nature

Sky Dancer by Gill Lewis

So, the Arts and Humanities Council is attempting to find the UK’s favourite book about nature. This is no easy feat. There are so many wonderful books about nature, but I think the children’s book world excels in this. My book of the week the other week was The Lost Words, and you’d be hard pushed to find a better paean to our natural world. Yet, there is another writer who is doing a great deal to draw the attention of the nation’s children to the natural world and our environment. I reviewed Gorilla Dawn by Gill Lewis a while ago – a revelatory novel that brings the world’s attention to the gorillas affected by coltan mining, but in Sky Dancer, Lewis hits a spot closer to home, basing her novel here in the UK, and returning to the style and themes that led her to write Sky Hawk in 2011.

Her latest novel for children, Sky Dancer, addresses the issue of the hen harrier, one of the most threatened birds of prey in the UK, remaining rare due to habitat loss, weather and illegal killing. It’s this last aspect that Lewis tackles in her book, but this novel is not an ‘issue’ book – it’s an incredibly insightful, emotional picture of who we are, and how we are shaping modern Britain.

Three children trek the landscape of this startlingly astute novel: Joe, reeling from his father’s death, and caught in the middle of a battle for the fate of the hen harriers who nest in the heather of the moorlands where he lives. There’s also Minty, the stylish confident daughter of landowners who use the land for grouse shooting, and for whom the hen harriers are a nuisance, and lastly Ella, who seems to be a naive and rather insecure urbanite, but who manages to think as an outsider – finding solutions to which those in the midst of the struggle are blinded.

In the end, these three unlikely friends, find their way forward, and a way forward for the hen harriers. They are each drawn terrifically authentically, with clear ideas of their roots and social class, and their struggles and difficulties. Whether it be divorced or deceased parents, or simply parents with whom one disagrees, Lewis portrays the different make-up of families, and the way in which the children deal with their different situations.

Joe, in particular, is fascinating. He is at the centre of the struggle, torn sometimes between the two girls and their different views of past and present. He also has to face up to how his father acted and the consequences of that, as well as how his older brother is currently acting – what’s morally right, what’s right for his family, and what’s right for the environment. When these things aren’t the same, he has to reconcile his conscience with how to act. Told from Joe’s point of view, the reader is privileged to see what happens in his head, particularly as he’s a quiet child, loathe to speak in many cases. Lewis has accomplished a great character here, complex, sensitive and real.

Not only is the book a gripping read, but it also sparks thoughts on a range of topics: the fate of hen harriers, and the impact, and other preoccupations of the modern world such as accepting difference, the meeting of technology and nature, town and country, and questions of heritage; which traditions should continue and what needs to adapt.

Of course the book explores life on a hunting estate, in which grouse shooting is fundamental to its past traditions and current livelihood, and although that might feel remote to many young people reading the book, Lewis cleverly explores how it is not dissimilar to anywhere a child is growing up, in that there are the same battles and choices – the intertwining of community, loyalty, family and friendship.

Lewis writes with terrific empathy, eking out the reader’s sympathy for different characters at different stages of the novel, and she also evokes an extremely visual landscape, at the same time as propelling the plot – it darts along swiftly.

A captivating read that will make you think, and also imagine that you’re striding across the moors, scanning the sky for dancers. You can buy it here.

Hide and Seek by Anthony Browne

Antony Browne is a long-time stalwart of the children’s illustration scene, so it’s always a pleasure to embrace a new book of his. Hide and Seek bears all the attributes for which Browne is so acclaimed – seeing the dark side of ordinary, playing with perspective and the seen and unseen, exploring the liminal between light and dark. So it’s most fitting that the book deals with the childhood game of Hide and Seek.

Siblings Cy and Poppy have lost their dog in the woods. To distract them from their sadness, they start to play a game of hide and seek with each other. Poppy counts to ten while Cy hides. The reader sees them both – Poppy seeking and Cy hiding. By the end, the dog is found, the game finishes and comfort is restored.

But there’s so much more to this picture book than the description implies. It’s all about the seeking and what’s hidden.

