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Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

Illustrating Politics

Chris Riddell was the Children’s Laureate from 2015-2017, and as well as touring the country and promoting children’s literature and libraries, he also writes and illustrates his own books. I’ve looked at the Ottoline series on here before, but wanted to draw your attention to two recent publications, which may deviate slightly from the ‘normal’ children’s books I like to recommend.

If you remember, there was a lot of chatter at the end of 2016 about what an awful year it had been, politically and otherwise. And the situation has become ever more unstable with the somewhat strange goings-on around us in 2017. So it’s an interesting, and yet altogether sensible premise, to have a book that mashes together political commentary with the goings on in children’s literature from the last two years. Riddell is, of course, as well as being a children’s author, the political cartoonist of a national newspaper, and Macmillan, his publishers, have released a book of his illustrations from the past two years – including personal musings, published political cartoons, illustrations from children’s books festivals, cartoons advocating saving libraries, and random images from children’s books.

Politics and kids’ literature? Do they go together? Yes, because one of the things children’s books do best is to provide a passport to the wider world – to get children to open their eyes to different things, be it how people lived in historical fiction, how other cultures live now, or just how other people react to events (both familiar and strange). The children’s books I’ve covered in the last six months have talked about politics, leprosy, bullying, refugees, outer space, Tibet, maps, depression, dressing up, the environment, the pleasures of doodling, butterflies and so much more.

So Travels with my Sketchbook is a complex book – it’s very much a testament to Riddell’s time as Laureate, and will be much treasured by people within the book world, but it is also interesting as a sign of our times, and a call-out to children to illustrate or doodle more, and so will be fascinating to see how it sells and to whom? Are we more politicised and more interested in children’s illustration than we used to be? I think we are. You can buy Travels here and Chris Riddell is kindly donating all profits to Booktrust.

And if we are more politicised, are our children? I would actually wager yes to this, judging by how many children read a newspaper, watch the news, or scroll through news items on social media, and by how aware they are of their rights. In which case, an interesting addition to their library would be My Little Book of Big Freedoms, illustrated by Chris Riddell.

In partnership with Amnesty International, this is a simplified text from the Human Rights Act. Each of the 16 freedoms or rights are highlighted with an interpretative illustration, from a polar bear hugging children to exemplify ‘togetherness’, to a rather beautiful elephant with a girl resting on his trunk representing ‘solidarity’.

The saccharine and rather over-simplified text takes on a more fatidic and powerful tone in 2017, seeing as we have a president whose finger rests on the twitter button, and a hotchpotch political situation in the UK. Illustration can be an outlet for those children who want a way to express questioning and even rebellious thoughts and feelings, and yet who cannot express how they feel about a political situation in an adult sphere or with the appropriate vocabulary, perhaps for want of anxiety about how their views might be taken. It may be that if our youngsters take such a book to heart, the next generation may turn out better political leaders than the current crop. To purchase, click here.

London Days Out and Origami


Last year there was a flurry of colouring-in books for adults, with the aim of providing relaxation and mental health benefits, (and making some money for the publishing industry). Personally I prefer to just read a book, which in itself has many mental health benefits. However, I’m also going to try my hand at origami, because publisher Nosy Crow has teamed up with The British Museum to produce a new collection of books and they’ve started with something rather special.

As part of my summer series looking at places to visit in London that are children’s book related (see also Defender of the Realm and Hetty Feather), this book inspires another trip. Currently at The British Museum there is an exhibition called Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, featuring works from Katsushika Hokusai, one of Japan’s great artists. So, to link with the exhibition, Nosy Crow have published this rather beautiful book about Japanese culture, featuring haikus, pictures and origami.

The book called Origami, Poems and Pictures, is exactly that. It gives instructions for constructing 13 origami models (with 50 sheets of paper for practice), and alongside each set of instructions is a relevant painting from the museum’s exhibition, the Japanese name for the object, and a haiku – so that different elements of Japanese tradition are explored.

