but text does accompany some – such as the Indian rhinoceros.

Split into regions, there is also a thumbnail index at the rear. A book to inspire and delight for budding illustrators and graphic designers, and a must-buy for those stunned by the beauty of the natural world and who would appreciate that beauty mirrored in a book. You can buy it here.

Safe and Sound by Jean Roussen, pictures by Loris Lora
A book about baby animals for near babes, this is another visual treat from publisher Flying Eye. What’s stunning about these far more simplistic illustrations than those by Dieter Braun above, is that the eyes from each animal stare out of the illustration and pull the reader inside – almost like looking longingly into baby eyes yourself.

The idea is that the baby animals need some protection before they’re ready to face the world, from chipmunks burrowing underground, to kangaroo joeys in comfy pouches. There’s nothing new here, but the information is given in rhyming couplets (some work better than others), and will surprise new readers who will not be aware that baby crocodiles hide inside their mothers’ mouths – not somewhere you’d expect to be that safe.

A delightful start to learning about non-fiction, this is exactly the sort of book schools and parents want more of for their little ones who want stories, but also want facts. You can buy it here.

Neon Leon by Jane Clarke, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup
How ironic! A chameleon who stands out. All the other chameleons change colour to match their surroundings of course, in this book that explains camouflage for the very young. Neon Leon, sadly, can’t turn off his neon glare to blend in. In fact, his fluorescent brilliant orange shows up even in the dark, and Leon soon feels sad and ostracised from the other chameleons. He searches for other animals who might also be bright orange, but as soon as he finds them, they fly away. Will Leon ever find his own happy place?

This book works beautifully. Not only are the colours vivid and glowing, and the illustrations endearing and sympathetic, but the text speaks directly to the reader, provoking interactivity – helping Leon to choose the right colours, or what to do next. As with Safe and Sound, the book works wonderfully for young readers, giving non-fiction a new spin, but it also encourages massive affinity with the book, and the characters within. A great fluid read, bright and engaging. Purchase Leon here.

Bee and Me by Alison Jay
Lastly, and by no means least, a wordless picture book that encompasses a tale of friendship with an environmental message, through fascinating and busy illustrations, telling the story in an almost comic book sequence, but with traditional drawings.

A little girl in a bustling city is disturbed by a bee who accidentally flies in through her window. A natural reaction would be to swat the bee perhaps, or to capture it in a vessel so that it can be safely released. The girl does succumb to the latter, but when she sees it has drooped in its glass cage, she reads a book to work out what to do. What a clever girl! She revives the bee, and lets it go, but when bad weather drives it to her window again, a friendship is struck. Before long, the bee grows, and eventually teaches the little girl all about bees.

The pictures are captivating – both in their execution and in what they’re saying. This is a wonderful way to engage young readers to get them to ‘say what they see’ – telling the story as the narrator, engaging their analytical and storytelling capacities, as well as their empathy. And the book also holds an environmental message about the importance of bees, and pollination. By the end, a kaleidoscope of new butterflies and flowers have emerged in the city.

The book isn’t preachy though, but rather imbued with a grand sense of humour. From looking bedraggled to being pouffed with a hairdryer, our bee is full of personality. And the little girl too – she takes the bee out in her bike basket and gives it an ice-cream lolly, she measures it on a height chart, but best of all the bee enjoys a visit to the florist, and finally a day break from the city. A mellifluous read. Buy it here.

The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

This book came out in 2016 and rather slipped under the radar, but despite that, has continued to haunt me since I read it – in the same way that the song from somewhere else haunts our protagonist.

Frankie (Francesca) is out distributing leaflets to try to find her lost cat. But when she is hemmed in by bullies in the park, she is rescued by school outcast Nick Underbridge (the name is a carefully chosen clue to the later events in the story). Nick is ostracised in school, and smells slightly, but Frankie finds herself accompanying him home out of a sense of duty and thanks.

