non-fiction

non fiction ; nonfiction ; non-fiction

Children’s Mental Health Week

With social media and children’s mental health dominating the airwaves this week in the UK, and statistics released that show, not only the rise in mental health problems among the young, but also a rise in suicide, it’s more and more important to be an active part in protecting and looking after children’s mental health. For me, books are an effective way through any difficulties, providing a de-stress just by reading, but also often having the content show a way forward, to promote empathy, and to calm a troubled mind. Here are three books to help a child navigate through, particularly pertinent in this Children’s Mental Health Week.

my hidden chimpMy Hidden Chimp by Professor Steve Peters (and The Silent Guides)
Which child (or adult for that matter) hasn’t over-reacted to something? Perhaps using anger as a reflex when being told off, or experiencing heightened anxiety about an upcoming test that then manifests itself as an extreme emotion? Perhaps a toddler resorts to tantrums or being unkind to another child when things aren’t going their way. Professor Peters believes that one way of dealing with this is to control one’s inner chimp.

Peters’ first book, The Chimp Paradox, sold over a million copies, but it was a self-help book aimed at adults. Now he’s brought his concept to a children’s book, illuminating how they too can train their inner chimp and learn life-changing habits.

In My Hidden Chimp, Peters suggests that the brain contains two parts: the human rational side, and the irrational chimp side – the part that leaps to conclusions, acts rashly, causes your emotions to rocket, or for a child, makes them feel grumpy, worried, naughty etc.

Written and illustrated in a simplistic comic book style, the book is an eye-opener for adult and child alike. It is also a workbook – so that the child works through the book using exercises rather than just reading and consuming. Peters aims to explain how to keep the chimp under control (although also, and very importantly, recognising those occasions when the chimp might be right – when it’s sending out danger signals). Moreover, he explains that the chimp is not a scapegoat for a child’s actions, nor an imaginary friend – this is a part of the brain for which the child is responsible and it’s about knowing when to tame it, and how to train it.

For example, when confronted with something a child doesn’t want to do – one part of the brain will be accepting of this, the other part is the chimp who will get upset and grumpy. Peters argues that the child always has a choice of which side to be on. And then he gives ten tips for how to help manage the chimp, and choose the positive side – these include smiling, saying sorry, being kind, talking about feelings etc. And always with examples and exercises for how to do this. It sounds almost obvious, but can be really helpful to have everyday emotions and reactions managed in this way.

silent guides

The accompanying book (although marketed as being the other way around with The Hidden Chimp as the companion title) is a hefty book called The Silent Guides, which is aimed at an adult audience, but particularly one that deals with children either in a parental or caring capacity. Peters’ writing style is easy-going and straightforward, and some of the guidance is fairly obvious. His conclusion too, is that the guidance won’t work for every child. But if you’re a fan of the basic concept, or want to learn some habits that will engender a change in irrational behaviours, then this is a good start. You can buy it here.

turn off live onTurn Off Live On by Vincent Vincent
A small pocket book (smaller than an ipad mini), with plenty of graphics, puzzles, and drawing space, this book aims to show how to live some of your life without your mobile phone. It’s a plea to go slow, to look around more, to avoid losing hours scrolling. While acknowledging a phone’s worth and pleasure, the author aims to show the reader how to unleash their creativity, feel better and escape from some of the negativity that the devices can promote, just for a little while.

Seeing a real opportunity here, I sought Teenager One, who was on the sofa scrolling through something on his phone (head down, posture bad – this is another thing Vincent talks about). So I tossed him this book and asked him for his opinion.

To be fair to Teenager One, I’m forever shoving books at him, so he has a high bar on which books grab him. This one did get an extended look in- although it was a step too far for him to dislodge himself from the sofa and find a pen to fill in some of the activities. But it did make him take some time away from the phone. So, full marks.

In each section there are activities to engage the reader. In the chapter on avoiding social media because of its ability to promote negative feelings, the book encourages self-awareness exercises, promoting self-belief and self-confidence, writing attributes about yourself and understanding what you like doing. The chapter on ‘train your brain’ aims to show how we defer to the phone too often, for example on finding somewhere on a map or not memorising phone numbers. There are code and map exercises to help. The book also contains exercises on mindfulness and relaxation, and quotes from current celebrities on positivity etc.

Although I feel that many teens will greet the book with a fair amount of disdain if given to them by a parent when they’re on their phone (as I did!), it could be a good tool to use for all the family to detox, and if slipped surreptitiously into a teen’s bedroom, may well hold some positive truths that they discover gradually.