I love that the first offering from Nosy Crow and the British Museum isn’t based on Ancient Egypt – which tends to be the ‘go to’ theme when children visit – but instead they have focused on a culture that children may not have been taught about in such depth.

What’s more, the quality of the book is excellent – I found the pieces of paper easy to tear from the book, and each is patterned and coloured uniquely. The instructions are clear to follow, with a difficulty level chart on each page so that you can work your way up the scale, and there is something rather calming and satisfying about achieving the shape. (And I’m certainly not very adept at these sort of things usually). That’s not it though, for then there is the haiku to read and reflect upon, and also the painting to absorb.

The book and paper are bound separately so that even when all the paper is used, this remains a useful little book, with no rips, just a slightly loose cover. There’s even a tech advanced QR code to watch instructional videos if you find that easier. I can’t fault the book – and it is a lovely introduction to a new culture. What’s more, it could entice me to the British Museum to visit the actual exhibition (which runs from May 2017 to 13 August).

I have a feeling though, that I may be doing origami longer than that. Recommended for ages 5-9 years. You can buy it here.

Think and Make Like An Artist by Claudia Boldt and Eleanor Meredith

I’m not a big fan of activity books. I find that the children lose interest quite quickly and the house becomes littered with half-filled in, half destroyed books, which I feel shameful about recycling, but loathe to keep. Most of the time, a piece of paper and junk from the recycling tends to do the job just as well.

However, I do make exceptions. This book is great, and I don’t say this lightly. It not only inspires in a quietly clever way, but it also imparts the philosophy behind the idea of art, references current contemporary award-winning artists, (who are currently exhibiting round the world), and explores a multitude of different form including photography, sculpture, and costume.

But most of all, the ideas for activities are doable (mainly with materials we already have at home), and fun.

My favourite pages are definitely those in which the authors break down in a step-by-step explanation the meaning behind each artistry – such as sculpture for example. ‘Why Make Sculptures?’ they ask, and then proceed to illustrate and explain in text what sculpture is for. Each form is treated to this questioning – and the answers are both illuminating and yet incredibly simple.

For the section ‘illustrate’, we learn that illustrations show and tell people something quite quickly, but the illustrator needs to grab attention, use surprise perhaps. We had great fun creating a space landscape on a piece of black card with different fruits to illustrate our intention, (take note of our banana rocket, strawberry shooting star, and planet Earth). The process also gave us an understanding of what it means to collaborate on a piece of art.

Each activity in the book is photographed and described step-by-step, making it easy to follow – and there is a list of necessities at the top, so that you know what you need before you start.

The example given in the ‘collaboration’ section was particularly compelling. Staring at the photograph of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘The Obliteration Room’ hurt our eyes after a while, so luckily the children didn’t want to collaborate and replicate it in my house (yet).

There is lots of white space around the very colourful activities, so that the book feels aesthetically pleasing too – and the production is of a high quality – thick pages for plenty of usage. As the authors state at the beginning – the book makes you think about art, then have fun making it. It feels as fresh and modern as the artists it highlights, and provides hours of fun, sparking new ideas along the way. Highly recommended. You can buy it here.

Refugee Stories

One thing I always knew I had to instil in my own children, and in the children I work with, is a sense of history. Where they come from, from whom they are descended, how they got where they are today. Whether it’s tracking a grandparent’s entry here via kindertransport, or a boat, smuggled on a truck, or simply purchasing a plane ticket, most of us have a story if we look back further enough, and dig deep enough. Not many of us were born and bred where we live today.

But not all children equate their own great-grandparents’ journeys with the stories of refugees and migrants they see in today’s news headlines. How do we make our children see and understand their plight, and how do we explain what we mean when we say ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’? Luckily, there are a whole host of books that can help guide us in this education, teaching compassion and empathy at the same time. In fact, the number of new ‘refugee’ stories being published is quite startling. Here’s my pick…

Three novels that take away the label and instead highlight individual stories – so that we can see the people behind the headlines – are A Dangerous Crossing, The Bone Sparrow and A Story Like the Wind. There’s not just a stark photograph of suffering here, splashed across a newspaper, but fully rounded characters, with hopes and fears, with pasts and futures. They all desire food and shelter, but they all have different ideas of home, of safety, of the kind of future they want. They are all individuals. What they have in common is the need to move from the place they called home.