There is something playful already in choosing such an ordinary staple childhood game, which has a lengthy history, and Browne lets the shadows in, allowing room for the dark side of this familiar game. One only has to look at historical depictions of the game in paintings to see that the very idea of hiding and seeking can be played with itself. Tchelitchew’s painting from 1942 displays an enormous amount of ambiguity in the hiding among the trees, likewise Meyerheim’s famous hide and seek game also takes place in a forest, with a child summoning the idea of fairy tales in the woods, as she hides behind a red shawl next to her picnic basket. There is menace in the entire concept.

 

The reason so many depictions of Hide and Seek games are set within woodlands is why Browne has chosen the route himself. Of course there’s a nostalgia for childhoods spent playing in wooded areas, but there’s also the startling effect of light and shade to be found among trees – what light seeps through the canopy and what doesn’t, and so leading on from that the feeling of menace that accompanies it. There’s a fear playing hide and seek in the woods – the fear of not finding whom you are seeking, or of not being found yourself. And the limitless space. A fear that just doesn’t exist inside a house (see Tissot’s 1877 painting Hide and Seek).

Browne’s brilliant picture book plays on these menacing fears. Strange shadows leap up behind the children. In places, the trees appear elongated and towering to further highlight Poppy’s fear. And Browne uses light deliciously to evoke menace at times – throwing shadows of logs across faces or illustrating the depth of the woods stretching out into darkness, but yet also showing safety and warmth with his vibrant tones of yellow when Cy is found, and green when the children return home. This last page holds so much – the light emanating from the caravan in the middle – with the implications of safe adulthood held in the large wellington boots by the door, the friendliness of the plants and flowers, the comfort of the tea cup on the table. Furthermore, it brings together the urban and rural with the towerblock peeking through the trees at the rear.

Throughout the book, Browne not only invokes the darkness that can lie in everyday life, but also provides elements of fun for the young reader – there is an assortment of items (listed at the back of the book) to find among the pages, items that slide out from the shadows and bend reality – whether it is a tap hidden among the branches, the shape of a giraffe among the trees, wood knots and knarls that look like common objects.

This tips the illustrations into surrealism territory, something for which Browne is famous, but it also provokes the question as to what each individual sees. When you read it with different children, they all spot different things at different times, and often, things that you certainly didn’t see first time round. In this way it’s all about ambiguity and perspective – the act of looking and the patterns within the world.

It’s also the perfect book for autumn – the lush carpet of red, brown and yellow leaves on the forest floor almost emit the crunch underfoot. You can play your own game of hide and seek here.

 

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris


This week, out of curiosity, and stemmed from my admiration of a heartfelt and well-crafted newspaper article on the attempt to reconnect children with words to describe nature, I ordered one of the largest, most beautiful books I’ve ever seen from my local bookshop. The publishers are at pains to point out that it’s not just for children, but for all, and I would concur. This week’s book of the week is for you as much as for your child.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is an oversize book of ‘incantations’ or poems, highly illustrated in full-colour, laid out as an ABC of nature, featuring such words as fern, heron, kingfisher, newt and willow. Publishers often talk about whether a pairing of author and illustrator works – Dahl and Blake, Simon and Ross. Here, the force of the words matches the force of the illustrations in the most exquisite way.

Perhaps Morris set out to create a work of paintings to rival the beauty of nature itself – a paean at least. And indeed the artwork is literally breath-taking – I gasped at the first spread on which I opened the book – the branches and leaves stood out as if in 3D. The capture of light on a glowing conker is mesmerising. The layering of the artwork, the exquisite capturing of nature in flux and flight is simply stunning. And there is a thread of gold running through the book – gold foil on the cover – and gold within that marks the book as a ‘treasure’, as something more than mundane. Macfarlane points out that it is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and indeed it implies that what is contained within is to be held in reverence – as with nature itself.

The book runs through an ABC (although some letters are used more than once) of acrostic poems, ‘incantations’, all related to nature. Each subject is attributed three spreads – an illustrated word lost, the poem and illustration, and then a spread depicting the subject within a landscape. Or, in more poetic language – the word slipping away, the summoning poem, and the word being spelled back.

