science

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.

Animal Non-Fiction

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

lesser-spotted-animals

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

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

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

wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

secrets-of-the-sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

knowledge-animal

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

To Read is To Do

There’s nothing like a children’s non-fiction activity book to keep me on my toes and teach me new tricks. Three books that recently caught my attention for their ingenuity, hands-on practicality, and ability to teach by entertaining, are as follows:

ingreedies

Around the World with the Ingreedies: A Taste Adventure by Zoe Bather and Joe Sharpe, and illustrated by Chris Dickason

I already know how to cook, but I was delighted to discover this gem of a food book for children, mainly because it doesn’t just teach how to make flapjacks and cupcakes. The Ingreedies takes a culinary journey through the delectable feasts on offer from countries around the world, explaining native crops, foods, customs and delicacies.

The first thing that hits the reader is the bold illustrations. The book is narrated by colourful cartoon explorers called The Ingreedies. These strange looking, rather vibrant, cartoons, who are typically types of food or spices, travel the world looking for ingredients and recipes – using speech bubbles to convey their dialogue, and interspersing the bulk text with their dialogue. Many of the pages are maps of the world, with introductory paragraphs, but overlaid with the Ingreedies and the food they have found.

The first stop is the Americas, showing a map of the two continents, and highlighting and explaining key ingredients, such as jerk, turkey, maple syrup, quinoa, feijoada and sugar. The book then delves deeper into a few of the countries with facts about farming, traditional foods, history and geography. In the middle of these are some family recipes, including, in this section, haddock chowder, spicy street wraps and brigadeiros.

Each continent is explored in the same way. It’s a fascinating dip into food terms and ingredients, for example, teaching what Americans mean by grits, and the terms for different shaped pasta. There’s a chart showing the potency of chillies, how tarte tatin was invented by mistake (burning the pan), as well as a look at local customs including a French high street and a Thai floating market.

Of course, when in Rome…or rather Morocco – I tested one of the recipes – with spectacular results. Not only was it easy to make, but the entire family liked it.

ingreedies2

With illustrations as vibrant as a Thai stir fry, and as informative as it is tasty, this is a great addition to the cooking canon. It’s not a recipe book – containing just 13 recipes, but it is a brilliant informational book that inspires cooking at the same time. Age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

pinball science

Build your Own Pinball Science by Ian Graham and Nick Arnold, illustrated by Owen Davey

Never one for paper engineering – I had hoped to employ an eleven year old boy to review this amazing book and science set with me. However, he was unavailable, so it was with trepidation that I extracted the flatpack pages and instructions from the box behind this book, and set to work.

The pinball machine instructions are impeccably written and put together, with enough cardboard so that the pinball machine is not only easy to assemble, but hardy enough to play numerous times afterwards (funnily enough, the eleven year old was available to test it out – with strength – many times!) See video at the end of the page.

But, of course, aside from the fun in putting together this pinball machine, the accompanying book teaches the physics behind it. And of course with the practical application alongside, it all makes much more sense.
pinball2

Ingeniously the contents page is a picture of the completed pinball machine – with each part labelled to show the corresponding page number. For example, the flippers are explained in ‘flipping levers’ on page 18, the bumper in ‘bouncing science’ on page 24. Not only was I raring to read about the science behind it, but I felt a warming sense of achievement that I had built it exactly as shown.

The science is about motion, including Newton’s three laws of motion, forces – from springs to gravity, as well as wheels, pulleys, inclines, wedges and screws – all the things I used to make my machine. Within the individual explanations there are also other little practical experiments to exemplify a point – such as using an empty bottle, rice and a chopstick to test resistance.

With stunning illustrations and graphics in Owen Davey’s now very definitive style and colour scheme, this is an absolute scientific treat. For even the most unsciencey among us. This brilliantly hands-on book teaches physics with skill, aptitude and interest and is expertly executed. If every student made their own pinball machine from this book in class, we’d have a country filled with engineers. And this family now has its very own pinball machine to play with. It’s still going strong. And giving oodles of fun. (My only quibble – I wish the book could detach from the box.) Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

book thinks scientist

This Book Thinks You’re a Scientist, illustrated by Harriet Russell

A while ago a parent showed me a book that her daughter, a reluctant reader, adored. It was called Wreck This Journal – one of many titles by artist Keri Smith that encourages the reader to use the book as a creative outlet – to make mistakes inside, poke holes in pages, deface it etc. This Book Thinks You’re a Scientist is also asking the reader to respond to it – to write in it, play with it, fill it in – but this time with a very positive aspect – it is teaching science.

