non-fiction

non fiction ; nonfiction ; non-fiction

Tell Me Another: Jewish Festival Storytelling

The Jewish festival of Passover is an interesting festival for me because it’s all about storytelling. Commonly, Jewish people retell the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt over a meal. There are many children’s books on the market for Passover, because there is quite a lot about the festival that needs explanation for children – why bread isn’t eaten, why a special meal (the seder) is held, why it lasts for eight days, and the story of the exodus itself.

And Then Another Sheep Turned Up

And Then Another Sheep Turned Up by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Amy Adele is a gem of a Passover book, published in February this year. Sheep are often associated with spring, and it being a spring festival, the characters fit in perfectly. The scene at the table is great, from the seder plate to the wine, books on the side table, and matzah. The family of sheep are all ready for their special Passover seder and just about to begin, when Grandma Sheep turns up to join in, followed by many more unexpected guests. Told in rhyme, the beautiful illustrations evoke a warmth in the scene from the tight hugs with Grandma to the dog’s and cat’s movements as the evening progresses. The little touches are great – from the children’s tiredness, to Papa sheep’s final words:
“Time to get our kids to bed.
Next year in Jerusalem!
And next year….PLEASE CALL AHEAD!”
To purchase through Waterstones, click here. Available from 28 March 2015. Ages 3+

engineer ari and the passover rush

Another new title, Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush by Deborah Bodin Cohen, and illustrated by Shahar Kober, continues the Engineer Ari series inspired by the historic rail line from Jaffa to Jerusalem. Ari has to gather everything he needs for the Passover seder on the last day of driving his train to Jerusalem and back to Jaffa before Passover begins. He watches the workers in the matzah factory in Jerusalem, and admires their speed, before heading back to Jaffa, and gathering horseradish, parsley and an egg from his friends in exchange for boxes of matzah. Fabulous illustrations of the train, the market in Jerusalem and the baking of the matzah make this a special picture book, and it ends in the same way as many seders – with someone asleep! It’s a charming little story, which captures a nostalgia for Israel, and the feelings of joyfulness and anticipation as time rolls towards a festival. To purchase, click here. Ages 5+

Dinosaur on Passover

An old favourite is Dinosaur on Passover by Diane Levin Rauchwerger. A rhyming story about a dinosaur who gets involved in the preparations for Passover and causes havoc at the seder table, especially when searching for the afikoman. It’s always good to have a more secular topic (dinosaurs) interacting with a religious festival, as for many children it helps to familiarise it in their minds. Bright colours, easy words and basic concepts make this a winning formula for the youngest at the seder table. To buy this title click here. Ages 2+

sammy spider's first passover

I have chosen Sammy Spider’s First Passover by Sylvia Rouss mainly because it contains the line, “Sammy had never seen so much food!” which makes me chuckle every time I read it. Published as long ago as 1999, Sammy Spider remains ubiquitous with the Jewish festivals for many families. Sammy Spider is alarmed by the family doing housework and sweeping away his web, but by the end of the story (and the seder meal) he has spun a new web to help point the children in the right direction of the afikomen. He also uses shapes to spin his web, in the end ‘passing over’ one shape with another. It’s a cute link to the festival. To buy this title click here. Ages 3+

Passover Around the World

Lastly, and for slightly older children is Passover Around the World by Tami Lehman-Wilzig, illustrated by Elizabeth Wolf. Many families delight in reading about the different customs that different strands of the religion or people of different nationalities bring to the seder table. Although it’s traditional to have the same format every year, it is great to learn about other ways too. This book features stories, recipes and histories of Jews in America, Gibraltar, Turkey, Ethiopia, India, Israel, Iran and Morocco. From the brick of Gibraltar to the Mimouna celebration in Morocco, these are all intriguing customs, with a great glossary at the back to help. A useful and different addition to any child’s Passover bookcase. To buy this title, click here.
Age 8+yrs

Thank you to Kar-Ben publishers for review previews of And Then Another Sheep Turned Up and Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush

Space Books: Because there’s a solar eclipse happening!

As well as being National Science Week, on Friday March 20th the moon will pass directly between the Sun and the Earth, blocking out light for many. This is the biggest solar eclipse in Europe since 1999 and schoolkids up and down the country will be learning what it is (and viewing it through special glasses – eye protection is essential if viewing the eclipse.)

To further understand what happens beyond our world and sky, I’ve been looking at some information space books for children.