When Macfarlane speaks, (having heard him on the radio), it’s like a tumbling bubbling river running over rocks; he speaks fast as if the words are so numerous he is desperate to give them voice. This is one way of reading the ‘incantations’ held within the book, just hearing the sounds the words make, like a playful witch’s spell, an inner prayer to nature, a chanting even. Indeed, it is anticipated that these ‘incantations’ are to be spoken aloud. Yet another way of reading these acrostic poems is to savour every chosen word – for chosen they most certainly are. The individual vocabulary, the way the words meet each other in phrases, the space around the words on the page.

The poems reflect diversity in their literary artistry. The incantation to the bluebell uses the metaphor of water when thinking about the blue of bluebells. On the next page the picture shows the woodland floor awashed in blue, looking almost like the sea – only the fox prowling through and an owl in flight keep the image grounded among the trees.

The fern breathes with alliteration on the ‘f’ sounds, and Macfarlane uses consonance with the ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. The heron incantation explores the relationship between urbanity and nature with its steel metaphor.

There is a duality to the given title of the book. Partly, Morris’s and Macfarlane’s inspiration came following the news in 2015 that around 50 words connected with nature were being cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary because they had fallen out of use. Almond, blackberry and crocus made way for analogue, block graph and celebrity as long ago as 2007. Naming, as Macfarlane points out, is essential: “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name.” This naming returns the lost words to our vernacular. But, the words of the landscape speak not only to knowledge, but also to the history of the land, the cultural and rural identity of the words we use to describe things.

I would argue that the title also speaks to the reader who will get lost within the book, because the words and artworks are so powerful, so intoxicating. It has the power both to immerse the reader but also to enthrall the reader and entice them to look around them at the outside world.

It’s a big and heavy book, quite difficult to shelve, but that’s probably because it’s not meant to be shelved. It’s meant to lie around the house or garden or field, open and inhaled. At this size and potency, it certainly won’t be lost. You can buy it here.

 

The Snow Angel by Lauren St John, illustrated by Catherine Hyde


Writers love to inflict great harm on their characters – the more dramatic their downfall, the more a novel can pack a punch. And Lauren St John’s latest novel certainly puts her main character to the test. Sadly, it was the all-too-real plight of orphaned and abandoned children in Zimbabwe (those who have lost parents, become war children or refugees), which inspired St John to pen The Snow Angel. However, like all good children’s literature, it not only reflects the world but strives to find a positive note, an optimistic resolution, showing the goodness that can be found too.

Eleven-year-old Makena lives happily in Nairobi with her mother and father, and like her father (who is a mountain guide), she adores the mountains, and she hopes that one day, with his help, she will climb Mount Kenya. But, as can sometimes happen in life, one day everything she knows turns upside down, and she is orphaned and alone, and St John shows the reader just how far children can fall in a flash.

Although Makena is taken in by a family member, she is treated abhorrently, and runs away, managing (just) to carve a life for herself in the Nairobi slums. Here, surprisingly, St John changes perspective briefly to a third person adult point of view, an unusual proposition in a children’s book, to explore the narrative from a rescuer’s viewpoint. Makena, seemingly, is in too much danger and too weak to view what happens next. The introduction of an adult’s perspective here (Helen, a woman rescuing children from the slums) gives the reader a new insight and, then, once switched back to Makena, shows how redemption can come, although slowly, and happy endings abound.

The issues within this book are many and layered, and yet the reader never once feels as if they are reading an ‘issue’ book. The book touches upon ebola, famine, child soldiers and the like, explaining the reason for the multitude of children living alone in the slums, but far stronger than the issues is St John’s evocation of the setting – the beauty of the African mountains, the colour of the fruits and scents of food at roadside vendors, the wonder of flowers and plants, and the overriding sense of the healing power of nature.

Lauren St John keeps eking out pockets of hope even in the midst of Makena’s deeply despairing situation. From the friendships she forges around her, to the talk of inspirational people, to the optimism she encounters that shows her a way forward. This is mainly down to a character called Snow, another child all alone, who teaches Makena how to find the good in things – how to have ambition and believe in a future, and to see the magic in everything.