At his house, Frankie is drawn by a haunting and beautiful song, but she can’t locate where it comes from. She starts to spend more time with Nick, despite the worry that she too will be cast out at school because of the friends she keeps.

Gradually, the song exerts more and more influence and pull on her, and the story dovetails into part fairytale/part fantasy other world, as it becomes clear that the song originates from the dimension of another world – a kind of fairy tale world. With fairy tales comes danger and darkness, and Frankie’s friendship with Nick is tested to extreme limits when the two worlds collide.

The duality of the story is what makes it so special. The book is set in a time in which kids get on their bikes and ride to freedom, of lego and drawing, but also the internet and mobile phones, yet Harrold makes it feel sort of timeless. The effect of the everyday objects is to ground Frankie deeply in reality, within a contemporary story about friends and bullying, yet there are clear shadows of another world that seep into this – a fairy tale dimension that echoes the heightened emotions of our main story. There are both intensely dark and frightening emotions, and yet also visionary and pure and light overtones to this ‘magical’ dimension of the story. In this way, Harrold uses the duality of his fairy tale to mirror reality and his contemporary story – we all have the darkness and purity inside us.

Pinfold echoes this in his black and white illustrations – they are realistic in what they depict – the estate, a cat at night, Frankie on a bench, Nick’s Dad opening the front door. And yet, because of the shadows cast, the point of view from which the picture is drawn, the intensity of the pencil lines, and yes, more by what is hidden than what is shown – they are deeply dark and disturbing – mysterious and haunting. They feel slippery and ethereal.

The text too – telling a compelling story of friendship in a lyrical way – there is comedy and poetry mixed with darkness. Its evocative and ghostly. Each word is carefully chosen – it’s minimal, and pure.

But most of all, all this combines to make a text that is easy to read, and scattered with illustrations. In fact, the reader devours the book – identifying with the choices Frankie makes about friendship, and her conflicts within herself – especially when she is drawn to a song but can’t quite work out what it is or what it represents. It implies a feeling of loss and absence throughout, and leaves the reader with a sense of bittersweet sadness, as well as uplifting lightness.

This is a great book for deciphering and picking apart friendships – understanding not only who we choose to be friends with, but also how we demonstrate our loyalty to our friends, and how we come to understand them. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been picked up by award lists…this is a hidden gem – perhaps it needs to come out of its own shadows.

Suitable for 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Fish Boy by Chloe Daykin

There aren’t many TV programmes that pull the whole family together for family viewing time any more. Maybe X-Factor or BGT. But one that still has resonance and meaning, and is guaranteed to pull a family crowd, is a documentary from Sir David Attenborough. So when I heard that Fish Boy by debut author Chloe Daykin was about a boy who channelled the voice of Sir David in his head as part of the narration, I was more than intrigued. I was super excited.

For any of you out there who know a boy who is tentative about reading, but gripped by facts of nature or animals, and loves the environment – this is an intriguing premise. However, it’s not quite as I thought, less about channeling the facts of nature, although there is plenty of that, but more an invocation of Sir David’s soothing tones, his lilting voice, his reassurance, and this, above all is what gives Fish Boy its ultimate charm.

Billy is picked on at school, feels and acts like a bit of a loner, and added to that his Mum is sick – an undiagnosed dragging sickness. Living by the sea proves to be his perfect escape, especially as one day a sense of magic seems to come alive under the water, (more than a sense of magic – almost a dreamlike second dimension). Then a new boy starts at school, and changes everything – the way Billy thinks, his time at school, and most importantly how he views his family.

There is an element of surrealism about the book – a large element, in that every time Billy goes swimming he becomes ‘one’ with the fish, swimming with them, communicating with them. For some children, this might be offputting, although if like me, you like a bit of quirkiness chucked in with the realism (think David Almond in particular), then this is the book for you. What could venture into the bizarre and zany, rests beautifully in Daykin’s hands, as her prose is sparkling, unique and captures Sir David Attenborough’s calming and soft overtones. It lulls the reader, and soothes them, so that the overall effect is rather like being underwater.