It wants to instill the idea that you don’t need a white lab coat and a Bunsen burner to be a scientist. You just need to look around and ask questions. From taking a random object in your house and examining it (leading questions are contained in the book), to performing tests on yourself such as running, tipping yourself over and suchlike, to even experimenting on the book itself – “Invent a way to move this book as far as you can in one go.” Although it does warn about lobbing the book across the room at fellow family members!

Bright and colourful, with endless pages of experiments (all easy to perform, none needing any special apparatus), to actual explanations of science: “An object that is moving has ‘momentum’. This means the object will keep going unless another force stops it, like friction or air resistance”, so for example when I hurled the book across the room (at nothing, not a family member) it stopped when it hit the wall.

This book provides hours of fun entertainment, and also teaches something at the same time. Other highlights for me include the puzzle of Farmer John, the fox, the chicken and the corn, the experiment to see if chocolate and ice cream taste different frozen and warmed, and my new-found incredible ability to bend water. And while the reader is doing all these things, they are learning (almost by osmosis, but also by the simple explanations within) about force and motion, electricity and magnetism, earth and space, light, matter, sound and mathematics.

Produced in association with London’s Science Museum, and with snazzy illustrations (check out the superhero) by Harriet Russell, this is a great book to learn while doing. For age 7+ years. You can buy it here.

 

Strange Star by Emma Carroll and Thicker than Water by Anne Cassidy

straange star

Following on from Monday’s guest post by Emma Carroll, I review two recent children’s novels that draw on classic literature. Firstly, Carroll’s own novel, Strange Star, inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A modern day Frankenstein draws together so many elements – from the inspiration of classic literature on today’s contemporary writers, to the teaching and love of science for young people, and in particular, girls (STEM reaching out its tendrils to young females) and also our modern obsession with the treatment of ‘other’, which is something that, believe it or not, has existed since the dawn of time: whether what is different is perceived as monstrous simply by the fact of it being ‘other’.

Strange Star begins in June 1816 with a group of friends gathered at a villa on the banks of Lake Geneva, telling each other ghost stories. It was where Frankenstein was reputed to have been imagined by Mary Shelley as she listened to stories from Byron and Percy Shelley. Carroll uses the scene to build tension and atmospheric chill, when a thudding at the front door reveals a strange, half dead child who, on awakening, proceeds to tell her tale.

She is Lizzie Appleby, a village girl from England who speaks of strange happenings, lightning strikes, the disappearance of animals, and the strange goings-on at Eden Court near her house, where a scientist is experimenting with lightning. By the end of the book, the connection is revealed, but there are spooks and thrills along the way, and some canny plot weaving.

As in Frankenstein, Carroll repeats the narrative within a narrative framework for her tale, but she goes further than simply using the inspiration of ghost stories and internal narratives. She has cleverly played on so many of the themes buried within the original text, from the use of fire, not only in a final denouement, but also in the lightning strikes, to themes of sight and light – light providing opportunity and yet also danger, and a lack of sight providing the most insight.

Carroll’s characters are vividly imagined, and although our first narrator is a boy, the bulk of the novel is Lizzie’s narrative, and she tells of the women who surround her. Throughout the story, the strength of women shines through, despite the historical context and the struggle they must surmount to prove themselves. From women and their relationship to motherhood, to women who are prepared to work hard and sacrifice themselves in the process, to the women of science who need to prove they are as good as their male counterparts. All in some way sympathetic characters – even those, who like Dr Frankenstein, push themselves too far in blind ambition and forget to think of what or who they may be hurting along the way.

The other point of view in Strange Star (in third person) is that of Felix, Lord Byron’s servant, who is also richly portrayed, and intensely simpatico, despite his own difficulties in the face of his ‘otherness’. Carroll draws together the historical implications of all these people with their differences – be it gender or race or disability – and shows how strength of spirit and tolerance can forge through.

The writing flows as with all Carroll’s novels; the descriptions are visceral and explore all the senses, but more importantly the plot is meaty and intense. This is storytelling at its very best, and with a deliciously haunting feel to it that readers will savour long into the night. Age 12+. You can buy it here.

thicker than water

Anne Cassidy attempts to get even closer to her original text, this time Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, by recrafting her take on the story in Thicker Than Water.