Look Inside Space

For your youngest astronauts, you can’t beat Usborne Look Inside Space. Published 2012, so in no way old and out-of-date, this is an exciting illustrated title for young enthusiasts. It has lift the flaps and fold-out-pages to provide interactivity, and covers getting into space, the moon, the International Space Station, stars, the solar system, galaxies and general questions at the back. It starts with very basic information:
“From space, Earth looks like a round ball. The blue bits are sea. The green bits are land.”
and progresses quickly on to how stars are born. The illustrations are friendly and yet informative – cute pictures of astronauts asking questions, but also good representations of what the different planets look like. It doesn’t feature the solar eclipse, but does have a lovely section on the history of star gazing. Aged 5 and over.

story of stars

My other favourite for this age group is Neal Layton’s Story of Stars, which I reviewed here.

professor astro cat

For further inspiration at a slightly older level, try Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space. Told in a chatty way, as if the Professor is talking directly to you, the book talks through many topics including the universe, birth of a star, galaxies, the sun, solar system and all the different planets, space travel, telescopes, the death of stars and the future. Each page is jam packed with information told in little nuggets with illustrations and also graphics to explain things. There are also funny pictures of Professor Astro Cat along the way to liven things up, but not in too childish a way – more comic like. The colours are muted but the pages feel lush and textured, so that you almost feel as if you’re looking through an art book, but about space. There are nice touches, such as explaining how big the planets would be if Earth was a cherry tomato, and using a balloon to show how a rocket works. There is so much information in this book that it has striking longevity and yet at no time seems overwhelming. The humour jumps out of every page too. A clever book, teaching facts while inspiring children. There isn’t an index, and I couldn’t find information on a solar eclipse, but I was struck by the illustrations and guide to constellations, and spent a great deal of time looking at this. Aged 8 and over.

Collins first book of solar system

For those children who just like hard facts without any of the illustrations or extra gimmicks, Collins My First Book of the Solar System suits the bill. Although the artworks are all detailed photographs taken in space or by telescopes, the layout and presentation is unexciting and fairly uninspiring. Saying that, this came top for one of my child reviewers, simply because the information is starkly laid out making the facts accessible and easy to gather. Each planet has a fact page, with crucial information such as length of day, distance from sun, diameter etc. There are graphics to show orbits and position in space, as well as a timeline of man’s exploration of space. A quiz and comprehensive glossary at the back, with clear text throughout. It does feature both solar and lunar eclipses on the moon page. Recommended for fact gatherers aged 8 and over.

Other series that have titles on space and are frequently found in school libraries, although maybe not so much in homes, because they tend to look more educational are 100 Facts: Space, and Fact Cat the Moon.

fact cat moon100 facts space

Much more ‘educational’ looking than those reviewed above is Fact Cat the Moon from the Fact Cat series of space books, each title of which goes into slightly more depth on each subject. It features photographic graphics rather than illustrations, each clearly labelled, and asks questions of the reader as well as giving easy to understand information. The book covers topics from what is the moon? to its surface, inside, cycle, and man exploring the moon – but each page is fairly simple and contains the minimum of information to suit the age group. I couldn’t find anything about solar eclipses, and I was frustrated by a rather silly demonstration about the moon’s orbit, but I liked that it included information about tides. Aged 6yrs and over.
100 Facts about Space is more exciting and has 100 paragraphs throughout the book giving information – illustrated with a mixture of photographs and artworks. There are cartoons interspersed with these paragraphs, entitled ‘I don’t believe it’ giving extra facts, and some good graphics, such as the moon cycle, and location of the planets. There is a feature on solar eclipses, and a diagram to show what happens. It’s a colourful and lively book. Aged 8+.

 

Happy Families

For the past few years I have edited a community magazine. One of the most memorable articles was one in which some children chose an item from within their house and used it as a jumping off point to explore their family history. Research has been done recently to show that children who know stories about their relatives and ancestors tend to show higher levels of emotional well-being – that knowing your family history gives you a greater sense of self. Not only that but children whose parents shared with them stories of their family history were more able to deconstruct and retell more complex narrative structures at a later date, as well as act with more empathy. Teens who had a clearer grounding of self-identity and family history were better able to deal with depressive and anxious thoughts if and when they occurred.

Some children can ask an elderly relative for their life story. For many others, whose older relatives may have died, moved away, or who are unable to share stories – it can be really hard to know where to begin. Books that help children and families to start the exploratory process are as follows.

family project

The Family Project by John-Paul Flintoff and Harriet Greene, illustrations by Sarah Jane Coleman
Published 5th March 2015, this handbook aims to inspire and assist the entire family in discovering and preserving their family story. More blank spaces than filled in spaces, it’s designed so that you utilize it both as inspiration and as scrapbook or blank canvas to begin your journey. It includes quotations, and ideas. Some of these are really quite clever – introducing the family tree as a series of ‘ever-increasing’ circles rather than a traditional box and line drawing, favourite meals rather than just passed down recipes, pictures that hung in your childhood home rather than just old photographs, catchphrases that relatives said. It also contains all the traditional methods too. I liked that it wasn’t too big – it had lots of ideas but didn’t leave me with so much blank space that it was a daunting or intimidating task – rather a series of small manageable tasks that I could easily accomplish.
I gave the book to family research specialist, Sharon Laifer, of mystoryuk.com, a company that records life stories on video and creates online family archives. She gave her opinion of The Family Project too:
“Understanding your family history is a big part of knowing who you are and where you come from.  But for many, the task is so daunting, it is put on the back burner as a project for those time-rich retirement years. The immediacy of The Family Project made me want to take out my pen and start filling in the gaps. Some of the questions made me laugh out loud – I especially enjoyed “if you dare, ask a relative “what don’t I know about you?” This encouragement of dialogue appeals to me as someone who spends time collecting stories and memories of the older generations on video. Often they are stories with outcomes, for the youngsters to use as anchors in their own lives. The book invites the child to answer the much-loathed, weekly question of “how’s school?” not with the usual, monosyllabic “fine,” but instead to take out pen and paper and ask their grandparent about their own school days. And asking the reader to record very specific incidents reminds them that their family members are not just ‘grandma’ or ‘uncle’ but that they too have enjoyed full lives, including which books they read as a child and which pets they kept. The emphasis on reminding the child that they are part of a group, a clan, and that they belong somewhere is so important to their emotional resilience. It’s vital that our children hear about and learn from the experiences of their ancestors, and this book is a great tool to open those discussions.”
8+ years