There’s no satisfying explanation for the adventures under water with the fish, which perversely serves to make the book more satisfying. Some things in life are just unexplained, just mystical, and that’s fine. What is resolved is the friendships and family conundrums.

Most particularly, the resolution between Billy and his mother is poignant, as towards the end she is diagnosed – but more than just having an answer, Billy comes to an acceptance of what’s happening with his family. It’s uplifting and hopeful.

With swirls of humour, as well as some fairly frightening undercurrents, this is a refreshing read – quite unlike anything else I’ve read recently. And what pulled mainly for me was not so much the story, as the fact that Daykin’s prose matches her story – typical modern boy/parent dialogue pared with short sharp pithy prose when swimming – almost as if it’s mimicking the short flap of a gill as a fish breathes – but also all massively imbued with the character of Billy. Clever. Watch out for her second, it’s sure to swim freestyle too. You can buy it here.

Space Books: the complete package

Ever had a child who shows an overwhelming interest in one thing – and they know many more surprising statistics and facts about that than anyone else you know? If your child is ‘into’ space, then here are three superb books to guide them further along. One activity book, one fiction, one non-fiction – a perfect package.

Self-Destructing Science: Space by Isabel Thomas and illustrated by Nikalas Catlon

Shortlisted for the ASE Book of the Year Award 2017, this is a fabulous book crammed with projects, all with a view to teaching about space. The idea of the series/book is that each page of the book is to be torn out and used as part of a project – from folding, cutting, experimenting or scribbling on it.

As the reader destroys the book, other amazing things are learned and built – such as a Martian bug to a pocket rocket.

I asked one of my child samplers to test my review copy by highlighting which pages caught their interest as interesting projects, only to find that she had put post it notes on every page.

The instructions are easy to follow, delivered in a chatty manner, and explain which extras the reader needs for each project – just like a recipe. None of these extras are too difficult, just things such as scissors and tape. The page about gravity, for example, is all about dropping things from a height. Then small paragraphs explain the science behind the game. And around the text are lots of small cartoon drawings of astronauts, aliens and craft ideas on a background of neon orange – so it looks like lots of fun too.

The ideas are all creative and original, and all have subliminal or subtle teaching behind them. You can keep a moon diary, make a pinhole viewer and a sundial, dress an astronaut, guide a Mars rover, make a Martian bug, answer a quiz and take part in the Lunarlympics. And that’s only half the book!

A terrific learning resource, or just great fun, this is a really engaging activity book. You can buy it here.

The Jamie Drake Equation by Christopher Edge

Last year Christopher Edge wrote a beautiful novel about grief and quantum physics, which I recommended for its warmth and heart, as well as its wonderfully subtle infiltration of science into storytelling. This latest novel, The Jamie Drake Equation, I think is even better. It manages to captivate its reader, whilst imparting space facts, information about the Fibonacci sequence, and the Drake Equation, at the same time as telling a wonderful contemporary story, so that the reader doesn’t feel they’re being educated at all – just experiencing a sumptuous story.

Jamie’s father is an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, and is due to complete a space walk on the same day as Jamie’s birthday. He’s on a mission to send information to outer space to find out if there’s alien life. At the same time, Jamie stumbles upon something on Earth that might lead him to a faster conclusion about life on other planets. But then his family equation begins to go wrong, as do things in space, and it’s up to Jamie to try to keep it all together.

Definitely inspired by Tim Peake, the characters feel real, as does the school setting and projects, as well as the science behind the story. Of course, for dramatic effect there are some deviations from pure science, some exaggerations perhaps, but it makes for a wondrous telling.

But, for this reader, most of all, the story spoke with heart. Because for many children in today’s global world, they often have one parent away from home at times, and communication is through Skype or the telephone, and Edge has really captured how it’s just not the same as having the parent present. Edge has identified the difficulties it can throw up. This is dealt with so subtly and sensitively, and shows real craft.