George wants to run a record shop, with just enough money to get by. But he has Lennie to look after too, and despite his size, something about Lennie is not quite right and he certainly doesn’t recognise his own strength. So it’s inevitable that before long Lennie will lead them both into trouble, and with the sort of people they’re working for – the trouble will be deep and dangerous.

Of course the problem with tackling such a meaty book by an author such as Steinbeck and condensing the word count so significantly is that there isn’t time for a slow wallowing immersion into the complexity of the characters and their relationships to each other.

Steinbeck spends a large portion of his novel focussing on male relationships; a brotherly connection of protection and idealised friendship. This is what makes his tragic ending so poignant and heartfelt. Although Anne Cassidy’s also feels emotional, I think it’s a stretch to achieve quite such a wrench in a condensed novel.

There’s a languorous world-weariness in the original text, a reality come to bare that the American dream is all but an impossibility. In Thicker Than Water, George also seems to realise that his dream is probably unattainable, but the philosophical life-learning lessons to reach this realisation – anguished over in Steinbeck, is harder to pull off when reducing the age of the protagonists to teens, as Cassidy does in hers.

Although some of the moral ambiguity is stripped out, Cassidy has interpreted Steinbeck’s original thoughts on the economic turmoil and societal breakdown in America beautifully by positioning her own English characters within a pub, where a host of figures explore the lack of opportunities afforded them, and instead wallow in crime and social exclusion. This is clever and effective.

Cassidy also draws out the central premise of loyalty, and maintains some of the original themes, such as the natural world, the premise of loneliness, and the dogs.

This is a good standalone novel, or a companion piece to Of Mice and Men. There’s a quality to the text that’s dramatic, filmic even, and I could happily watch a stage adaptation of Cassidy’s too. Age 12+. You can buy it here.

Whether the reader approaches the books in ignorance of the original sparks of inspiration, or reads them as complementary novels, these are both well written, memorable novels. For me, it bumped the originals back onto the To Be Read Pile. But I’m glad I read the classics while young, for “the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain.” Thanks, Mary Shelley.

 

 

With thanks to Simon Lister for his valuable insight on OMAM.

Under Earth, Under Water by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski

under earth under water

As a children’s book reviewer, it’s difficult to balance non-fiction and fiction reviews. With a swift glance at my in-box, I think only about two per cent of the books I am sent are non-fiction titles, and many of those are requested, when actually non-fiction sales make up about 12 % of the market (excluding text books/study guides). At the moment there is reported growth in non-fiction across children’s publishing. For example, Penguin reported growth of 38% in their children’s non-fiction publishing in 2014.

It’s hard to work out what percentage of non-fiction sales are licensed titles, such as Minecraft and activity books, which also fall under non-fiction, and how many are actual fact books. However, luckily for me (and you) the non-fiction that does reach me tends to be of extremely high quality.

The latest is Under Earth, Under Water from the authors of Maps, and it is quirky, random, factual, and absurdly moreish.

It endeavours to portray segments of the Earth stretching down from the burrowing animals near the surface, through pipes, tunnels, caves, and mines, to the Earth’s core – and then, turning the book over – goes down again through the water’s surface – lakes down through the oceans, oil harvesting, human sea exploration and its history, and ending up just past the Mariana trench.

The Mizielinkskis have a distinct style of illustration and annotation (info bubbles, arrows and numbers) and have used it well here, depicting the narration with representatives of what they are trying to show rather than attempting illustrative likenesses. For example, the illustration of Sima Humboldt explains what a cool phenomenon it is, but motivates the reader to look up photographic evidence of it too.

In fact the entire book is inspirational non-fiction rather than pure factual telling. This may be one reason why the book doesn’t have a glossary – it’s a book for dipping into – finding out new discoveries, and then researching more if inspired.

The graphics work well in trying to explain scientific or geological happenings – especially sink holes, and buoyancy, both of which I stumbled across while ‘dipping’, because they aren’t chapter headings and I found them at random. Step by step illustrations explain both processes, and the accompanying text is simple and effective. For a non-scientist or growing child, the explanations are fascinating.

The authors/illustrators use of colours is fabulous too – the cover’s striking red and blue (one side earth, one side water), indicative of what’s inside. The coral reef is fairly vibrant, but colour is used most effectively in some of the diagrams – for example in explaining water systems below the earth, the authors use different tones for rain water, sewage, industrial waste, suspension and eventually clean water to explain how they all diverge and intersect.

under earth under water 2

Some spreads are general in topic, whilst others, seemingly randomly, pick out specific examples. For example tunnels is general, then the authors describe specific metro systems. Similarly, mines are described in general, then the Mponeng mine is shown (with map) to illustrate the deepest mine. However, not all specific examples have maps, not all terms are explained in graphics.

