science

Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll

Sprung from The Big Idea Competition, and Neal Jackson’s story idea ‘The First Aeronauts’, Emma Carroll’s latest historical fiction sees her entering the world of France in 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers launched the first hot air balloon flight over Versailles. Carroll has woven their story seamlessly with a wonderful adventure narrative that manages to be fresh and modern, incorporating ideas of gender politics, science, identity and social class. Although Sky Chasers is fiction, Carroll writes with an acute sense of history, with huge attention to detail and period.

Carroll’s novels are all well put together, but this one in particular is as brilliantly executed as the guillotine. The protagonist is Magpie, an orphan girl, who pickpockets and thieves to make her way in the world. The book uses the Magpie nursery rhyme: One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, to delineate the sections of the book, and not only does usage of this version of the rhyme fit the gender play of the story ‘three for a girl, four for a boy’, it wonderfully ties into the theme of birds, because the first living beings to fly in a basket hitched to a hot air balloon were a duck, a rooster and a sheep:

Magpie can’t believe her eyes when she sees a boy dancing in the sky. When she realises that he’s ‘flying’, hanging onto a rope from the prototype balloon, she knows she wants a part in it. Of course, it’s not that simple for an orphan girl, especially when the boy is the son of Joseph Montgolfier, and she’s already been inside their house – thieving!

Integrated in the plot of how Magpie, her rooster, the boy Pierre, and his duck end up in the first balloon flight over Versailles are all sorts of elements, including pistols at dawn, suspicion of English spies, and mistaken identity. Carroll has great fun bringing in period details and playing with historical character – the reader first meets Marie Antoinette eating cake at Versailles.

There is also the wonder of science and invention. The Montgolfier brothers have made headway by the time Magpie arrives, but Carroll plays with Magpie’s powers of observation allowing her to spot details they might have missed. She has the idea for lift from undergarments drying in the kitchen for example. These ‘accidental’ details feed into the invention of balloon flight, and bring science down to a basic, and yet exciting level. Invention, quite often, comes about by accident.

A baddie lurks in the background of the novel too, underpinning the suspense – difficult sometimes to conjure in historical fiction where the outcome is already known. But here, the baddie is not all as she seems – indeed there are many cases of mistaken identity within the novel, both good to bad, boy to girl, which makes the reader think carefully about each character’s motivation, intention and ambition. Carroll has also pinned down the Montgolfier brothers quite spectacularly despite her brevity, as in this story they are but secondary characters to the children.

Add to that a profound sense of alienation and belonging, be it nationhood, social class or family, and the reader sees that this is an adventure novel with multiple layers. Carroll is a master of historical fiction, painting a vivid picture of the time with colour and period detail, but also bringing in themes, such as belonging, that still resonate today.

But above all, it is the wonder of flight that pulls in the reader. In fact, reading the fantastic description of flight, one can see how this melds into the view an author might have of their novel – as Magpie sees the gardens of Versailles and fields beyond laid out beneath her like toys, so the landscape of a book enables the author and reader to garner a larger world view, an encompassing picture of who they are compared to history.

The power of possibility is held aloft in this soaring novel. As it is sent wind borne into bookshops, you can catch your own here.

Impossible Inventions: Ideas That Shouldn’t Work by Matgorzata Mycielska, Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski

Impossible InventionsOne of my favourite Homer Simpson lines is: “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

Impossible Inventions is a fabulous non-fiction book that explores inventions which are sometimes crazy, sometimes inspired and sometimes just plain weird, but what they have in common is that they all failed. The point is that they are all somewhere on the path to real discovery and invention, even if the road is rather long and winding. And some of the historical inventions featured were thought up by historical figures (Da Vinci, Tesla) who we know and recognise for inventions that did work.

The book features such weird and wacky inventions as a concentration helmet, a transport cloud, a steam horse and a bubble messenger. Each invention is afforded a double page, with full-colour illustrations and accompanying text and captions, and then a second double page with a large cartoon exploring the practicality of the invention, with cartoon bubble speech. It’s both funny and informative.