A good message nicely packaged (black and white illustrations/graphics throughout). You can buy it here.

even superheroes make mistakesEven Superheroes Make Mistakes by Shelly Becker, illustrated by Eda Kaban
For the youngest member of the family, who may not yet be on their mobile phone, this fun picture book teaches a great lesson. That everyone makes mistakes, and what’s important is taking responsibility, saying sorry, learning from the error and moving on (and up!). From the team behind Even Superheroes Have Bad Days, this is a fun rhyming tale about an array of superheroes who make errors but ‘own’ their mistakes.

It’s very American in tone – the superheroes ‘goof up’ and ‘spiff up’ their hair, and some of their errors feel a little tenuous as if only there for the rhyme – they don’t clean their clothes, or get up on time, but the main thrust of the argument here is that they should ‘own’ their mistakes.

“If their rescue attempt was NOT super-clever,
they could stock up supplies and hide out FOREVER.”

My favourite rhyme comes near the end, when the author declares that what makes our heroes super is their ability to ‘fess up their mess-up’:

“Instead they remember perfection is rare,
And they choose super ways to respond when they err.”

The illustrations are great fun though – the superheroes based on ‘real’ ones, zooming through the air with capes a-flying, unleashing threads from their fingers, shooting lasers with their eyes – and making a mess of it. For this alone, it’ll be a winner with very young children who like their superheroes everywhere – even if they are teaching them good behaviours. But I think the rhyming was better in Even Superheroes Have Bad Days. Buy Even Superheroes Make Mistakes here.

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. So it’s fitting that in primary school library book club this week we were looking at the theme of diaries. My Y6 cohort embraced this with gusto, reading everything from The Wimpy Kid to Artichoke Hearts to Anne Frank’s Diary. Which brings us back to the Holocaust. They spent the first five minutes debating how old Anne Frank would be if she were alive today and where she might be living. It was a memorable and emotional discussion.

peter in perilPeter in Peril by Helen Bate is a graphic novel that aims to show how the people swept up in the Holocaust were ordinary people. This is a tame book for a young audience though, and doesn’t go into any detail on the camps or genocide, but instead illuminates the dangers and changes that one Jewish boy went through during the Second World War, hiding from the Nazi’s. Despite the fear and darkness, Peter is one of the lucky ones. Perhaps why the book is subtitled: Courage and Hope in World War Two.

The story is written in first person by Peter, a young boy living in Budapest, who loves football and cake. Like Anne Frank, he too is forced into hiding, but unlike most Jewish people, he is reunited with his parents and his former home by the end of the war.

Because it is told from a young person’s perspective, there is an ignorance to what is actually happening around him – but from the action the reader will understand that Peter survived round-ups of Jewish people by moving hiding places several times, the only constant being a colouring book; he frequently faces hunger and cold. Despite the removal of the more harrowing elements of the Holocaust, the reader will understand that this was a horrific time, challenging and frightening for even the luckiest child.

The novel is in graphic novel/comic book style, which makes it very easy to follow for the most reluctant reader; in fact the book’s pictures working best when they aren’t annotated with incidental dialogue.

This is a true story, and the background of what happened in Budapest during the war is given at the back, as well as a summation of what happened to the real Peter. Many of Peter’s extended family were killed in the death camps, although miraculously he and his parents and baby brother survived and continued to live in Hungary.

My only wish is that the figures involved in deportation were explained. In March 1944, there were more than 800,000 Jews living in Hungary (as a result of annexations from Slovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia). In May 1944 deportations began and in just eight weeks, 424,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Yad Vashem statistics). 

You can buy a copy of Peter in Peril here

TomiThere are fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust now living, and it’s important to hear their accounts. Tomi Reichental’s Holocaust Story has been retold by Eithne Massey for young readers age 10+. Tomi describes Tomi’s life in Slovakia, at first pretty idyllic, but then it deteriorates rapidly, firstly because of the taunting Anti-semitism from schoolmates, and then from restrictive laws passed forbidding Jewish people to go to school. Then the arrests start, and finally Tomi is captured and sent to Bergen-Belsen. Amazingly, Tomi survived, (although 35 members of his extended family were killed). As above, this is told through the eyes of a child, and so shies away from the absolute horror of Bergen-Belsen, but is still a devastating read, (much more so than Peter in Peril) although Tomi is appropriate for children, in that it explains the Holocaust in a powerful yet simple way.