 

who do you think you are

Who Do You Think You Are? Be a family tree detective by Dan Waddell, illustrations by Lucy Davey and Warwick Johnson Cadwell
Inspired by the BBC TV documentary series in which celebrities explore their family histories, this is for children to explain to them the rudiments of genealogy. Before you even start, there is a pull-out family tree to fill in – visually set in a tree – with boxes stretching from yourself at the bottom to your great-great grandparents on all sides. The book then guides you through the genealogy detective process from what happened on the day you were born, to who your grandparents are, definitions of useful jargon such as heirloom, gene, census etc. It gives tips on how to interview family members, deciphering the stem of names, looking at old photos, utilising a paper trail, and how to present and preserve information. Visually the book is crammed full with information, but is colourful and presents much information in small boxes or lift-the-flap pieces. There are numerous articles on using the Internet and how to find your way to the best sites, and these are clearly picked for their longevity – the ones I looked at seemed to be safe and still running, and where they charge a fee, the book does point this out. I particularly enjoyed the illustrations of a man suffering his grandparents regaling of past history, and the Weird Names section, including a particular Mary Louise Pantzaroff. The text is chatty without being patronising, and gives good advice on the topic. All in all, it’s easy to use, and I recommend this to interested children.

8+ years

big book families

The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Ros Asquith
If your older children are interested in family genealogy, the younger ones might get fidgety and want some attention too. Mary Hoffman’s 2011 book is a neatly politically correct book explaining what families are and how they come in different guises. My first feeling is that it is of course inclusive and every school would want to have a copy to explore families without leaving anyone out or upsetting any child – for example the first few pages explain that some families have a mum and dad, some have just one, some have two mums, some children are fostered etc. The illustrations are cartoonlike, and the characters are fairly expressive, but it works more as a teaching device than it does a picture book to enjoy. It talks through where different families might live, what they celebrate, what they eat, how they travel etc. There’s a cat to find on every page, which makes it more interactive, and it encourages making a family tree towards the end. It’s an interesting book, and especially useful in school libraries.
4+ years

Matchbox Diary

The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatouline
One picture book which exemplifies the anecdote with which I started this blog is The Matchbox Diary. An American picture book, it tells the story of a conversation between a little girl and her grandfather. The grandfather shows the little girl his matchbox diary – a box filled with matchboxes each containing a small item that highlights an element of his life story of immigrating to America from Italy. He couldn’t read or write so his diary was small items kept in matchboxes. Throughout the book it becomes clear that the smallest items – an olive stone, a tooth, sunflower seeds – can tell one man’s life story.  It’s a long book – not a picture book for the very young – but one for older children to explore a part of America’s history, as well as use it to discover how history can be recorded in oral traditions and through artefacts. The sepia toned artworks to illustrate the grandfather’s memories of the past are exquisite. It’s an interesting story, well worth exploring, particularly as part of a classroom discussion about the past, or as a family exploration of recent history and immigration.
7+ years

Thanks to Faber and Walker publishers for sending review copies of The Family Project and Who Do You Think You Are? respectively.

With thanks to Emory psychologists Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke, former Emory graduate Jennifer Bohanek, the paper “Do You Know? The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being”, as well as Bruce Feiler, The Secrets of Happy Families, and Elaine Reese, Professor of Psychology at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

 

 

 

Where have all the children’s non-fiction books gone?

Once upon a time I used to work for a large (mainly reference, ie. non-fiction) publisher as a children’s book editor. In that time I also contributed some writing to the process, and produced a shelf full of beautifully illustrated/photographic, valuable, information-packed exciting non-fiction books for children.

From an egotistical point of view, sadly, none of the books seems readily available, in fact the publisher (bought out by one huge media conglomerate) now focuses on educational titles and content online. (Educational titles are not the same as children’s non-fiction, for those not in publishing).

In fact, when I look for good quality children’s non-fiction titles in bookshops, I can’t find much.

There’s no media space given to it – when was the last time you read a review in a newspaper of children’s non-fiction?