The illustrations complement the wackiness of the ideas, not only in their cartoon-like style but in the bold block colours and strong outlines, which feel both fresh and creative, and are drawn with a unique quirkiness that we’ve come to expect from Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski of Maps fame.

The book introduces the concept of invention and innovation, describing that all inventions begin with a dream or a need, and each invention takes imagination, commitment and courage. Mycielska talks about the point of patents too, and sets out the limitlessness of possibility. This book points to the power of the imagination, and the understanding that what may seem challenging or even downright peculiar at one time, may turn out to be useful and necessary – sometimes many years later.

The inventions are shown in a random order – in actual fact the contents are at the back of the book, and the placement of each invention plays to the randomness of ideas. Imagination doesn’t necessarily work in a linear fashion.

This is a wonderfully fascinating and humorous book, which teaches a great lesson in engineering and science – that not everybody will succeed every time, but each step is part of the learning process. And if you don’t try, you definitely won’t succeed. You can buy it here.

Cool Physics: A NNFN guest blog by Dr Sarah Hutton

Cool Physics

I am delighted to host Dr Hutton on the blog today. With a doctorate and teaching career in physics and now a published author of a physics book, Dr Hutton comes well-equipped to explain why we should all have an interest in this cool subject.

I think that I have always been fascinated with Physics and trying to understand the world around me. One of my earliest memories is of trying to take apart electronics because I wanted to see how they worked. Over time, my parents learnt that they should never leave me alone with a screwdriver, but on top of that they also helped to fuel my curiosity. They taught me that it’s not wrong or ‘stupid’ not to know something, but that there are ways in which you can find answers through books or, in today’s world, the internet. They even showed me that we don’t have all the answers yet and that there are still things that we don’t understand or that are yet to be discovered.

My love of Physics stayed with me through school, fuelled by my wonderful (if slightly eccentric) Physics teacher, Mrs McCann. But as I grew older it became more specialised and I found the area of Physics that I could never find out enough about: space. My enthusiasm for wanting to know more about how the Universe works, and how NASA can produce such breath-taking images of phenomena so large and so far away that we can barely understand the numbers, fuelled my drive through my undergraduate Physics degree and into my Astrophysics PhD. It was during my PhD that I found out that, while I enjoyed research and trying to piece together the infinite puzzle of the cosmos, I really came alive when explaining what I knew to others. I found that I really wanted them to understand what I was saying, and spent time coming up with analogies that I could use to explain complex physics ideas with everyday items. Overtime my passion for my outreach work grew, and I found myself wanting to pursue this career path once I finished my doctorate.

I was lucky enough to work for a time as the Outreach coordinator in the UCL Physics and Astronomy Department with the Ogden Trust, a Physics educational charity. While I loved my role enthusing children and adults alike about the wonders of Physics, I found that very few people considered Physics to be something they were good at, or something they wanted to do as a career. This was especially true for girls. I was asked, time and time again, ‘what can I do with Physics?’ and ‘what is Physics good for?’ Each time I would answer with examples of how Physics influences the world we live in, from the physical, mechanical laws that govern how we move and understanding the patterns in the stock market, to the design of their TV at home. In truth, people with a Physics background, whether A-level, degree or further study, work in a huge range of fields beyond the typical research scenario; engineering, finance, software design, film production, journalism and analytics to name just a few. There are even several high profile fiction authors with Physics degrees.

Physics teaches you to think in a very analytical way. It encourages you to interpret the information you receive, and think about whether it is sensible or realistic; an excellent skill to have in today’s world of media bias and ‘fake news’.

Whenever I ran events aimed at the general public I found that, while many people find Physics interesting, they would never consider a career that uses Physics because they ‘didn’t understand Physics at school,’ or had no idea how to go about getting into a Science career. Because of this reaction I found myself increasingly working more and more in schools, both primary and secondary, focused on changing children’s perception of what a career in Physics really entails. I tried to encourage them, particularly the girls, that it was a subject they could enjoy, and more importantly be ‘good’ at, because they found it interesting. When I was approached by Pavilion Books to write Cool Physics I jumped at the chance, as it gave me the opportunity to try my hand at explaining some of the most interesting and complex phenomena in Physics in a way that was accessible to a younger audience – something that is not often attempted! I wanted to include a mix of explanations and practical experiments that could easily be carried out at home and, hopefully, inspire some of those who read it to want to know more, or even consider a career in Physics one day!