There is, in fact, not a blatant magic in the book, but a subtle undercurrent of coincidence, folklore, superstition and in the end, an animal that seems to be able to show Makena the right path, physically and spiritually. As with real life, there is wonder in the world if you look for it. This is brought to life not only by the story, but by Catherine Hyde’s subtle interspersed black and white illustrations, which increase the idea of magic, nature and this sense of wonder.

But overall, and what drives the narrative, is not just the goodness and kindness pointed out by St John, but the vivacity of the characters. Each child, in their struggle to survive, shows believable tenacity and courage, and each adult is rounded and real – not completely selfless, not completely faultless, and when it comes to the ‘baddies’, not completely evil. The characters are as diverse and vibrant as the settings.

Not every book is written for a reason, other than that there’s a great story to tell – but beneath the story the reader can tell that St John is attempting to influence her readers – getting them to see changes that can be made for a better future. The hardback copy comes complete with a ribbon bookmark, and you’d do well to bookmark the acknowledgements too, in which St John mentions a few ways in which children too could try to have a positive impact on the world, even if they don’t write their own novels. It’s an inspiring list, which I think Makena would try hard to complete. A great story, easy to read, and swiftly devoured. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Please note that I carried out some paid work for the publisher on the above title, but this is no way influenced my review of the book.

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.

 

Earth Day Books

So, time to admit to you, I don’t normally celebrate Earth Day. I did rejoice in 2016 at the signing of the Paris Agreement on Earth Day, but hadn’t taken much notice of it until now.

As a Londoner, noticing increasing noise about air pollution, and as a human being, noticing that some politicians seem to be disregarding climate change altogether, Earth Day seems ever more important. It takes place annually on April 22nd, and aims to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

So two books for your youngsters to show them the wonders of our Earth, but in very different ways.

The Earth Book by Jonathan Litton, illustrated by Thomas Hegbrook

Aptly named for Earth Day, The Earth Book is large and comprehensive, although also of course, highly selective. In fact, this is one of the issues with children’s nonfiction. There is so much knowledge to impart to children, and only limited time to draw their attention, and limited pages within a book. So, although Litton has attempted to explore Earth in this large format illustrated book, he has had to be highly selective in his material, and in some places this shows up weaknesses.

Overall though, knowing children who love to dip into this kind of crammed information book, there is still plenty to admire.

Litton lays out the premise of the book at the beginning – to attempt to explore the physical Earth, then life on Earth, the regions, and finally the human element of the planet – yes – all this in one book.

With quotes from Carl Sagan, Mahatma Ghandi, and others introducing sections, the book shows that it is as much about dreaming and inspiration as stating fact. And Litton’s conversational tone helps to lighten the load. There are complex ideas and concepts here, which Litton delivers in an accessible way – explaining the layers of the atmosphere for example, or the layers of the Earth down to the core, and later on in the book, extremophiles and ocean zones.

Hegbrook’s graphics are a delight for the most part, the diversity of the illustrations capturing some of the diversity of the Earth, but overall, sadly they are quite dark, not perhaps as pastel-toned as they could be, and so the text (small for older eyes) is hard to read against the dark backgrounds. The animals are a little dead-eyed, although the challenge thrown to the illustrator in terms of the amount of different information he has to delineate (from volcano structures to recognisable human portraits) was clearly tough.

My main concern in terms of selecting material are the choices of influential humans – to include the maker of the windscreen wiper in such a selective group seems strange to me, but there is a wealth of information on human impact upon the planet, speculation for doom as well as hope, and a fascinating choice of interesting cities. There is a factual error (regarding New Zealand penguins), but mainly the facts seem on point.

Despite the few weaknesses, I did enjoy reading the book. There is a distinct feeling throughout that although each of us is a tiny speck on this great and awesome planet, we bear a responsibility towards the planet on which we live. A good message to carry through. You can buy it here.

If The Earth Book makes you feel small but important, this next book from Nosy Crow publishers in conjunction with the National Trust, will make children feel active, important, and part of their surroundings.

