middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

Beauty and Nature

I may live an urban life, but there are still pockets of natural beauty all around. There’s a pathway near my house that leads between two fields in which horses graze, and the other morning half the grass was dusted with a sprinkle of frost and emitted a white glow, while the stark green of the other side was trampled as the horses meandered and whinnied. Looking up, we saw a plethora of autumnal reds, yellows and browns, as differently shaded leaves fluttered on the branches above us.

perfectly peculiar plantsPerfectly Peculiar Plants by Chris Thorogood, illustrated by Catell Ronca

The overwhelming vibrancy of this book sucks in the reader as if they are a fly teetering on the edge of a Venus flytrap. Featuring a different plant on each double page spread, the colour of the illustrated plant takes over the page, blending with the insects and birds depicted alongside it. With a watercolour wash background, this is an immersive plant book, a far cry from ancient plant identification tomes that feel cold and staid. Indeed, Ronca’s illustration of the bee orchid looks like a psychedelic Kandinsky painting.

Written by a professional botanist, the text doesn’t shy away from complete explanations and correct information. There are Latin names here, but also exciting enthusiastic prose that aims to convey a love and respect for plants as well as an interest. And the plants chosen are truly magnificent. They are peculiar indeed – from the Dead Horse Arum which looks like an animal’s tongue and apparently smells like a rotting animal, to the Giant Waterlily, which produces heat. The text is written in small paragraphs in a large typeface but for so few sentences, Thorogood provides specific, pertinent information in easy to understand language.

The selected plants are global, and feature different peculiarities, but there’s also an emphasis on some general information about plants – how they get energy, how they work with animals, and of course how they need protecting.

A glut of information, displayed wondrously. You can buy it here.

book of treesThe Book of Trees by Piotr Socha, illustrated by Wojciech Grajkowski

I am lucky to be surrounded by trees despite living in London. A cherry tree lightly brushes the front window, and I can see the broad oaks, beeches and chestnuts that line the roads and fields opposite. Socha’s book is as large in scope as the oak, attempting not to just identify trees, but to understand their importance, their physical and spiritual natures. This large hardback is beautiful in itself – a beauty that comes in part from its source material, and Socha references this.

In fact, this is almost a story of trees rather than a non-fiction book. Its narrative sweeps from a basic understanding of the cyclical nature of trees, to their physicality – age, size, material, leaf shapes etc, to their spiritual and magical elements, their role in the environment as homes and sources of food, to the elements they inspire – wood art, buildings, musical instruments, human-constructed tree-houses and so much more. But the tree’s overwhelming beauty and magnificence makes itself known in the stunning illustrations that dominate the pages – leaving just a strip of text at the border to highlight information. The range of leaves and roots is illustrated, but as the reader journeys through the tree and its importance in different cultures, the author/illustrator team showcase how trees have been used to map our evolution, to map families, and to provide spiritual succour. As with The Book of Bees, there is humour liberally applied to the fact-giving, and a sophistication in both image and text. The Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia pictured overgrown with tree roots is simply sublime. You can buy it here.

wild buildings and bridgesWild Buildings and Bridges: Architecture Inspired by Nature by Etta Kaner and Carl Wiens

It is fairly rare to come across a mainstream children’s book on architecture, and this is certainly one of the more pleasing ones. The premise is the exploration of how nature’s patterns and design informs architecture – using the beauty and aesthetics of nature, as well as problem-solving features within the laws of nature, to good effect in man-made structures. As well as general spreads giving examples of such buildings, there are also small profiles of architects and small experiments to conduct at home – teaching by practical example.

All of this is explained in a range of text, diagrams, illustrations and photographs. Techniques that copy nature include conservation of water, keeping cool, repelling water and strength in shape and design. There are also references to inspirations – the Gherkin in London was inspired by the Venus Flower-basket Sponge. Some of the buildings and structures are quite extraordinary – the Easter Dawyck Bridge that mimics nature’s recycling process, the Council House 2 office block in Melbourne that is modelled on African termite towers, the Wave apartment complex in Denmark that aims to mirror the water of the fjord on which it sits.