Today I work as Head of Physics in a North London girls’ school, trying to inspire girls about Physics and show them that it’s a subject they can understand and enjoy, and that is relevant to the world in which they live. I aim to inspire my students in the same way I was inspired at school by Mrs McCann, and between myself and the other Physics teacher we must be doing something right as Physics is currently the 4th most popular subject for A-level in the school! However, through my teaching I can only inspire the students who come into my classroom, whereas with Cool Physics I have the opportunity to reach a much wider audience. Hopefully it will encourage an older audience to give Physics another try, or show the next generation how awesome Physics can be, and more importantly how much we still don’t know. I hope some of them will be encouraged to work towards something yet to be discovered!

Cool Physics by Sarah Hutton is out now, £9.99 hardback, published by Pavilion, and you can buy it here. There are ten Cool books in the series, covering Architecture, Art, Astronomy, Maths, Mythology, Nature, Philosophy, Physics and Science Tricks. You can read MinervaReads review of Cool Mythology here 

 

illumanatomy by Kate Davies and Carnovsky

Another advanced, refreshing, well-conceived piece of non-fiction, this time from Wide Eyed Publishers. The book aims to teach about the human body, but does so in a startlingly beautiful visual way. Illumanatomy contains spreads of psychedelic artworks showing a kaleidoscope of colour against a white background, interspersed with other pages that display informative black and white illustrations and accompanying text.

The reason for the full-page psychedelics is because the book comes with a three-coloured lens viewer tucked into a pocket on the inner front cover. By looking through the different coloured lenses at the picture, (as a kind of eye-viewer), the lens enables the reader to effectively x-ray the image on the page, showing organs with the blue lens, muscles with the green, and bones with the red. This interactive idea works really well; the premise follows through. The blue lens is the least effective, only in that it is a bit dark, but the muscles and skeleton show up perfectly. As the reader learns more about each body part, the image they are seeing through the acetate lens becomes clearer.

Each part of the body (and the book divides these into 10, such as the head, the heart, the abdomen, as well as how a baby grows) is shown first in a full page artwork so that the reader can use their viewer, and then dissected again in the ‘anatomy’ room, which gives a black and white illustration, fully annotated with the names of parts, and also explanation. For example, the brain page illuminates the lobe and cortexes and explains which is which and what they do.

A particular pull for me in information books is the ability of the author to convey complex information in a simple way. Anatomy has never been a strong point personally, but the text here is concise and clear. The description of the heart conveys its mechanisms and divisions well, and comes neatly after the circulatory system, so that the individual parts of the whole begin to make sense.

The reproduction chapter is also precise and matter-of-fact, and suits the age group well, placing reproduction within the anatomical sphere. And the muscles and tendons in the leg section are also stripped to their fundamentals, giving a child a first basic understanding of how it works. The author encourages the reader to touch their own leg, feeling for the muscles and tendons being described.

This is the second in this series illustrated by Carnovsky (the nom de plume of Italian illustrators Silvia Quintanilla and Francesco Rugi), the first being Illuminature by Rachel Williams, and whereas usually these interactive lens things feel gimmicky, this is not the case here. The book is well executed, hugely informative, and startlingly attractive. Much to absorb and learn. You can buy a copy here.

Back to School

The autumn always sees a mega haul of children’s nonfiction – the back to school collections, lists for National Non Fiction November, and of course the Christmas gift treasure troves. This year, unlike the wet harvest, has yielded a bumper crop.

We start the day with maths. Always a slog after the long summer holidays, this book aims to reverse that groan with a rather wonderful premise – from the front cover, the reader is a genius: This Book Thinks You’re a Maths Genius, by Dr Mike Goldsmith, illustrated by Harriet Russell. It aims to prove that if the reader likes patterns, colouring and puzzles, then actually they’re good at maths. Taking basic mathematical concepts, such as geometry, measurements, statistics, and number patterns, it gives the reader activities and games to enhance their knowledge. Most pages have a ‘Where’s the Math’s box’ at the bottom to explain the ‘science’ behind the activity. It feels more heavily weighted towards shapes and patterns than basic numbers, but it was certainly fun to fill in.