Actually, you may well answer Christmas. This is the only time – it’s when a few high quality, beautifully packaged (for gifts) titles do the rounds. I can reel off the ones produced for this Christmas – some were amazing – although one bestseller had a grimace-inducing grammatical error in it.

The main argument you’ll hear is that children nowadays don’t look up stuff in books! They use the internet. Even in school, the children tell me they all look up things on websites. Excuse my scepticism – as a young editor I also trawled the internet to provide safe, quality content, ‘internet-links’ for the ‘internet-linked’ books that we published. The worthy websites were few and far between, and they certainly don’t appear at the top of the Google search results. The reason is that to produce a quality non-fiction book we had highly skilled writers explaining concepts in tight, concise, careful language. The books were fact checked by consultants, and editors, rechecked and rechecked. Then consideration was given to picture content, explanations and labels. It took time and skill.

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Not unlike a school librarian (also in sharp decline), we editors/publishers of non-fiction meticulously gathered fact-checked accurate information, and presented it in an attractive, accessible, inspiring format to stimulate children’s curiosity.

And yet I know first-hand that for many boys (and some girls) non-fiction is the essence of their love of books. In the school library the boys head for the non-fiction section. In the public library they decry the lack of modern non-fiction titles. As a reviewer, I have a lovely stream of fiction entering my house, and yet every day my son asks ‘did any non-fiction come today?’ He’s desperate for it, and he’s not alone.

As well as producing a generation of book lovers, I also want children to know that they can trust books to give them the correct information, that ‘google’ isn’t the answer, but merely the question. I want children who can analyse different types of text in front of them – fiction, information, instructive, newspaper report, review, commentary, discussion. I want children who know that they can escape into other worlds through fiction, but can also make sense of their own world through non-fiction. It is costly for publishers to produce, but with some help they can do it. Let’s celebrate it more in the general media, let’s give it airtime, newspaper columns, blogposts, shelves in bookstores. Let’s hand our children the key to the future. It starts with a few expert checked facts.

Four Fabulous Non-Fiction books

story of stars

The Story of Stars by Neal Layton

The Story of Stars uses pop-ups, cut outs and a range of devices to actively involve smaller children in the mystery of the universe. It takes one topic and runs with it in the most exciting way possible, exploring facts through creativity. Although some of the concepts are very difficult, even explaining to young children that people lived thousands of years ago, and without computers!, the book introduces basic definitions, such as supernovas, white dwarfs etc, and explains the history of humans’ relationship with space, as well as posing a whopping discussion point at the end of the book. Perfect to share with young children looking for their first interests, and slightly older children to accompany school learning. (You can’t get pop-ups and cut-outs on the internet).

lift the flap general knowledge lift flap gen know inside

Usborne Lift the Flap General Knowledge

Children adore general knowledge. They love reciting facts. They have competitions to see who knows the most facts about countries/animals. Listen to them – their knowledge can be quite astounding. Usborne books do a tremendous job producing quality non-fiction. Just published, Usborne Lift the Flap General Knowledge is an irresistible treasure trove of knowledge, with fact flaps just waiting to be lifted to find out more underneath. There are sections on entertainment, living things, science and timelines. It even labels the ends of the ship for those who aren’t sure. (The bow’s at the front, stern at the back!) It’s engrossing and illuminating, and above all, just a fun book to dip into.

DK Dinosaurs

DK Dinosaurs: a children’s encyclopedia

Dinosaurs, transport, animals and space. The coolest subjects for little boys, only to be trumped by volcanoes and earthquakes as they get older. Information on space and transport changes continuously, but dinosaurs more or less stay the same. This is an all-encompassing massive reference title with everything inside. Divided into classifications, the encyclopedia introduces prehistoric life – where life began and the timeline of life before honing down into invertebrates, early vertebrates, dinosaurs, birds and mammals. Each section introduces the type of life before breaking it down into species and giving key facts – habitat, period, size etc. The pictures are stunning – it’s visually easy to read and appealing. There’s a detailed index and glossary and the text is clear and precise.

make a universe

How to Make a Universe with 92 Ingredients by Adrian Dingle

This book isn’t newly published, but is an excellent example of how to present non-fiction in a new, interesting, and fascinating way. The book essentially talks about the periodic table – but not how you or I ever learnt the periodic table. It breaks down every day things into its core elements using illustration and fun text and educates at the same time. For example it explains what you would need to make your own human being, how fireworks work, and what makes a safety match safe. With super headings such as ‘really cool science bit’, ‘Alfie (and his brother) go boom’, and ‘who’s the daddy?’, this is a science book that’s definitely not just for geeks. Thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing.

 

For Holocaust Memorial Day

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Elie Wiesel

Teaching children about traumatic events in our collective history can be difficult, and when picking a book on the subject it’s more important than ever to judge content more than appearance. There is fierce debate on how old children should be before they are taught about the Holocaust or other genocides. Teaching the historical context of the Nazis, of death and what’s morally right and wrong can all be taught much earlier, but it’s hard to teach the meaning and mechanics of mass murder before secondary school. Even some adults have a hard time grasping the enormity of it. The national curriculum dictates that the Holocaust should be taught in key stage 3 – Year 7, 8 or 9, which is the first three years of secondary school (ages 11-14).

“Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory” – Jane Yolen

Firstly, I’ve chosen three works of fiction. They are all picture books, but that doesn’t mean they’re for small children – in fact they are best for age 10+ yrs. I’ve chosen them for their exploration of the Holocaust from different viewpoints, and as starting points for serious discussion about the Holocaust. None of them should be read in isolation, but rather explored after an initial insight into what did happen to the Jewish people during the Second World War.

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon
This is a cat’s eye view of Kristallnacht. Benno is the neighbourhood cat, who visits Sophie on Shabbat, and is fed schnitzel by the Schmidts after church, and gets titbits from the kosher butcher. All is seemingly well. Then gradually Benno realises that there are fewer scraps, and the neighbourhood people are growing ever more impatient, and that there are now new black boots stomping along the pavement. Then Kristallnacht happens, Benno’s paws are sore from the broken glass on the pavement, and Benno doesn’t see Sophie and her family any more, nor Professor Goldfarb. It’s a simplistic animal tale of a neighbourhood changing, but the masked horror of the Holocaust pervades the story. The implied disappearance of the Jewish people of the neighbourhood leaves it up to the reader to imagine what may have prevailed that night. The Afterword explains Kristallnacht in a little more detail, telling what that night was about and what did happen to the Jews in Germany. However, the last paragraph is a little emotive, which is a shame for a page that should remain factual. However, it is a clever introduction to the build-up of the Holocaust in Germany.

Star of Fear

Star of Fear, Star of Hope by Jo Hoestlandt, illustrated by Johanna Kang
Another simplistic story, which belies the terror underneath, is Star of Fear, which tells the narrative from an old lady’s point of view – looking back on those things that she couldn’t comprehend as a little girl. Helen remembers growing up in France after the German invasion of 1942. She remembers her childhood friend Lydia, and the yellow star Lydia was forced to wear on her clothes. It’s a story about friendship, and how little girls can say things to their friends that they don’t mean – and ultimately live to regret. Helen regrets more than most, as in a spontaneous angry outburst she tells Lydia that they are no longer friends, little knowing it was the last time she would ever see her…it is supposed that Lydia was taken away by the Nazis the next day. The simplicity of the text and pictures adds to the poignancy.

whispering town

The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro
Published last year, The Whispering Town tells the story of the Danish Jews through the eyes of a little girl. The Danish story itself is quite remarkable. As a nation Denmark actively resisted the Nazis’ plan to round up the Jewish people, and managed to smuggle a huge percentage of their Jewish population to safety in Sweden. They relied upon the goodness of their people, and The Whispering Town shows how the shopkeepers and neighbours all helped the hidden Jews in one cellar in Gilleleje to escape by boat from the harbour. The illustrations depict the Nazis as menacing, gun-wielding soldiers and the Danish people with simpatico faces. Cleverly, the Jews hiding in the cellar are simply white pen lines on black – a shadow almost. The colours throughout are muted – pale greens, much black and grey – other than the stark red of the Nazi symbol on the soldiers’ shirtsleeves. This may be a story of hope and salvation, but the events happened in a terrible time. My feeling is that it’s important to teach children that there is hope despite the horror of six million Jews and many other people losing their lives during the Holocaust. It is vital that children understand there are pockets of goodness and humanity. If a whole nation can rise up against the Nazis, then it is possible for goodness to overcome. This link describes the Danish efforts well.

usborne holocaust

After a wealth of discussion of story, it is worth consulting some reference too. One such title that sets things out clearly and easily for children is Usborne: The Holocaust. In a matter-of-fact tone, but with excellently precise vocabulary, Susanna Davidson sets out the narrative of the Holocaust, encompassing the roots of anti-Semitism, the Nazi definition of whom they defined as being Jewish, the treatment of other minority groups, the advancement of Germany through Europe, the increasingly harsh treatment of Jews and minorities, before going on to address ghettos, and the final solution. It also covers small acts of defiance in the face of certain death, both from Jews and non-Jews, which is really important. It’s simple to understand, crams a mass of information into short digestible chunks, and does its very best to explain a seemingly inexplicable event. Despite its conciseness, the book does contain graphic information on the killing of Jews, including shooting at mass graves and the death camps. It also quotes people from the time, and includes graphic images, including the painting ‘Gassing’ by Auschwitz survivor David Olere. There are many photographs too, including those of a survivor at the liberation of Belsen. Be warned, this is not a book for young children, but would do well to accompany those studying the Holocaust at Key Stage 3. The afterword throws up some questions that children may ask afterwards, and doesn’t try to answer them, but instead finishes on the note that the Holocaust is not something that should ever be forgotten.