There are even admissions of mistakes when architects haven’t quite understood the science behind the natural structures they are copying. This is a fascinating book, documenting not only how we learn from nature but also how we can try and live in harmony with it – using natural light, or local materials and resources. You can buy it here.

riversRivers by Peter Goes

The beauty of this book lies not so much in its depiction of nature, but in the stylistically elaborate carving of time and space into the geographic linearity of the world’s rivers. Goes blends the true depiction of the shape of each river that he profiles with an almost surreal aura, festooning each river with tributaries of information and branches of illustrations to sum up the cultural, historical, and natural history of his rivers.

Covering rivers all over the globe from the Thames in Europe to the Yukon in North America, the Niger in Africa to the Fly in Oceania, Goes takes each river and uses his scattered style to meander from the centre of his river into a stream of consciousness about it. So, for example, The Thames profiles its source and route as well as its water level, but also explores the meaning behind the name, the history of the Frost Fair, the kingfisher on the water, The Thames Barrier, the Henley Boat Race and so much more – each nugget of information illustrated in monochrome. There’s a playfulness to the information too – some personal opinion, and clearly a very personal selection of rivers and facts, but this is an extraordinarily dramatic graphic resource. You can buy it here.

 

A Very Christmas Roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timelines of Everything

timelines of everything

It seems fitting during National Non-Fiction November to feature a book that attempts to cover everything. As one would expect from Dorling Kindersley, this is a highly visual non-fiction title, over 300 pages long with an extraordinary number of images. The book explores the history of the world in a series of illustrated timelines on ‘everything’, including slavery in the US, the technology of writing, the industrial revolution, kingdoms of Southeast Asia, postcolonial Africa and much much more.

As well as general knowledge, dates, and small explanations of well-known events, there are tiny nuggets of trivia embedded in each page, so that the reader comes away having learnt that the Medieval period lasted from the 5th to the 15th centuries and followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and that the majority of the population in Medieval Europe was comprised of peasant farmers, but also lesser-known trivia during the period, including that the Vikings founded Dublin in 841. The timeline on this page traverses neatly between religious re-organisation and acts of battle and aggression, spanning from the East-West Schism in the church in 1054 to the Battle of Hastings, to the Hundred Years’ War, to the to the Gutenberg Bible printing in around 1439. Reading about the Hanseatic League and their trading alliance in 1241 felt relevant to today’s Brexit deals.


But it’s not the text information in the book that inspires, so much as the magnificence of the presentation. Each subject is afforded an apt graphic design. The Renaissance is laid out like a fresco between classical pillars. The Timeline of Exploration of the world features dates running up a ship’s mast, Spanish America is encapsulated within a series of silver coins, and Astronomy casts its own constellation across the page. The timelines are also broken up by pages in between – some full colour-paintings including that of the fall of Tenochtitlan, some that document a single day such as the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

The reader can read through in chronological order as set out in the book – traversing prehistory, the dinosaurs and the wheel, before entering the ancient World, Medieval, the Age of Exploration, Revolution and then the Modern World, or simply dip in and out depending on mood and interest. One great fun thing to do is to test fellow family members with the dates of when things happened, flicking through the book at random.

The text is accessible, concise, and clear. There are no opinions here, no injected humour, just straightforward precise information. Of course, the whole of human history can’t be condensed into one book, so there are omissions and much is touched on in scant detail, but it provides a context for what’s going on, and a springboard for further discovery. This way, history can be looked at with a wide lens, and then an intrigued child will be able to hone in on what piques their interest and opt for a more specialist look at the subject.

To settle arguments and answer quizzes, this is a winner. I liked the roll call of British royalty and American presidents at the end – yes, the book is skewed towards a Western audience for sure – and thoroughly enjoyed the quick romp through choice moments to explore the Story of Democracy. I learned much about the Rise of the Samurai and the horror of Plagues and Epidemics. For a spread-eagled timeline view of the world – this is a wonderful visual treat. You can buy it here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lifters by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Aaron Renier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armistice Day

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

World Science Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

the speed of starlight

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

Peter Pan by JM Barrie, retold in rhyme by Caryl Hart, illustrated by Sarah Warburton

Peter PanI have a confession to make. I decided to read the worthy classic Peter Pan by JM Barrie to my first child at bedtime one year and picked out an exceptionally beautiful edition of the original. And yet a few pages in, I found myself précising the text, rewording it, changing sentences and skipping bits – the prose just wasn’t as captivating as I thought it should be. It had all the elements in the plot – removable shadows, pirates with hooks, crocodiles with clocks and fairies with attitude, yet it didn’t zing along.