Geography next, with two books to explore. The first, Animazes, illustrated by Melissa Castrillon also combines the territory of activity book with non-fiction, as readers can trace the mazes on each page to learn about the migration patterns of different animals. There’s a vibrancy and exuberance to this book – set by the vivid colour palate, which lifts the knowledge from the page. Christmas Island red crabs, wildebeest of the Serengeti, Monarch butterflies, Mali elephants…There’s a wealth of phenomenal facts about these wonderful animals – for general use or project use. Maze answers are given at the back of the book.

For those wanting a more straightforward factual book, Starters: Rainforests by Nick Pierce and illustrated by Jean Claude ticks the box for little ones. Basic layouts and colourful simple illustrations lend this a modern textbook look, and it reads plainly, but overall gives information in a neat concise visual way, with glossary, and index. Great for Key Stage One, and will bring a dazzling intensity of colour to the topic.

After break, it’s biology, using Bugs by Simon Tyler for budding entomologists. With the first 32 pages devoted to dissecting insect life – from anatomy to taxonomy, life cycle to senses, and the rest given to large colourful illustrations of individual species with accompanying small details about size and habitat, this is a comprehensive look at the subject. However, it stands apart with its impressive use of blank space on the page, clean lines, and coloured backgrounds, which all give the book both a vivacity and a clinical feel. Rarely have insects looked quite so engaging, it could almost double as a coffee-table splendour. Inspirational for children, a minibeast triumph.

You can’t beat a good historical narrative for history lessons. Philip Ardagh’s new series sets out to dominate the market here with his ‘faction’ books, illustrated by Jamie Littler. The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge explores the life of a medieval knight with as much tongue-in-cheek humour as sword-in-hand fighting. Written in day-by-day diary form, with footnotes giving factual information or terminology, the next in the series is The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny, Victorian Housemaid.

The Histronauts series aims to mash activity, story and non-fiction in its first two titles, An Egyptian Adventure and A Roman Adventure by Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke. A group of children dive back in time, and through the means of a comic strip, they illuminate facets of historical life. There are activities alongside the narrative, such as learning Roman numerals and how to play merellus, as well as mazes, recipes and a host of other factual information. Packed with detail, these are fun and educational.

For a more visual look, try Unfolding Journeys: Secrets of the Nile by Stewart Ross and Vanina Starkoff. More cross-curricula than anything, this geography/history hybrid aims to explore this part of the world with a fold-out, vividly yellow map of the Nile (not to scale), highly captioned with number points, which are then extrapolated on the reverse of the fold-out. A mixture of ancient and modern facts and points of information make this a tricky landscape for a child to navigate – a few more dates might have helped, (and I’m unsure about the James Bond reference inside) but it’s certainly an intriguing way to look at a place of interest.

After lunch, younger primary school children will be delighted to get their hands on Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System by Dr Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman. A new title in this series, but firmly aimed at a younger age group, this is another gem from publishers Flying Eye. Fantastic, familiar cartoons, accompanied by Professor Astro Cat’s chatty and informative dialogue, this would be my go-to book for teaching KS1 children about space for the first time.

With our first day at school completed, we look forward to a trip out. The National Gallery have two phenomenal companion books to touring – Get Colouring with Katie by James Mayhew, and Picture This! By Paul Thurlby. The Katie books by James Mayhew have long been favourites for introducing the youngest children to art, and this is a great companion title that picks out paintings within the gallery and gives children space on the page to colour a detail in their own way. Katie gives hints and explanations along the way. Paul Thurlby’s spiral bound book explores more of the paintings by featuring a picture of them, and then a small explanation, with occasional questions to the readers. The paintings are grouped in different ways – both historical, but also those featuring children, times of day, fashions etc. It might be frustrating without a knowledge of which room each painting is in (which the book doesn’t give). But the questions it poses are pertinent and thoughtful. You can buy all these books from good local bookshops, or click the Waterstones link on the top left of the page.