DK Holocaust

I’ve not included a comprehensive review of DK Holocaust, a title that I worked on myself, as sadly, it appears to be unavailable at most good bookstores. However, if you can get a copy it’s an all-encompassing examination of the Holocaust for older children, which I worked on with the superb writer Angela Gluck Wood. I can self-promote shamelessly as I receive no royalties.

Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th.

 Usborne Holocaust was very kindly sent to me by Usborne Publishing

How the World Works by Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young

how the world works
Nothing makes me want to read a non-fiction book more than this sort of quote on the back cover “Gross! We’re all descended from green slime. Find out all about it inside.” Actually, this is a much more sophisticated book than the strapline implies. Covering basic earth information, such as how the world came about, how the seasons work, planets, gravity, day and night, evolution, the beginning of life, earth’s plates, the water cycle, weather, carbon, the sea…the list goes on. Yet unlike typical encyclopedias this book sets out the information in graphic and interactive illustrations so that for example, you can open a cheeseburger to see where all the constituent ingredients come from. The water cycle pops out the page, a carbon footprint is a footprint, and the food chain reveals itself in a pop up diagram. Not only is the text clear and simple, but also poses many questions to the inquisitive reader…how do you think our actions affect the natural water cycle? A joy to look at, read, and a fabulous start to explaining the ‘big picture’ of our world. This won the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize in 2011, and Christiane Dorion has since published How the Weather Works, How We Make Stuff, How Animals Live, and in September 2014, How the World Began, which is an exploration of history from the big bang (covered in greater detail than in How the World Works) through ancient civilizations to the future of the earth. Good visual reference for ages seven and up.

how the world works2

The Story of Buildings by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by Stephen Biesty

The Story of Buildings
The best non-fiction for children tells a narrative journey whilst attempting to impart knowledge. And Patrick Dillon’s book does just this. Although his text is not the most beautiful I’ve read, it is very readable and aims to pose a question in the mind of children and answer it – how did human civilisation get from cave dwellings to skyscrapers? And how did humans get to the point of designing beauty, not just practicality, in their buildings? By profiling a handful of famous buildings throughout the world, Patrick Dillon attempts to answer these questions. The draw with this book of course is the illustrations by Stephen Biesty, which assist in explaining the text. The introduction speeds through log cabins, stone houses, brickworks to stilt houses, igloos, tipis, Bedouin tents, staircases, Roman floors, and onto Georgian terraces, windmills, factories and railway stations, each beautifully illustrated. Then Dillon focuses on the architecture of about 20 bold and beautiful structures from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to Notre Dame of Paris, Taj Mahal in Agra to the Chrysler Building in New York and the Sydney Opera House – all illuminated by Biesty’s amazing exploded gatefold cross-sections of the buildings. It’s a tour de force in explaining the very basics of architecture to children. Although Dillon does include some generalisations, and specific architects aren’t often mentioned, I don’t think it matters in that the book inspires an interest in how buildings are built, dreamt of, and used. There’s also a timeline at the back. Any adult would equally enjoy examining the detailed cut-throughs. You can even see the toilets in the Bauhaus!

The Story of Buildings2

Penguin or Owl?

So first there was snow – and then there were penguins. I’m not sure when penguins became synonymous with Christmas, but this year they certainly have – from the John Lewis advert to the Penguins of Madagascar, Penguins have arrived in London in time for Christmas.

owl or penguin
When I was little I had a small soft toy called Owly. It was loved and cherished (see its somewhat battered state now), but it was only recently that someone pointed out that maybe it’s a penguin. So I thought – that’s a great premise for a book – the penguin with the mistaken identity. In the meantime, here are some books that have already been written:

Penguin Polly DunbarPouting Boy
Penguin by Polly Dunbar
My overall abiding love for this book is one illustration that depicts a facial expression, in which a close member of my family is THE expert. Penguin tells the story of a boy called Ben who receives a penguin as a present, but the penguin will not communicate with him, no matter what Ben does. Finally Ben is eaten by a lion, the penguin saves him, and the penguin suddenly has a great deal to say. The book is packed with witty illustrations, a zany storyline and a winning outcome. An old favourite. Penguins are often used as a way to explore and develop friendships in picture books – I wonder if that’s because they are often depicted huddling together? Two perfect examples of penguin friends are Fluff and Billy Do Everything Together by Nicola Killen and Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers.

Fluff and BillyLost and Found
Fluff and Billy tells the tale of when play between friends gets rough leading to hurt and falling out – before there is forgiveness and friendship again. It works well to read aloud to a small child because the book is littered with repetition. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is fast becoming a children’s classic. The book tells the story of a boy who opens the door one day to see a penguin standing on his doorstep. He spends much of the book grappling with what to do with the penguin – until realising at the end that the penguin just wants a friend. Jeffers’ illustrations are beguilingly simple – less is more in fact. Jeffers said that the illustrations are deliberately simple so that children, wherever they are, can fill in the gaps with their own individual landscapes. Characters too – the penguin is a few simple lines – it almost seems as if the characters of the boy and the penguin are more expressive the less detail they have. Jeffers’ text also shines with a simple clarity – basic plotlines mixed with truisms and pathos:
“He ran down to the harbour and asked a big ship to take them to the South Pole. But his voice was much too small to be heard over the ship’s horn.”
So much expressed so simply – the vastness of the ship and the world as compared to a small boy asking for help.