Told in narrative format, novel-like in its prose, yet with a slight distance to protect the reader, the book describes graphic events – the death in the carriage on route to the camps, the whips of the guards, death and disease within the camps.

There’s a clear balance needed between explaining the truth of what happened – even to young children during the Holocaust – and protecting today’s children from nightmares and fear. And yet, there is also a duty to make sure we and our children ‘never forget’. In a time of rising anti-Semitism again, it is crucial that these true accounts are shared widely, absorbed, and lessons learnt. As Tomi says “I realised that, as one of the last witnesses, I must speak out. I owe it to the victims that their memory is not forgotten.’ We owe it to Tomi to read and understand his story. You can buy Tomi here. 

Humans

January seems like a good time to address the different things that make us human, and to show the differences between us.

humans
Humans: The Wide World Awaits by Susan Martineau, illustrated by Vicky Barker
The award-winning team behind Real-life Mysteries have produced a new series called Geographics, which aims to show intriguing geographical facts with dynamic infographics design.

Geographics: Humans certainly is appealing. A thin book with a sturdy paperback cover, the book is bright and colourful throughout. It is quirky too, in that this isn’t just a fact book of information, but aims to provide guidance too.

There is typical geography information, such as on the page entitled ‘Where We Live’, and this shows the world at night with the lights indicating population, and shows the most populated cities, and the least, and the spread of humans around coastlines and in the Northern hemisphere. Following pages have information on water, resources, transportation, power and inventions, but there is also guidance on recycling and communication.

This is a wonderful first approach to human geography, which despite its small size, reaches further than most – using its vibrancy to illuminate facts and the author’s emotional intelligence to promote the idea of being a global citizen, understanding and caring for the planet on which we live. I’m proud to have absorbed the information within easily, and have learnt facts including: more people have a mobile phone than a toilet, and Papua New Guinea has 841 living languages. You can buy it here.

i am human
It’s not just our impact on the Earth but our impact on each other. I am Human: A Book of Empathy by Susan Verde, art by Peter H Reynolds aims to explore, through simple illustrations and text, the idea of who we are inside ourselves – a person who is always learning, with dreams and hopes, but also one who makes mistakes and feels pain and fear and sadness. The third part of the book aims to show the choices available – to be kind and fair, to forgive and move forward – in essence to show empathy. The book is about being the best human you can be, reminding children that they are unique at the same time as belonging to the human race, in which there is familiarity.

Reynolds’ line drawings bring to life this manual for living. The people are diverse and different, yet similar in their thin legs and neat noses. They feel vivacious and active, even when they are blue in both feeling and colour:  fear is represented as a huge ladder stretching to the unknown, sadness is a boy sitting on a ledge – followed swiftly by him standing, arms outstretched, hope on his face as he makes a new choice. There is a wonderful empathy that Reynolds delineates in his expression.

In it’s ability to showcase both self-worth and caring for others, this serves as a good guide in both home and school, for children and adults. You can buy it here.

when I was a child
When I was a Child by Andy Stanton and David Litchfield
is a picturebook that also uses colour wisely, bursting with a zest for nature and life, as it aims to show how humans can embrace the world around them. Ostensibly a book about a child aiming to show her grandmother that the world is still magical, and that wonder still exists, this is also an exploration of imagination and curiosity bearing a subtle environmental message. The grandmother believes that her world is now grey, but through the child’s eyes, through her innocent wisdom, we see that what we have lost sight of as we grow older is still abundant if seen through the eyes of the child.

The prose is poetic: faces in raindrops and heartbeats in mountains, but once again it is the power of the illustrations that lifts the book. Litchfield brings his remarkable talent for different perspectives and clever use of light to insert his own magic on each spread. Whether it’s a parade of people in a sunrise, with the light flooding translucently through the leaves on the page, or the underwater fragmented light shimmer of a layered background as strange and wondrous horse fish swim through the river, there is both a lifting and lightness to the colourful illustrations. Each drawing pulsates with imagination in a kind of modern dreamlike wonderland, the book getting more and more fantastical as it progresses.

This is an enchanting book about humanity – encouraging intergenerational relationships, wonder in the world around us, and also the power of the imagination to soar and grow. A rainbow of images and prose. You can buy it here .

human body
The Human Body: A Pop-up Guide to Anatomy by Richard Walker, illustrated by Rachel Caldwell
Lastly, it would not be right to explore humans and humanity without one in-depth look inside the body.  This comprehensive, somewhat gruesome, guide to the human body invites the reader to venture on a real post-mortem examination, cleverly using paper engineering so that the reader can look beneath body parts – my favourite section definitely the abdomen, in which you can open up the body to see the kidneys and small intestine from different angles.