 

The Right To Fail

So recently, I was shown a TED talk all about how we (society) are letting down our girls by pressing on them the idea that they need to be perfect. We are enabling them to be scared of failure. We are not pushing our girls to take risks, to be brave. And we should be.

Then, two very different children’s books arrived on my desk, and yet they have something in common. They want children to be bold, to be brave, to experiment, to risk failure.

If Found Please Return to Elise Gravel by Elise Gravel
This amusing sketchbook shows the reader how to be an illustrator. In fact, Elise prefaces her book like this:

“I give myself the right to fail, to mess up, to create ugly drawings. I’m kind to myself.”

Pages and pages of full colour doodles and inspiration follow, as well as small snippets of stories, to provoke the reader’s imagination. There are some step-by-step guides, such as how to draw a hedgehog, but with a bit of perseverance, and a recognition that failure is an option, most of the illustrations are fairly easy to copy without a broken down guide.

But as well as recognisable hedgehogs, Elise also stimulates the imagination with her made-up creatures, from ‘floofs’ to the perfume-footed ‘woompus’. It’s a great example of how to start a character description, with some illustrations leading into textual explanations such as the ‘woompus’ being a “close cousin to the squirrel…he communicates with a little sharp cry that sounds like an angry baby.”

Each illustration is drawn and coloured with vibrant felt markers – so any child can copy, or take it as a starting gun for their own design. The idea is to stop the reader or young artist from worrying about whether what they’ve drawn is good or bad – it’s all about practising and drawing anything.

The joy of this book is that it looks and works like a journal – an organic entity, which aims to explore, humour, and tease the reader into keeping their own doodle pad – to experiment without risk of judgement, ridicule or failure. There are no blank pages within though – you have to buy your own blank sketcher for that.

With an attached elastic bookmark to keep place, this is a feel-good addition to any young artist’s stationery and book collection. Buy it here.

Rosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers by Andrea Beaty, illustrations by David Roberts
No child I know has failed to love Andrea Beaty’s cool STEM picture books: Rosie Revere Engineer, Iggy Peck Architect and Ada Twist Scientist – which manage to spin a cunning rhyme, promote women and diversity within science subjects, and tell a good story at the same time. This spin-off title takes the reader even further by offering interaction.

The activity book begins with a story – the background to Rosie Revere and the influences in her life. Most important is her Great Great Aunt Rose, who explains that success comes after a series of failures:

“Your brilliant first flop was a raging success.”

“Failing is just part of learning and the only true failure can come if you quit.”

The book then lists some treasure that the reader might want to collect over time to use in their own inventions, including nuts and bolts, pliers and yarn, and all sorts of bits from recycling or thrift markets.

As well as a myriad of activities throughout the book, such as directions on how to make a catapult, and making your own marble run, the book also explains that part of being an engineer is improving existing designs and models – challenging the reader to improve a bicycle for example, and also looking at world problems that need solving, such as lack of water.

The activities are interspersed with knowledge: information about real life engineers and scientists, the different types of engineering, as well as definitions of different simple machines.

There is plenty of space for creativity: the book poses questions, showcases inspirational people, promotes brainstorming etc. Being an engineer also involves using your imagination. And there’s a section on teamwork too.

The book is a great way to develop a child’s problem-solving skills, but most importantly it empowers a child to fail on their way to success. This is a brilliant book. You can 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.

 

The Absent Parents: A Guest Post by Christopher Edge

There’s something to be said for writing any book – it’s not an easy task – takes time, effort, perseverance and grit, as well as, more obviously, great imagination and observation. Edge not only writes great fiction for kids, but in his latest two novels, has managed to incorporate topical science in a subtle and interesting way. No mean feat. Last year I reviewed The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, which combined quantum physics with a heartrending story. This year’s offering, The Jamie Drake Equation, also separates our protagonist from his parent, but for a very different reason. Combining space and family dynamics – this is one special book. Christopher Edge explains below about writing ‘the absent parent’ in children’s fiction.