So when this latest version came through the post, I wished that it had arrived years earlier, but settled for reading it to the youngest child instead. What a delight. Hart has used her extensive experience in rhyming picture books to retell the story in her own energetic style, and it is a joy to read aloud:

“Our tale begins in London
in a house on Bloomsbury Street.
Inside there lived a family,
the nicest you could meet.”

Hart not only retells the story, but imbues it with a narrator’s warmth, gently guiding the readers as Peter guides Wendy through the sky. There’s much plot and little description, but the setting is neatly filled in with Warburton’s filmic illustrations, rendering the mermaids mischievous with a flick of an eyebrow, the pirates both comedic and threatening with their sometime mean, sometime dozy expressions, and their excessive facial hair.

With pure pantomime timing, Hart executes all the finer details of the plot, and the familiar phrases – as children the land over clap their hands to save Tinkerbell, and there is much walking the plank, the introduction of the ‘Wendy’ house, and of course lots of fighting. But she also pulls out the dramatic pantomime hilarity of the story – Pan poking Hook from behind, then inciting him to climb the crow’s nest where he immediately feels dizzy. Child readers and listeners will be both engrossed with the fast-paced plot but also cheered with the numerous nods to win their humour. Hart also makes use of much onomatopoeia, building drama wherever possible with the ticks of the clock and the snaps of the crocodile, the canon’s boom and the water’s splosh.

The text is split neatly into four line verses, at times each illustrated separately, and sometimes illustrated with a full double page spread landscape. The production is superb – the pages are lush and thick, the colour bursting from the page in wondrous detail – the last spread has Peter almost silhouetted on a rock whilst in the foreground Tinkerbell literally shines and the flowers seem luminous in her wake. Other spreads delight with detail – the pirate ship, but also the lost boys’ underground home with its hammocks, swinging lanterns and shelves of curiosity. This is one you read to a child nestled in your arms – and with a ribbon bookmark and foiled jacket, you’ll both feel spoiled and all set for winter nights in – just keep the windows closed:

“They’d slipped out through the window,
quite ignoring Nana’s warning.
“Second to the right!” they cried.
“Then straight on until morning!”

Find your own way to Neverland here.

Halloween Murder and Magic

There’s nothing like a Halloween night to bring out the ghosts and ghoulies and spooky horror stories. But there’s also plenty of room for fun and frolics. When I first starting stocking murder stories in the primary school library, a parent queried the content. Murder? For children? Indeed. Murder, monsters, howling winds, dark nights, swamp creatures, are all perfect fodder for little ones (age 9+). Here are two I particularly like.

what manor murderWhat Manor of Murder? by Christopher William Hill
“It looks like the sort of place where bad things have happened,” whispered Master Oliver Davenport.

The author of the Tales from Schwartzgarten series is back with a new book called The Bleakley Brothers Mystery: What Manor of Murder? Spoofing traditional murder mysteries with a good helping of homicide, one-by-one elimination of suspects, a dollop of old country house, and a smigden of regurgitated legend, Hill tackles his topic with aplomb, dropping gothic clichés and hints throughout in the build up to the crime (the family’s Latin motto, mors cum Laetitia, means death with joyfulness). In the approach to the old manor house, there is an old man surrounded by clouds of smoke telling superstitious tales of gloom and doom, an ominous howling wind, a rickety bridge, and the looming towering walls of Bleakley Manor itself.