50 things to Do Before You’re 11 and ¾ (illustrated by Tom Percival) was published last year, but lasts throughout childhood. Perusing the pages with an urban-dwelling ten year old, we discovered that she had accomplished about three quarters of the activities already, and the other quarter of ideas gave her inspiration and aspiration.

It’s kind of laid out like a tick list, with a signature space for each activity accomplished – and these range from such pleasures as ‘climb a tree’ to ‘find some frogspawn’. It’s the kind of list that Topsy and Tim accomplished quite happily during my childhood, and that some parents may find condescending, and yet with statistics showing that our children are less and less likely to spend time playing and exploring outside, I can’t help but feel this is a necessary and apt guide.

The book is well-designed – with an attached elastic bookmark, a pocket pouch at the rear, and many many colourful pages inside, lots to fill in, as well as a quiz to see what type of adventurer the child is, and puzzles towards the back. If planning a day out or a road trip, it would be a perfect companion. I’m a little older than 11, but I’ve never done number 38. I think it’s time I did. Buy the book here to see what number 38 is, and tick off all 50 yourself.

 

 

The Lumberjack’s Beard by Duncan Beedie

I’m often asked – what makes a good picture book? There are so many elements it’s hard to be so prescriptive, but this book certainly ticks lots of the boxes. With a stunning main character, lashings of food, fun with language, a slightly distorted silly reality and a green message, this book won me over (and my little testers).

Lumberjacks are great fodder for stories – they appear in fairy tales – from the woodcutter who saves Red Riding Hood, to, in some versions, Hansel and Gretel’s father. The idea of the lumberjack links to a shared cultural past – the history of when men cut down trees by hand rather than by machine, and also a bygone era in which they embodied ideals of masculinity – strength, solitude, and a conflicted solidity in common with the trees they were about to fell. Of course, many of you, me included, will launch into Monty Python’s Lumberjack song at about this point in my blog. “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay….”

In The Lumberjack’s Beard, the protagonist is Jim Hickory, a lumberjack who lives in a stunning mountainous landscape populated with a plethora of triangular trees, eats a stack of pancakes each day (I’m sure Duncan Beedie knows that Lumberjack Day is synonymous with Pancake Day in the States) before venturing outside his log cabin and starting work for the day, chopping down trees.

But when the woodland creatures lose their homes, they demand a new place, and although Jim offers his beard as a new home, there comes a time when it all gets too much for him. A better solution is needed.

The language is great – not only do we hear the noise Jim makes when he fells a tree, but also this is an extremely active man. He does his limbering exercises before his lumbering job, but he also swings and cleaves and whacks and hacks. He chops and snaps…the vocabulary is pitched perfectly – it fits the story and adds to the excitement.

But as with all great picture books, it’s the illustrations that need to come up trumps. Beedie not only has the main illustrations serving his purpose well – from the colours that emphasise the woodland feel of the story, to the expressions of his characters, (an indignant porcupine, an outraged bird, and an incredulous beaver), but he also pays attention to the small details: Jim’s mug, the bird’s glasses, the variety of textures between the animals, Jim’s beard, and Jim’s comfortable dwelling – his bed cover, his shirt etc.

Of course, the message at the end is that planting trees to replace those he is cutting is the ultimate solution, and it even shows the patience taken in doing so. The reader too is encouraged to have patience – lingering over the spread in which the seasons change allowing the trees to grow – so that they can spot the animals’ various activities in the different weathers.

This is a thwumping story, full of passion, humour and heart, and sure to become a new favourite. You can buy a copy here.

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

highest-mountain-deepest-ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy a copy here.

Animal Non-Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood, illustrated by David Wyatt

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If you want to buy your child a sumptuous book this autumn, which will inspire a love for storytelling, adventure and imagination, and one which has a wintery flavour, this is it.