A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell
When 13 year old Ghalib Shenu is caught in a barrel-bomb explosion in Kobani’s souq in Syria, his family decide enough is enough and they must leave. Together with his siblings, parents and grandmother, Ghalib begins the long journey from Syria to Europe.

The compelling force about this book is that it feels completely real – from the dangers surrounding the family, to the banter they engage upon on their way. The questions posed are real and immediate – what should they take with them – Ghalib is reluctant to leave his belongings behind, but the further into the journey he gets, the more he realises how it is just the essentials that matter. There are other realities – the images of other people living their normal lives even as the refugees are passing through their territory; the stigma attached to refugees, as Ghalib realises how unwelcome the Syrian people have become:

“We look. A cardboard sign in Turkish and Arabic is stuck inside the door. No Syrians. The Arabic is not written properly but the message is clear.”

Because the reader is so involved with Ghalib and his family, the hurt and humiliation sting. Mitchell also allows the reader to dwell on things that we ordinarily might take for granted – the wrench to leave the future you had assumed would be there for you in your home country – the bonds at home – family, friends, a business, books, belongings – all those things which give a person a sense of individual identity – something that’s stripped when you’re labelled as a refugee.

As Ghalib and his family progress further on their journey, the book becomes tenser, at first crossing the border, then leaving the refugee camp, and finally attempting the boat crossing. This last piece causes stomach-churning anxiety – Mitchell’s writing prickles with tension.

Mitchell portrays the family’s powerlessness brilliantly, and although the language is English and written with literary style, using challenging vocabulary such as ‘redolent’ and ‘pulverise’, the reader does get a good sense of the Syrian lifestyle – the smells and tastes of Ghalib’s home, the way of life.

Told in first person, the text feels immediate, but the secondary characters are also fleshed out well, each bringing authenticity to the story, but also highlighting different issues, from the treatment of the elderly, to treatment of women, as well as those who are too young to have experienced any other Syria than one which is at war.

This is a powerful book, well-researched and written, and achieves its aim of encouraging sympathy and understanding, but importantly, telling a really good story.

The publisher recommends the book for 11+ years, but I would wager a fluent reader aged 10+ would be capable of understanding the text too. You can buy it here.

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
This is a gripping story without a physical journey, and tells the story of one boy who was born in a detention centre, and has never known anything different, and highlights a group of people who aren’t brought to the media’s attention very much. Subhi, aged 10, is a member of the Rohingya people of Burma, but has never known his homeland, relying only upon the memories of the older generations. This gives the novel both the grief of the elders for what was known about Burma, but also gives Subhi a grief for all the unknowns too.

Fraillon excels at highlighting the extreme hardships and terrible conditions of the refugee camp without the book becoming too depressing or maudlin, by the fact that Subhi possesses an overwhelming optimism – a sunny disposition no matter how hard things get.

Much of his day is spent in drawing and stories. There is no entertainment, no outside distractions. His height is measured on the diamonds on the wire fencing, there is no school, scarce food.

In a Boy in the Striped Pyjamas allusion, Subhi is befriended by Jimmi, a girl who gets through a hole in the fence from outside and rejoices in Subhi’s ability to read stories to her. In return for his reading, she brings food from the outside. It’s never explicitly stated in which country the camp is, but the reader assumes it is Australia. Both children seem fairly oblivious to the fact that their meeting is unusual, and that the way Subhi is treated is profoundly wrong and must be changed. In fact, it’s not just Australia that isn’t mentioned – Faillon, one must assume deliberately, doesn’t show many traits of the Rohingya people. Also, the gap in the fence, set against the rules and severity of camp life, seems fairly unrealistic so that, as in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the story becomes fairly allegorical.