Blown Away
The new addition to the ‘penguin’ canon of literature, and published in August of this year is Blown Away by Rob Biddulph. I implore you to find and read a copy. Rob Biddulph’s blue penguin may be more ‘Hampstead Heath’ inspired than normal Antarctic penguins, but, like Jeffers, his penguin is simply drawn – Biddulph too remarking that children can put their own emotions into the animals, so simple black dots for eyes work best. With rhyming text, Biddulph explores what happens when Blue the penguin gets blown away on his kite, picking up cargo along the way, and finally setting down onto a jungle island. But does he want to stay?
“’How nice,” says Blue,
A lovely spot,
Although it is
a bit too hot.”
The beauty of this book lies in the small details. Every page is lovingly created so that your eyes pick up the story and the animals’ emotions almost by osmosis – the rhyming text is lovely to read aloud, but the extra touches on the illustrations won me over. A charming Christmas present that’s not just for Christmas!

Dragon Loves Penguin
My last picture book is Dragon Loves Penguin by Debi Gliori, shortlisted for the 2015 Red House Children’s Book Awards. I coordinate the testing in my area for this award, so know very well how popular this book has proved with young children. It celebrates diversity, and is even relevant for those attempting to explain adoption to the very young – in essence it’s about mother’s love. When an egg is abandoned, a dragon without its own egg adopts it, but when it hatches it’s a penguin! Despite the differences, the mother dragon loves the penguin as her own, and the love makes the little penguin brave enough to see off her dragon peers who can’t accept her differences, and also to escape an erupting volcano. Yes, this little picture book is packed full of action – and has adorable illustrations – rarely has a penguin chick looked quite so cute.

The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out
For slightly older readers, in the Jill Tomlinson series of animal books is The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out. Beautifully told so that the reader learns about penguins at the same time as digesting the story. Jill Tomlinson’s strength is her ability to weave fiction and non-fiction seamlessly here, with some magical lines:
“The trouble was, not all adults were good at answering questions, or would try.”

The Emperors EggUsborne Beginners Penguin
For those children who want to find out even more, and for adults who can’t tell the difference between an owl and a penguin here are two great non-fiction titles for early learners.The Emperor’s Egg by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Jane Chapman, is part of the Nature Storybooks series – telling the story of the Emperor penguins. It’s an excellent starting point for a young child wishing to find out more information. It’s not patronising, but is written as if the child is having a conversation with the writer about penguins. Asking questions of the young reader, particularly ones that make them think, is a lovely way to write a non-fiction book. No wonder this won the TES Junior Information Book Award. The Usborne Beginners series has a book on penguins; I like this series for their gentle introduction to non-fiction. Helpfully containing a glossary and an index, and with short chunks of text throughout for easily digestible facts. It also covers many different types of penguins. Usborne have also had their facts checked by experts in the field, which sadly, is not true of all children’s non-fiction in the marketplace.

How Can I Help My Dyslexic Child To Love Reading?

Dyslexia Action quotes that on average one in three children in every classroom is dyslexic and therefore struggle in some way with literacy.[i] As a reading for pleasure consultant, it’s vital to help parents find those texts that will appeal to a dyslexic child, and keep them reading because they want to. In particular, it’s important not to make that child feel as if they can read only ‘easy’ books that their peers read long ago, and for which they might be ridiculed for reading.

Being dyslexic only means that the processing channels can get mixed up – it doesn’t mean the child is in any way less intelligent, and so the books still need to be content appropriate. It’s also vital that the child doesn’t find the processing too difficult, so that their confidence (which can be the first thing to go) is nurtured, and it’s vital to help them discover that reading can be a pleasure not a struggle.

Luckily, in today’s publishing industry, the publisher Barrington Stoke is doing some excellent work producing books that are dyslexia-friendly, and seek to be like any other chapter books in their outward appearance.

What does dyslexia-friendly mean? In the main, it means that books have the following features:
paper that’s off-white to reduce glare, well-spaced text, thick paper so that the words from the next or previous page do not show through, wide margins, straightforward syntax, (which means that there aren’t too many clauses in one sentence), an unjustified right-hand margin, a well-structured story, and signposts that clearly show the story’s natural pauses – pictures, headings etc.

I’m most often approached by parents of children aged about seven who are learning about dyslexia for the first time and are desperate to find appropriate books to encourage them to read and learn to love reading. Here are some titles by phenomenal children’s writers to help:
Haunting of Uncle Ronyoung werewolfsnake who came to stayreal true friendsmeet the weirds
The Haunting of Uncle Ron by Anne Fine
A funny book about a guest who doesn’t want to leave! Part of the 4u2read series from Barrington Stoke, which also includes excellent stories by the likes of Annie Dalton, Michael Morpurgo, Jeremy Strong, Malorie Blackman, and Terry Deary, all aimed at an 8-12 years interest age.