There’s also a terrific pace to the story – it’s not long, and a reader will speed through it, and then perhaps (in my case certainly) go back to revisit all those brilliant facts. The questions and answers with Jamie’s father whilst on the video link from the ISS were great, as was much of the beginning, explaining different bits about space travel.

A lovely middle grade story, which orbits gently around space travel while sitting comfortably in the contemporary story band too. You can buy it here. And see here for Christopher Edge’s guest post, which further discusses the ‘absent parent’ in children’s literature.

Ground Control to Major Tim: The Space Adventures of Major Tim Peake by Clive Gifford

One of my favourite non-fiction writers, Gifford has a way of succinctly describing something with minimal words yet maximum information. This is one of those standard non-fiction texts for children that I used to work on at Dorling Kindersley, and for many children it is a really clear way of being presented with factual information.

Each page has a different colour background, and three or more large photographs highlighting aspects of Tim’s journey, whether it’s training, blast off, life on board or life afterwards.

The book is jam-packed with information, and reads half like a biography and half like a space information book. The first page introduces Tim Peake and the ISS Space Expedition, and includes a mission memo with facts, a quote from Tim, and facts about the initial entry to the ISS. Each paragraph is short and to the point – there are no wasted words.

Favourite bits include a quote from Tim’s physics teacher, the description of the Vomit Comet, and the photograph of Earth seen from space at night. There are loads of facts in here, from how much muscles shrink in space without exercise, to details about Tim running a marathon, to how much training it takes to be an astronaut, to when Tim read a bedtime story to his children via satellite. This book beautifully tells the incredible story of our current space exploration, and should be an inspirational guide for children. You can buy it here.

 

The Big Book of Beasts by Yuval Zommer

A skulk of foxes, mould growing in a sloth’s fur – just a couple of random facts that I learned whilst perusing the latest offering from Yuval Zommer. This follow-up to the hugely successful The Big Book of Bugs is another triumph. Such short sentences – pithy and witty – provide easy text for a young reader and speak casually with not a word wasted. “When a tiger licks a wound, its spit helps to heal its skin.” Simple yet effective absorption of facts.

But of course, this book is led mainly by its illustrations. Zommer has his own fun style – a series of portraits of each animal on a double page spread – so for example, the reader sees depictions of a lion roaring, snoozing on its back, licking a friend, hunting and sitting astride a rock – all to show the different snippets of information that Zommer wants to impart.

Each spread shows either a different type of beast – wolves, tigers, bears, bats, hyenas etc, or some general characteristic – such as noises and smells, claws and jaws. There’s no precise science as to which animal made the cut and which didn’t; the book just sets out to make an impression.

And because this book of beasts is for the relatively young, it remains positively tame. Although the lion hunts, the depiction of bloody meat is cartoon-like and divorced from the animal – the bear hunting looks as if the animal is juggling fish rather than eating them.

Because this is not intended to be a clear representation of the animal – rather a mashup between a cartoon and an illustrated depiction of the creature – so that the bear rubbing its back against the tree looks almost Yogi-esque in facial expression.

It’s not an encyclopedia – not a book you’d go to for ‘everything about lions’ for example, but rather a taster of the animal world, instead of a reference for project work. But at this age, what more could the reader want than to pique curiosity with stunning, selected facts: ‘A baboon sleeps upright on a cushion-like patch of skin on its behind’? Accompanied by a myriad of sympathetic, slightly humorous, endearing illustrations.

There’s a lovely glossary with pictures, and an index too – for those that need an introduction to such things. There’s also an interactive element, and the by now necessary bit in every children’s animal book about those species that may be at risk, and the human environmental factor. As with the rest of the book, this is done in a very gentle way. In fact, in the book as a whole, there’s nothing beastly about it.

You can buy it here.

Lots by Marc Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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