The illustrations feel old-school, traditional, multi-layered in their detail (each is highly captioned to show which body part is which), and also with instruments pencil-sketched too, so that the scalpel and tweezers lie happily next to the body. The book explains the different systems of the body – circulatory, respiratory etc, with keen observation and elucidation. Sentences are short and sweet, keeping it simple without numerous subclauses interrupting the information, and it feels matter-of-fact and clear.

You can lift the blood spatter to see it under a microscope, or open the heart to see how it works. Each tooth has been extracted so that they can be labelled, and the thorax can be opened in many layers to explore the ribs, lungs and heart. There’s even opportunity to remove the skin from the upper arm and shoulder to see the muscles underneath. This is a thoroughly enjoyable way to be educated on the human body and how it works, and a beautifully stylised well-thought-out book. You can buy it here .

Famous Family Trees by Kari Hauge, illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger

famous family treesResearch seems to indicate that children who have a strong family narrative, who are in touch with their roots, have better emotional health. Knowledge of this ancestral past seems to give children a grounding, a sense of control, and an ability to understand how their family functions. (Fivush and Duke, Emory U, Atlanta). I’ve written about this before when reviewing books that allow a child to explore their own family history, learning their genealogy but also understanding the environment in which their parents, and grandparents, and ancestors grew up. The combination of nature and nurture.

But what about if you could find out about a famous person’s family tree? What further insights could it give you to that person? Perhaps they were an only child, or had a famous parent, or an influential cousin? This fascinating, and rather beautiful book, aims to show some of the history and nature and nurture of famous individuals. These are biographies conveyed in a unique way, and of course the attraction of laying out each personality within their family tree also gives the book its own pretty aesthetic.

There are over 30 family trees portrayed in the book, including the Brontes, Shakespeare and Ghengis Khan, as the book explores both famous and infamous lives. The family trees not only explore the relatives or ancestry, and in some cases descendants of the person, but also the time in which they lived, the history and circumstances.

Depending on the person, the family tree highlights different branches. So for example, Mozart is shown in relation to his parents and siblings, and yet his wife’s family is also portrayed – with parents and siblings. Abraham Lincoln is shown only within the context of his own family, from his grandparents to his last direct descendant. The authors of the book have been clever here, showing the reader the most interesting lives and stories within each family.

Every famous person is afforded a couple of paragraphs about themselves as well, and also background to the time in which they lived and other small details. In the crowded pages about Charles Dickens, the reader learns about his family, but also how his books were published as instalments in newspapers, the debtors’ prison, and much more. Ada Lovelace’s complicated family history is extrapolated in the ways in which Byron was associated with so many of her relatives, but the page also explores the influence of Ada’s mother and grandmother on her, and side details on the analytical engine.

Anyone who’s ever attempted to draw their own family tree will recognise how difficult it is to lay it out, and how complicated it can get. Mildenberger does a fine job of fitting the complex relationships onto a page without it ever feeling too squashy – despite the number of children people tended to have many years ago! Each character isn’t just named, but is drawn as a small portrait, and this itself is fascinating – including hairstyles, hats and clothes. The illustrations feel folksy and old-worldly and the illustrator is particularly adept at making each family look distinct, but the characters within one family share similar traits. Clever and humorous.

For those who aren’t familiar with family trees, there is an introductory spread on how family trees work and the symbols. The book includes profiles on Mary Shelley, Queen Elizabeth I, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, William Shakespeare, Catherine the Great, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and many more. A fascinating way to look at biographies. You can buy it here.

Quick Gift Guide: Books

Are you still stuck for Christmas gifts? Perhaps it’s not for Christmas, but a seasonal present. I’m always pleased to receive a book – and trust me I already have a few! Here are some eclectic titles that have nothing to do with Christmas, which various family members might like:

the boy and the bear
For the very young:
The Boy and the Bear by Tracey Corderoy and Sarah Massini
There’s a wintry feel with this delightful picture book about unlikely friendship, and patience. With glowing silver snowflakes on the cover, and a boy in a woolly hat holding hands with an adorable bear, the book gives a warm fuzzy feeling from the start. The story has an old-fashioned timeless feel, the boy running in the countryside flying a paper aeroplane with satchel swinging from his hip. There is not a screen in sight. Nor a friend either. But there is a shy bear. Although seemingly incompatible (in the most adorable ways), the pair strike a friendship, which has to take a hiatus for hibernation. The matching of text to illustration strikes perfection here. There is humour, pathos, a conveyance of the passing of time, and so much emotion. I suggested this for the very young, but if you’re young at heart, you’ll love this too. An absolute gem of a picturebook. You can buy it here.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