The first rule of children’s fiction is often to get rid of the parents. From orphans such as the unfortunate Baudelaire children who lose their folks in a house fire to the eponymous James of Giant Peach fame whose mother and father are run over by a runaway rhinocerous, sometimes it seems that the beginning of every children’s book is just focused on clearing the stage so the child protagonist has free rein.

I must admit I’ve been guilty of this myself in my time, choosing to make Penelope Tredwell, the heroine of my Victorian-set Twelve Minutes to Midnight series, an orphan heiress, and more recently, in The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, telling the story of a young boy’s quest to use quantum physics to reunite himself with his dead mother.

As in The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, sometimes the absence of a parent or parents in a children’s novel can create the central mystery to be solved, such as Darkus Cuttle’s search for his scientist father in M.G. Leonard’s glorious Beetle Boy. However in other books, parental absence can simply colour the intricate web of relationships that the central character spins around them, with the emotions depicted ranging from anger and loss, to an uneasy fear that an absent parent will never return.

In children’s fiction, the reasons for a parent’s absence can be as numerous as in real life, from soldiers at war (Stay Where You Are and Then Leave by John Boyne), imprisonment (The Railway Children by E. Nesbit) or just a job that takes a parent away from the family home (Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce and The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange). In these stories, the protagonist’s desire to see their parent again is often the emotional thrust that fuels the narrative.

In The Jamie Drake Equation, the absent parent can’t be found anywhere on Earth, but is instead floating on the International Space Station in lower-Earth orbit, spinning round the world at 27,000 kilometres per hour. Jamie Drake’s dad is astronaut Commander Dan Drake who’s headed into space on humanity’s first mission to launch interstellar probes for the stars. Ten-year-old Jamie ought to think it’s really cool to have a dad who’s an astronaut, but really he just misses him and can’t wait for him to come home.

Our relationships with our parents or guardians are ones that can go on to define us in later life, and often a key staging post in childhood is the recognition of a parent’s flaws. Jamie’s dad might be able to fly like Superman on board the International Space Station, but back on Earth it takes an alien to help Jamie realise what it means to be human, and how the moments we have with the ones that we love can be the most precious in the universe.

With huge thanks to Christopher for his insightful guest post. To buy a copy of The Jamie Drake Equation, click here

 

The Awesome Body Book by Adam Frost

I’m sure I would have qualified to be a doctor, or at least enjoyed biology more, if this book had been around when I was a youngster. This is a non-fiction chapter book, set out in full colour, and packed with the most incredible facts that will enable the reader to answer quiz questions, startle their teachers and amaze their parents, as well as share delectable, laughable quirks with their friends.

There’s no index or contents, for a very good reason – this is a book of randomly assembled facts to dip into, laid out in colourful infographics and cartoon illustrations.

So the reader can find out what’s edible in their back garden, to which is the biggest/smallest/strangest/longest muscle in the human body, to bacteria, worms, hair, noise, crying, the heart, brainpower and on and on. And each section contains small enjoyable sentences of information.

Amazing the facts might be, but there’s no alternative truth here. The full source and reference list is even listed at the end of the book so that the reader can double check any truths of which they’re unsure.

The diagrams are hilarious – showing how long the human tongue would be if it was proportionally as long as an African hawkmoth’s, there’s a diagram showing different facial hair, and some of the graphics are just plain fascinating – the infographic showing different noises in decibels.

But mainly this book works because as well as being interesting, it’s so accessible. It’s easy to read, and the reader will learn without realising they are absorbing facts, and ‘read’ without realising they are ‘reading’ a book because the facts are in such small morsels.

It answers things that don’t actually come up in biology lessons, and goes beyond farts and worms, (although it does cover these in detail) and delves into the psychology of dreams, colours in different cultures, and behaviour comparisons between humans and animals.

Adam Frost has won the Blue Peter Book Award for a previous title in the series, but this is the first themed title. And it made me use my orbicularis oculi (pars lateralis). See if it makes you use yours! Buy it here.

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

highest-mountain-deepest-ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy a copy here.