What does feel very real though is the depiction of the harsh life and treatment within the refugee camp – the terrible conditions, and the references to the horrible scarring – both mental and physical – that the older refugees faced before their arrival in the camp.

The crescendo of the story when it comes is horrible beyond words, and yet because the children have shown how powerful friendship and storytelling can be, there remains a great deal of hope at the end of the book – even if Fraillon’s afterword brims with anger.

Fraillon displays a wonderful lyrical lilt to her writing, a compelling voice with a gripping story, and has been shortlisted for both The Guardian Children’s Fiction prize and for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2017.

The overall message is one of hope, but also the meaning of freedom – it’s more than just being free from the containment of fencing, it’s the entitlement of a future. 10+ yrs. You can buy it here.

A Story Like the Wind by Gill Lewis
This highly illustrated book for seven year olds and over, meshes myth with reality in this storytelling tale about a boy who narrates a story over a night spent adrift at sea, to a boatload of fellow refugees escaping from their war-torn homeland. They carry nothing with them, except their names and their memories. Rami, the narrator, cleverly plays his violin to accompany his storytelling, using music as the universal language to bind humans together. In this way, reminiscent perhaps of The Mozart Question by Michael Morpurgo – which used music to highlight the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing the camps of the Holocaust – Lewis attempts to use the story of how the violin came about to tell a story of hope and freedom in a time of war and injustice.

Rami tells his fellow refugees the story of a young boy who rescues a wild foal from near death and nurtures him to life, whilst refusing to claim ownership of him. When he races the horse against the Dark Lord and wins, the Dark Lord banishes him, and takes ownership of the horse – treating it cruelly – until it escapes and finds its way to the boy in exile, before collapsing and dying. The boy takes the beast’s bones and carves a violin from them.

The story that Rami tells draws connections between the cruelty of the Dark Lord and his harsh treatment of his subjects, to the cruel treatment that the boat’s passengers have endured in their war-ravaged country from which they are escaping, as well as explaining the meaning of freedom and dignity. There is no resolution to the overarching story – the refugees remain floating in their boat with only the beauty of the music against the waves to succour them – but this is an interesting fable to disseminate the big issues that face humanity today.

Beautifully illustrated by Jo Weaver in a dream-like fashion, this is an unforgettable little story. You can buy it here.

Children In Our World: Refugees and Migrants by Ceri Roberts and Hanane Kai is a non-fiction text that seeks to explain gently what we mean when we label someone a refugee or a migrant. Who are they? Where have the come from? In very clear, unchallenging text, this square book – laid out like a picture book – presents a tame factual reality of what we mean by refugee and migrant.

It describes why people move from their homeland, what they have left behind and why they might leave in a hurry, as well as life in refugee camps, what it means to seek asylum, and lastly what the reader can do to help people.

The text is written for a Western audience, explaining to a child to make a new child welcome in their school, as well as repeating the usual rhetoric nowadays that children should discuss with an adult any worries or fears they have, making clear how unlikely it is that they themselves will become refugees. There’s a glossary at the back, and a ‘find out more’ section.

The images seem to imply there are different families and children being shown, although always with the same cat, and although there is clearly a diverse range of nationalities from the clothes and hairstyles, the colour of skin remains the same. The imagery is supposedly generic in tone – pastel colours throughout, and the trees remain the same in all landscapes, presumably putting across the message that we are all the same the world over. The cat brings slight levity to the subject.

It’s a good text to have in a school library for a 6+ age group who may have questions, but I think for greater depth and insight individual stories, highlighting our differences whilst at the same time delineating our common necessities – love, shelter, food etc – will always win out. You can buy it here.

There are so many many more refugee stories, from the obvious, such as Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere, picturebook The Journey by Francesca Sanna, and the everyman refugee story, Close to the Wind by Jon Walter.

 

What’s Where on Earth Atlas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy your own copy here.

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.

 

 

Dragons to Light Your Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invest in your dragon model here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Animal Round Up: Spring 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space Books: the complete package

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jamie Drake Equation by Christopher Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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