Posh twins Horatio and Eustace, freshly released from their boarding school, accompanied by Poor Unfortunate Oliver Davenport, arrive at Bleakley Manor for Michaelmas Eve with their extended family. Things are rather out of sorts though – with the butler and footman gone and replaced by inferior staff – and then a body is found in the study…

Hill assembles his eccentric characters; including cousin Loveday, a rather winning know-it-all who brandishes a jolly lacrosse stick and excitedly relays her new venture writing a school magazine entitled ‘Murder and Mayhem’, a Great Aunt who writes crime novels (and explains to Oliver Davenport that the poor unfortunates in her books always die), and an uncle who happens to be a roving explorer and Egyptologist.

Murder is discussed continually in the most off-hand manner, the children are desperate for mystery, and so it isn’t long before they get what they deserve. The author flourishes his deft wit on every page, playing with the readers as he assembles his cast and then eliminates them, all with fantastically posh period detail – from pineapple cubes and aniseed balls to roast goose and roly poly pudding (there is a lot of food).

If there’s an occasional clunker (insects sent scuttling more than once), the reader either excuses it as being part of the hammy style or overlooks it because the rest of the book is so much fun. I wanted to read it aloud in a plummy posh accent and revel in the quirky dark humour. It’s deliciously wicked. You can buy it here.

witch girlMore macabre goings-on in Witch Girl by Jan Eldredge, titled Evangeline of the Bayou in the States, which gives much more of a clue to the contents. The book is set in the swamps of Louisiana and stars twelve-year-old haunt huntress apprentice Evangeline Clement. (Haunt huntresses are on call to protect everyday folks haunted by supernatural creatures).

Evangeline Clement lives with her witchy grandmother, learning how to keep the locals safe from the monsters of the Bayou, including such nasties as banshees and terrebonnes. Evangeline and her grandmother rely on various herbs, potions, talismans and spells for their trade, which all tie nicely into the scenery – Eldredge borrowing from Cajun culture and the plant life of the American South.

The book plunges the reader into the action, showing Evangeline attempting to prove her worth by tackling a number of supernatural monster invasions on her own, although much to the reader’s amusement, she makes rather a mess of it.

Then, she and her grandmother are called to New Orleans to investigate the rather peculiar case of Mrs Midsomer who transforms into a rougarou (a werewolf). Fully immersed in the setting with its white wedding cake houses and aroma of coffee and chicory, this is a transportive novel brought to life most magnificently with the superstitions and local folklore tied into Evangeline’s witchcraft and voodoo. There is much monster-fighting action, and more than a hint of wit and sass.

In the end, the reader understands that trusting one’s gut is as important as knowledge, although a UK readerships’ knowledge will be greatly enhanced with the glossary of Cajun folklore creatures at the back of the book. Paranormal in abundance, creepiness indeed, but no outright horror. This is a nod to bravery in the face of creepy old mansions and terrifying monsters that make the dangerous alligator seem like a fluffy pussycat. Try it here.

 

Autumn 2018 Picture Book Round-Up 2

a house for mouse
A House for Mouse by Gabby Dawnay and Alex Barrow
There’s a wonderful satisfaction in spotting literary allusions in texts, as if the author has winked at you, and you looked up to catch it. Sometimes they’re very well hidden – but for children it’s important that the literary allusions are accessible. A House for Mouse plays upon the enticing estate agent theme of looking into other people’s houses, and also the literary allusions game.

Mouse is searching for a new house, but they all seem to have negatives – clear building regulation failures (The Three Little Pigs), architectural issues (Gingerbread house), inaccessibility (Rapunzel’s tower), overcrowding (There was an Old Woman) and so on. He settles on Sleeping Beauty’s castle but realises that in the end, home is where his heart is, of course.