For the unicorn-obsessed (and others)
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson (7+)
This glittery pink full length comic strip novel tells a cute story in simple sharp lines, with jokes a-plenty, and will enthral youngsters with its tale of Phoebe and her vain mythical animal companion. Phoebe skips a rock across a pond and accidentally hits a unicorn in the face. The unicorn, until then completely absorbed in its own reflection, is thankful for the distraction and grants Phoebe a wish. She wishes for the unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, to be her obligatory best friend. And thus the adventures begin. As you’ve noticed from the name of the unicorn, there’s more than a hint of mischief here, but the book also bears a special message about overcoming loneliness and finding one’s own strengths and virtues. This is a lot of fun, and because the comic strip maintains focus on the key characters rather than deviating too much into the landscape, and the strips are self-contained, the story is easy to follow for reluctant readers. The newest full length comic strip title is Phoebe and Her Unicorn in Unicorn Theater. Sweet and sugary, and reminiscent of My Little Pony with a bit of attitude, this is a US title now available here.

the ink house
For the appreciative art fan:
The Ink House by Rory Dobner (8+)
This isn’t a usual picture book. More a unique curiosity through the artist’s mind as he seeks to explore the insides of The Ink House, an intricately designed mansion built on a pool of ink, in which a party of animals is due to take place, after the human resident takes off in a hot air balloon to search for further knickknacks to add to his treasured collection.

The illustrations, in ink of course, are amazingly detailed and stunningly imagined. There’s a darkness, a gothic tendency in the drawings, and the feeling is that each stroke is penned as delicately as if he were crafting a poem. The story isn’t really a story – just a menagerie of animals within a setting, and the scenes in which Dobner showcases the house in most detail work best. The mouse on the desk with piles of books, clocks, candle, quill pen; the ape in armchair with guitar, old-fashioned tea set, and gramophone showcases the neat juxtaposition between old and new, distorting one’s expectations and reality; the horses in the tiled hallway complete with pillars and a view onto the gardens. The artwork is disturbing, disjointed and wonderful, justifying the purchase even if the text is a little clunky. My advice – add your own words to the pictures, and tell the story in your head. You can buy it here.

absolutely everything

For everyone:
Absolutely Everything by Christopher Lloyd, illustrated by Andy Forshaw
The author of this conversational tome is nothing if not ambitious. The contents of this nonfiction narrative span from the Big Bang through dinosaurs, homo sapiens, ancient civilisations, the classical empires to the medieval, age of exploration, revolutions, wars and onwards. Everything in fact. The tone is avuncular, as if you’ve asked a favourite relative to let loose – tell me about the ancient Greeks, Chris…In this chapter, Lloyd starts with an anecdote about an olive, which merges into why olive oil was so precious, then onto slaves, democracy and war…you can see how the narrative flows from one idea to another, incorporating facts, events and stories. Each section is colour-coded for easy reference and there are colour visuals throughout, from illustrations adorning the text to photos, maps, timelines etc. There’s a nice linear progression to the book, an understanding of how one thing in history leads to another (although this is definitely Western civilisation’s history), and an over-riding infectious enthusiasm to explore how societies linked up, how the world became global. Engrossing and all-encompassing. Give as a gift, and keep a copy for yourself. The sort of book to stop you getting bored in the holidays. You can buy it here.

Maps of the United Kingdom by Rachel Dixon, illustrated by Livi Gosling

maps of the united kingdomWhen I was in primary school we had to memorise the countries and capital cities of South America. For a long time many of these were retained in my memory, and even now I’m better at that continent’s geography than Europe. What’s even worse, to my shame, is my lack of knowledge about the geography of my own country, the United Kingdom. And as I watch my children go through school, I realise that it’s something that just isn’t taught. Thankfully, one of them can pinpoint where cities are situated (this is because he knows them from their football clubs), but we are all clueless about counties.

All that’s about to change. Maps of the United Kingdom does exactly what it says on the cover, and although the illustrations seem at first glance to be fairly random – a red post box planted between Devon and Somerset, a hedgehog somewhere between Perth and Kinross and the Highlands – there is both enthusiasm and geographical symbolism behind the illustrations, and the drawings are actually an excellent visual guide to help readers learn and memorise the counties and cities of the United Kingdom.