Podkin One-Ear is a legend, a fearsome warrior rabbit with a reputation for fighting and winning against the Gorm (a dangerous and evil iron-flesh-clad rabbit breed that invades warrens and kills or captures those within). When a traveling bard arrives at Thornwood Warren on Bramblemas Eve, the bard is welcomed into the hall with its warming fireside glow and given food and drink in return for a tale of Podkin One-Ear. He tells the story of how the young Podkin fled his warren with his baby brother and older sister, how he lost his ear, and how he grows and learns until he is ready to fight back against the evil greedy Gorm. The bard’s version is not only enthralling, but far more realistic than his little rabbit listeners have heard before.

This is the classic story within a story – telling a fantasy tale of a family of rabbits turfed out from their home, seeking not only to escape the Gorm but to protect a sacred sword that bears good magic, and eventually to overcome the evil Gorm.

With influences of Watership Down (inevitable – there are rabbits on a quest against evil), and even Station Eleven (this is a dystopian future in which humans have clearly gone and all that is left is a landscape of scattered rabbit warrens, and travelling storytellers), this is a sumptuous tale that manages to pull on the emotions and remind readers of classic tales and classic tropes.

As well as the old traditions of storytelling (and Larwood intersperses the tale of Podkin with interlude chapters in which the Bard and his audience interact and discuss the role and purpose of storytelling), Larwood also introduces familiar traditional tropes from the human storytelling mould, such as there being 12 ancient tribes of rabbits with 12 handed down symbols (the magic sword being one of these), allusions to religion or a higher being (in this case a goddess), a warring balance of good vs evil magic, and the traditional make-up of families and the patriarchal royal lineage. All this adds to the feeling that the reader is digesting a classic tome.

If all this feels heavy, it isn’t at all. The bulk of the story follows three sibling rabbits, Podkin and his older sister and younger brother, as they escape from and finally fight the Gorm. The narration delves inside their heads so that the personification of the rabbits is complete, exploring their worries, fears, comforts and hopes.

There are familiarities for children too, as well as the old storytelling tropes, such as the hunt for painted carrots at Lupen’s Day at the start of spring, which of course parallels Easter egg hunts.

Larwood is particularly good on his observational details of his fantasy landscape. He insinuates that social skills are important for warren life – all those rabbits in such close proximity. He also, through various characters, makes poignant matter-of-fact philosophies on the painfulness of loss and death, and memories living on, as well as on bravery: “You don’t have to be brave or strong or powerful to do incredible things.” Larwood describes well the loss of Podkin’s ear and the aftermath of this loss, and Podkin’s observation about how quickly life can turn upside down.

Podkin is reflective without ever being insular, and is fully rounded – he bemoans the loss of his ear, and is bad-tempered, but shows depth of character in his recovery. His sister, Paz, is sensitive and empathetic. She makes astute observations about everyone they meet, most tellingly, with the ‘witch’ rabbit, Brigid, a grandmotherly figure who facilitates good magic restoring the balance with bad. Her relationship with the young rabbits portrays what the elderly traditional can teach the new upstarts, as well as pulling into the equation the benefits of folklore and understanding nature.

There’s some lovely language in the book, introducing vocabulary such as ‘scrying’ at the same time as playing with words to describe iron – a dangerous and evil substance in this fantasy landscape.

The storytelling is fluid, and feels like a cosy Christmas telling with interludes breaking tension, and the analysis of storytelling itself, which gives the book both a sense of history and depth.

Faber publishers have given this story the love it demands, pairing the tale with Wyatt’s beautiful black and white illustrations, so that every so often the reader is thrown into a whole page picture, showing depth and detail and throwing an added warmth and tenderness to some scenes, as well as displaying the Gorm’s menace in others. There are further nice illustrative touches – the constellations in the sky in rabbit shapes, the map of the landscape at the beginning.

But most of all, it feels as if there is a sprinkling of magic across this book. A modern, yet old-fashioned story that is captivating and comforting. Like a warm hug, this is a fantastic children’s book, with a cute little surprise at the end.

As the bard in the story says, “my bard’s memory filled it [the story] with little things that made it real. Everyday details. Feelings and sensations. Nothing but a piece of storytelling magic.”

For readers 9+ independently, earlier for sharing. Do buy it here.