With humour galore, a fairy tale map at the beginning and soft pencil illustrations delineating the different landscapes, this is a comforting and appealing story book that is more about friendship than location. See if the book suits you here.

theres room for everyone
There’s Room for Everyone by Anahita Teymorian
Mouse was wise to share his castle with his friends – Teymorian uses her picture book to point out that although the library has enough space for all the books (she’s clearly never been in my house), and there’s enough room for all the stars in the sky, human beings constantly fight over space – be it on the train or in a larger context of land and war. The message is simple – that with kindness and love there’s enough room for everyone. What might come across as a little sanctimonious and simple becomes more thoughtful if the reader studies the illustrations used to make Teymorian’s point – the clever use of the boundaries of the page, the distorted long-limbed humans, the neat use of lines to create patterns and textures. A warmth oozes from the pages. There’s room for you here.

the dam
The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold
Immediately bringing to mind the beginning of Haweswater by Sarah Hall, a novel tracking the lives of dispossessed people after the flooding of a valley, this may feel like a strange topic for a picture book. Walker, pushing the boundaries, allows Almond to tell the story, based on truth, of a dam building in Northumberland, which led to the flooding of a valley and the village within it. Here, Almond and Pinfold retell the story of the musicians who played music in this lost place before the flooding.

With themes of loss, dispossession, rebirth and the power of creativity, Almond blesses his lyrical text with a deep simplicity, much repetition, and a clear placing of words within their white background. However, it is Pinfold’s brown and dreamy illustrations that provide the atmosphere and haunting quality to the text, showing both the before and after effects with deep pathos, understanding and clever use of soft muted, almost sepia colour. Pinfold brings a clarity to his study of water and structure, rendering the narrative with a distinct sense of place. And the light – the light pours through the book like water into a flooded valley. You can buy it here.

mary and frankenstein
Mary and Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Julia Sarda
Another atmospheric interpretation in this celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Bailey approaches her topic by investigating how the events of Mary’s life brought her to the moment of creativity, exploring how the story of Frankenstein festered and developed within Mary’s mind. From the death of her mother, to the animosity of her stepmother, the mood swings of her father and her travels and influences, Bailey creates a full image of Mary’s young years with just a few carefully chosen words.

Sarda’s illustrations use darkness, shadows and an almost Picasso-like angularity to illuminate Bailey’s words, creating an unforgettable aura in the people she draws and the landscapes she illustrates. The richness of the colour palette – vivid reds, oranges and browns elucidates the richness of the culture within which Mary was subsumed, but it is the clever rendering of the skies, storms, and imagination at work in dark greys that really sets the tone. Many details to look at, including the houses of the era, the interior décor, as well as gravestones and horses and carriage provide an extra thrill for readers. Like Frankenstein itself, an unforgettable book. Inspirational. (The book is titled Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein in the United States). Explore the life of Mary Shelley here.

on a magical do nothing day
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna, translated by Jill Davis
Illustrations of a completely different order in this modern award-winning text about finding creativity and adventure out of boredom, now published in paperback. A purposefully gender ambiguous protagonist is told by the mother to put down the computer game and find something to do. The child leaves the house with the computer console in order to be out of sight, yet gradually becomes sucked into the natural environment.

At first miserable and bored, the child soon finds joy and creativity in solitude; the neon orange coat at first marking the child as separate from nature, but then seamlessly blending into the myriad of mushrooms and toadstools, and before long there is wonder to be found in the sensuous delights around – jelly snails, the aroma of fungi, the sifting of earth through fingers. The weather plays its part too, and at the end mother and child bond over quiet contemplation and hot chocolate.

This is a phenomenal book of everyday discoveries, with illustrations that make the reader draw breath. The change in perspective, the clever use of light, tone and vignettes gives the book an excitement, and yet also tender empathy. I’m longing for a Do-nothing Day of my own. You can buy the paperback here.

travels with my granny
Travels With My Granny by Juliet Rix and Christopher Corr
On the surface a vibrant picture book about destinations throughout the world, told by an adventurous Grandmother, this is actually a book about dementia, and explaining to children how to try to understand what people with dementia are going through. The grandmother believes she is really travelling, and the other adults explain that she doesn’t know where she is, but for the child, (again an ambiguous gender) he/she is happy to explore the grandmother’s mind, even if it seems confused.

The illustrations are bright and garish, depicting New York on a bright yellow background with multi-coloured skyscrapers and entertainments – as brash and brassy as Times Square. London is blue, Jerusalem orange, Rome a tender mauve. A few facts punctuate each city – in Delhi the tricycle taxis are rickshaws for example. The information at the back explains about dementia. An important, interesting addition. Buy it here.