Divided, as to be expected, between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and then further delineated by county lines – either featuring one large county or several smaller ones – the full page spreads show the geographical placement of the area, and then proceeds to illustrate history, nature, people and scientific breakthroughs originating in the region. The information chosen is specific and well-written, but in such a way that it shouldn’t date. This is both clever and interesting.

Lancashire focusses firstly on Blackpool, illustrated by its tower, but then pulls away to showcase the mill towns and the countryside. Local food plays its part, as does sport, highlighting Lancashire County Cricket Club on the map, but then also drawing a portrait of Andrew Flintoff as one of the regional biographies. Other Lancashire biographies include current personalities such as Brian Cox, but also historical activists such as Edith Rigby. There is information about wildlife and history and suggestions of places to visit to learn more, (the Pendle Witch trials at the Pendle Heritage Centre). For ease of use, each page has the entire map of the UK in one corner with the focus place shown by its county border.

All this means that as well as learning the geography, there is an abundance of trivia to absorb, and seven biographies on each page. Each map is colourful too – a different colour for each county as a background and full colour illustrations laid over the top. The small illustrations are intricate and distinctive, so that the reader can smile at the hands raised by the children on the theme park rollercoaster in Derbyshire, but also see the details in the clothing worn by Elizabeth Gaskell. The buildings too are distinctive – the Pierhead Building in Cardiff with its clock tower to the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey in The Valleys.

As we divorce from Europe, now might be a particularly good time to become schooled in our local heritage and traditions, and celebrate the people who’ve made Great Britain great. If all this sounds a bit Trumpish and isolationist, it is perhaps only through knowing ourselves that we can seek to understand others. Once you’ve mastered the lay of the land in this book, you’ll be keen to explore Europe and beyond. I know I am. (The maps in the book aren’t to scale, so it’d be wise to consult a proper atlas before leaping from London to Lincoln.)

Written by a travel writer, this is an excellent classroom and home resource, a smashing Christmas present, and suitable for all from about 6 years. You can buy it here.

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.

 

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.

NNFN Jewish Foods and Festivals

The theme for this year’s National Non-Fiction November is ‘Food and Festivals Around the World’. I couldn’t help but jump onto the bandwagon with a look at Jewish festivals and their food, seeing as every festival has a distinctive and mainly yummy food associated with it.

rise and shine
Shabbat falls every week on a Friday night and is the time for families to come together to share a meal. The food most associated with this is challah – a braided bread. Rise and Shine: A Challah-Day Tale by Karen Ostrove, illustrated by Kimberly Scott, tells the tale of when Sammy and Sophie find a crumpled bit of paper in an old cooking apron but can’t read the writing. Their grandmother explains it’s a recipe in Yiddish for baking challah, and with the help of family members, they bake it in time for Shabbat. This sweet story exemplifies the importance of inter-generational activities, cultural inheritance, and of course the joy to be found in baking bread. You can buy it here.

whats the buzz
At the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, it is customary to celebrate the wish for a sweet new year by eating sweet foods, in particular dipping apple in honey. This could also be tzimmes (typically a sweetened dish of carrots), or my favourite, the honey cake. Of course there’d be no honey without bees, and What’s the Buzz? Honey for a Sweet New Year by Allison Maile Ofanansky, photographs by Eliyahu Alpern, takes the reader for a photographic tour around a bee farm, exploring how honey is extracted from the honeycomb and how a hive operates. A good non-fiction resource, there’s a fun fact section at the end.

all of a kind family hanukkah
Hanukkah lasts for eight days, and is known as the Festival of Lights, but most children welcome it for its glut of doughnuts. Jewish people typically eat foods fried in oil, such as latkes and doughnuts, to celebrate the miracle of the oil lamp and the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem. However, it’s not krispy kremes but a special type of doughnut called sufganiot, which the Jewish bakeries sell. Gooey jam inside, sprinkles of sugar on the outside – these small round treats are light and fluffy. Just published this year, All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Paul O Zelinsky takes the All-of-a-Kind Family from the original book by Sydney Taylor, set at the turn of the last century in New York, and revisits them in 1912 in the tenements of the Lower East Side of NYC as Hanukkah approaches. This beautiful narrative gives a significance to the immigrant experience as it explores the sights and sounds of Jewish immigrant family, and shows how the cultural customs have lasted. You can buy it here.