Young Werewolf by Cornelia Funke
One of my favourite authors ever since reading Inkheart, Cornelia has the ability to create magic through simple text. When Matt gets bitten on the way home from the cinema, he realises he’s been infected by a werewolf. Can he undo the curse before the full moon? See also The Moonshine Dragon by Cornelia Funke for younger readers.

The Snake Who Came to Stay by Julia Donaldson
Another excellent children’s author best known for her picture books (many are surprised that Julia Donaldson has so many titles for older readers, but she does!), this is a simple tale of a home for pets and the trouble that ensues when Doris the snake comes to stay. Part of the Little Gems series, this is aimed at the 5-8 years age group, which is quite a wide range in my opinion, but excellent for confidence building for first readers.

Real True Friends by Jean Ure
When Hannah moves to a new school she needs to discover who are her real friends. A good story about fitting in and friendships. Jean Ure is a well-established writer and many of her books feature girls aged between 10-14 years, so a young reader can progress through her books if she likes the style. I personally remember Jean Ure for her now out-of-print titles such as One Green Leaf and A Twist in Time, and Hi there, Supermouse! which I adored!

Meet the Weirds by Kaye Umansky
A fabulously funny story about unconventional neighbours. Mrs Weird is a stuntwoman and Mr Weird a mad scientist and they have some unconventional habits, so moving in next door to the Primms is bound to spell trouble.

There are many more titles on the Barrington Stoke website, to which I highly recommend a visit.

However, I would also point to stories such as the Horrid Henry series by Francesca Simon as a good read for dyslexic readers because they contain brilliant illustrations by Tony Ross, and are divided into short manageable chapters. Likewise Clarice Bean Don’t Look Now by Lauren Child and the Ottoline books by Chris Riddell are all stories broken up into short chunks with fantastic illustrations to accompany the text. Mr Gum by Andy Stanton has excellent spacing too, and try the Agatha Parrot books by Kjartan Poskitt, which, like the Mr Gum series, are also illustrated by the amazing David Tazzyman.

I would recommend the Edge series of graphic novels from the publisher Franklin Watts, which are also published on dyslexic-friendly paper. They are an excellent publisher of non-fiction titles, and their Slipstream series of reading resources is aimed at struggling readers.

For older readers (young teen) the Wired Up series by the publisher A&C Black are an invaluable source of gripping reads at manageable lengths and levels.

Of course it’s hugely helpful for a child to be able to identify with the characters they are reading about. So, here below are some books in which the protagonist has dyslexia:

percy jacksonhank zipzerreading the gamemaggot moon
Percy Jackson
Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief is the first of a hugely popular series of adventures by Rick Riordan. This series focuses on adventures with the Greek gods, and the books are tremendously exciting and fast-paced. Aged 9 and up.(and there’s a film).
Hank Zipzer
The Hank Zipzer series of books by Henry Winkler (yes the Fonz to you) follows the haphazard adventures of a ten year old boy. Very American but also very funny.
Reading the Game by Tom Palmer
A lovely story about a football mad boy who is great at football but struggles to read. Part of the Football Academy series. Tom Palmer is also published by Barrington Stoke.
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
A teen novel that won the 2012 Costa Children’s Book Award, about a young teenage boy called Standish Treadwell, set in a totalitarian future state. Totally brilliant for its menacing subject matter, startling prose and exceptional characters:
“There are train-track thinkers, then there’s you, Standish, a breeze in the park of imagination.”
I also want to champion Sally Gardner here, who herself is dyslexic and has spoken out about this many times. She has written much for younger readers, including the Magical Children series, and gives splendid advice such as not shying away from giving dyslexic children a different platform from which to read. Giving a dyslexic child an ereader or a tablet for reading can help build confidence as it masks what they are actually reading – and therefore reduces any peer pressure. Some readers also find the letters jump around less on the ereader, and of course you can play with the font size. You can also try an audio book alongside the printed word for more challenging titles. And never, never underestimate the joy of reading aloud to your child (whatever age) to encourage their love for reading.

[i] Dyslexia Action (2012) Dyslexia still matters.

Atlas of Adventures by Lucy Letherland

Atlas of Adventures

Trying to make sense of our world is tricky for today’s youngsters. They might know about penguins, but where could you go to see them? What if your seven year old was planning your holiday in Europe – what would they choose to do? This beautifully cloth-bound pictorial atlas introduces a new illustrator to the children’s book world, with incredibly detailed, yet humorous illustrations for each adventure. Follow two child adventurers through the continents of the world to see what adventures they have – from playing football in Senegal to riding with cowboys in Northern Patagonia. Each page throws up interesting facts, and a small round globe hones in on the area in discussion. For me, I wanted to buy it for the endpapers alone. A great edition from a new publishing venture, Wide Eyed publishing.

endpapers Atlas of Adventures