purim superhero
Purim is a popular holiday – a time of dressing up and play-acting and the retelling of the story of Esther, who saved the Jewish people in ancient Persia. The hamantaschen is the food of choice, a triangular-shaped pastry or biscuit filled with poppy seeds or jam (and nowadays even chocolate) that is said to represent the hat of the baddie in Esther’s story. Perhaps representation can feel a little thin in some Jewish children’s books. The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner, illustrated by Mike Byrne, focusses more on the costumes than the food of Purim, but strikes an important message for our times. Nate wants to dress as an alien for Purim but all his friends are going as superheroes. Taking inspiration from Esther, as well as from his two dads, he devises a super alien costume. This is a bright and happy picture book, which not only shows what a modern family does at Purim, but also features a non-traditional family. You can buy it here.

sweet passover
In the spring, and hovering around the same time as Easter, is the Jewish festival of Passover. Celebrating the story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt (the Exodus), the narrative explains how they didn’t have enough time to bake bread for the journey, and so left with bread that wasn’t risen – matzah. Today, Jewish people celebrate with a whole selection of symbolic foods on the table during the telling of the story at the holiday meal – the seder. But matzah is always the first food that comes to mind, mainly because most people dislike the ‘cardboard’ like texture of the crackers. This sentiment is echoed by Miriam in A Sweet Passover by Leslea Newman, illustrated by David Slonim. By the last day of this eight-day festival, Miriam is “sick, sick, sick of matzah” despite having eaten it with a whole variety of spreads including chocolate, jam, cheese, tuna and egg. Her grandfather encourages her to try his matzah brie – like French toast but with matzah instead of bread. The book is almost as delicious as matzah brie itself, managing to slip in the exodus story and make insightful little comments too.

Up and Away: The Skies

How often do we look up to the skies? More and more we stretch our necks downwards to look at our phones and fail to take in what’s at eye level. But even rarer is for us to look skywards. These five wonderful non-fiction titles, and one picturebook for children, explore the world above our heads – both in the day, and at night-time.

the skies above my eyesThe Skies Above My Eyes by Charlotte Guillain, illustrated by Yuval Zommer

A follow up title to the hugely popular The Street Beneath My Feet, this is a book that unfolds concertina style to explore the expanse of space above our heads. Very beautifully, the two sides follow different paths: one is countryside/rural-based in that a girl is seen lying on her back staring up through the trees, and looking at migrating birds, spiders ballooning, cloud formations and up to the Solar System past the Northern Lights. On the converse side, which is technologically-based, the girl is seen staring up past skyscrapers, to helicopters, aeroplanes, weather balloons and space rockets into the Solar System. With measurements given along the chart, and information about the atmosphere, history and physics, this is a fascinating guide to the skies above us, and all that they contain.

The book folds out to a whopping 2.5 metres tall – I cannot hold it up fully when standing, but laid out along a school corridor or a living room, this is a wonderful way to explore non-fiction. Zommer’s illustrations lend themselves both to the factual element – his rocket is intricate and cleverly shadowed, but also to the whimsical, with a floating umbrella Mary Poppins style. A well-designed, intriguing collaboration – this is exactly how to fascinate children with the world around us. You can buy it here.

cat's guide to the night skyA Cat’s Guide to the Night Sky by Stuart Atkinson, illustrations by Brendan Kearney

A more traditional guide to astronomy and the night sky in this well-designed and attractive non-fiction book. Atkinson’s long experience of writing about space and astronomy is apparent in the way that he distils tricky ideas into simple sentences, exploring in a down-to-earth way how to star gaze. Beginning with keeping safe outdoors, the book (and its guide Felicity the Cat) takes the reader through the different seasons – the best time of year to view particular constellations and what the reader should be looking for, with explanation about the makeup of stars, the phases of the Moon, the Northern Lights and much more. Atkinson is matter-of-fact about what the constellations really look like, and how to try to view a planet, but Felicity the Cat adds nice philosophical touches, such as wondering if anyone is looking back at her too.

The graphics are excellent, both the phases of the Moon and the constellations well-delineated, and there’s a feeling of immense friendliness and warmth in the domestic images of garden viewing platforms, as well as added humour with Felicity, who dresses according to the season. Includes a glossary and index. Age 7+ You can buy it here.

 

starry skiesStarry Skies by Samantha Chagollan and Nila Aye

For younger children interested in the shapes and patterns made by the stars, this is an elegant and beautiful tactile little hardback with stiff board pages. A die-cut on the cover with an uncomplicated yellow star and a teddy bear with stars for eyes showcases the target age group and the simplicity of the graphics within. The author explains that the positions of the stars tell a story, and each double spread includes a constellation with an imaginative narrative sentence alongside: Ursa Major and minor are seen when ‘Sophia’ and her mom [sic] take a forest path, Pegasus is shown alongside ‘Leah’ on horseback ready to spread her wings and fly. The two-colour scheme of yellow and black works well to really illuminate the constellations, and the book is hardy and practical for taking outside. Age 4+ Stargaze here.

 

 

 

voyage through spaceVoyage Through Space by Katy Flint, illustrated by Cornelia Li

Appealing on another level with a glow-in-the-dark fold out poster of the solar system (nicely attached and easily detached to the book with a perforated edge), is this straightforward but rather cartoonishly illustrated information book about the solar system. Each planet is afforded a double spread – with lovely illustrations of a young female astronaut and her dog peering at each planet. A glare is carefully shaded onto her mask, and she wears glasses near the sun – our courageous astronaut is seen landing on the Moon and optimistically Mars – other illustrations are even more supposed, such as when she views the asteroid belt sitting upon one of the orbiting rocks. But the text is fact-based – explaining definitions, measurements and scientists’ hypotheses.

The colour palette is particularly alluring – Neptune is cast in almost phosphorescent blue, Saturn a golden glow, Mars a rusty brown-red. Captions and annotations help to explore the full-page images, and although short, this is a great introduction to the solar system for intrepid space explorers. Age 5+. You can buy it here.

 

planetariumWelcome to the Museum: Planetarium by Chris Wormell and Raman Prinja

Planetarium is the latest in the Welcome to the Museum series, this time in conjunction with the Science Museum. Wormell’s last collaboration in this series was on Dinosaurium, whose lavishly illustrated creatures set a high bench mark for illustrated non-fiction. This tome, exploring the Solar System, is no less delightful or comprehensive, and maintains the sophisticated authoritative tone of the rest of the series.

Written by Raman Prinja, a Professor of Astrophysics at UCL, the book aims to go further than many space information books for children, starting with an explanation of radiation and light and traversing through the history of astronomy before navigating the Solar System, star life cycles and black holes. The end of the book takes in the incomprehensibility of huge superclusters and Universe expansion.

To accompany these mind-bogging theories, facts and wonders, Wormell’s power of intricate and detailed illustration has been utilised to its full extent. The detailed drawings of telescopes are like dioramas on the page, his intricate etchings of solar flares and coronal loops feel almost three-dimensional in their depiction. This is not an easy book – there is science galore and difficult concepts, but there is a handsome clarity to the text and a sense of wonder that imbues the science behind the illustrations. There’s also some wonderful prose writing:

“They [black holes] can’t be seen, but if a human got too close to one, they would be sucked in by its gravitational pull, stretched out like spaghetti and incinerated in a wall of fire!”

For space fans and astronomy maestros this is one outsized book they’ll yearn to devour. 8+ years and beyond. Explore the museum here.

the space trainThe Space Train by Maudie-Powell Tuck, illustrated by Karl James Mountford

I’ve added a picture book to my ‘skies’ blogpost because often the information and facts we absorb on a topic lead us to daydream about our own or others’ adventures in that area. And because quite often, even though a children’s ‘knowledge’ topic at school may revolve around learning facts, they will often spark off into a piece of creative writing, and this picture book ticks all the boxes in providing educational content, inspiration, imagination and energy. The Space Train is a wonderful lift-the-flap adventure about a boy and his grandma in the future and their attempts to rebuild the space train – a vehicle that propels through space faster than a rocket.

Not only is this a fun and cheeky adventure, but it is richly illustrated with a bold colour palette and a super eye for detail. There are hidden flaps and holes to peek through, and a thrilling mind-whirling combination of ‘sciencey’ words, make-believe and the power of grit and determination, as well as a wonderful relationship between grandparent and child. When Jakob and Granny attempt to fix the old space train, they have to put together the thrusters and combustion chamber by riveting and welding. But there’s intergalactic imagination too – with a Toolbot, a robot chicken, an intergalactic buffet car, an observation deck and much much more. This is an imagined future universe of fun and adventure, but complete with a modern, energetic engineer Granny and brilliantly drawn full page illustrations of what it might be like to live in a future space station. Let your imagination soar here.