All in all the cleverness of the duality of the book, the random selection of facts and information, the compulsion to revisit and find out more beguiled me. This is great family reference for inspiring knowledge; love of learning for its own sake, and inspiring future generations. This is not the answer to a specific google search, it’s an oversize exquisitely packaged bundle of information.

For age 6+ years, and you can buy it here.

Iron Fist The Inventory: A Guest Blog from Andy Briggs

Iron Fist

Since the arrival of Alex Rider in 2000 I have seen a proliferation of books about smart, quick-thinking pre-teen boys launched into amazing action adventures. From the books of Robert Muchamore to Simon Mayo, Charlie Higson and Chris Bradford, there is no shortage of pre- and early-teen heroes combating an evil enemy. Recently arrived on my shelves are Theodore Boone, the boy lawyer from John Grisham, the Urban Outlaws, and most recently The Inventory: Iron Fist by Andy Briggs, the last of which stands apart with its fascinating array of technological and scientific gadgetry, and the number of twists, turns and surprises within.

The Inventory is a collection of the most amazing technology and gadgetry (James Bond wouldn’t believe his eyes).  It includes such wonders as Hoverboots, invisible camouflage and of course the Iron Fist. Dev’s uncle is the curator, backed up by artificial intelligence security. But when thieves try to breach the system and steal the Iron First, Dev is in more trouble than he realises. 

From the outset the gadgetry and action zing from the page. A villain who turns a police car and humans into a two-dimensional object before disintegrating them into bare molecules starts the ball rolling on page five, and is a swift example of the scintillating imagery within. This is a treat – an unputdownable action adventure that’s not dissimilar from playing a video game – except the action is in your head. I’m delighted to welcome author Andy Briggs onto the blog, so that he can relate his favourite moments in The Inventory.

What a challenge! To write about my favourite moments in my new book. Well, it was a complete thrill to type the words: chapter one. Of course, that was later changed when my editor suggested I have chapter titles instead. Still, I thought it was a nice beginning and much better than prologue which I had previously considered. So, since that technically isn’t in the book… writing the end was a huge relief! You can’t imagine the stress that flows from an author’s shoulders when those words are written. Again, my editor removed the end pointing out that very few books actually have that written down as the subsequent lack of pages is usually a give away. So, my two favourite moments from the book aren’t actually in it any more, so I suppose I better find something that wasn’t cut…

There is not too much I can give away as I am hoping that each layer of The Inventory is as much of a surprise to the reader as it was for me. Let me explain. Normally I feverishly plan my books chapter-by-chapter, so I know exactly where I am heading, this comes from my day-job as a screenwriter in which planning is critical. Not all authors do this and I envy those who can just simply write and a story unfolds – so for this book I dabbled in to the art of not knowing where I was going. I knew the beginning and end of course, and had a few plot points I wanted to anchor in, but I wanted the Inventory itself to feel fresh and unexplored.

We’re in the town of Edderton. On the edge of town a boy called Dev lives with his uncle on a farm. Except the farm is not all it appears to be, hidden underground is a sprawling labyrinth of warehouses, hangars and passageways that make up the top secret Inventory. A place where the world’s greatest inventions are kept out of our grubby hands.

Each warehouse is split into zones – the Green Zone, Blue Zone, etc – all with increasing security and radical forms of protection, that eventually lead to the Red Zone at the heart of the complex. This is where the most dangerous gadgets are stored. I wanted the zones themselves to have distinctive characteristics so the gadgets our heroes find did not simply lead the action. When I wrote my TARZAN series I was able to jump from river to jungle to savannahs – when you’re in an underground warehouse a shelf looks pretty much like any other shelf, as I am sure anybody who has been to Ikea has discovered. So, unlike popular home furnishing stores, I was able to split the areas up in unique ways… again, nothing I can specifically talk about without giving anything away, but I had huge fun in creating these environments into which I could shove my characters and make them run for their lives…

Another favourite moment for me was working with the main hero of the book, Dev. Like all heroes he is forced to dig deep inside himself to figure out exactly what makes him so special. In doing so I was able to make him… give him… let him have… um, not sure how to phrase this… a unique quality that I don’t recall reading in any other book. That is a marvellous feeling, when you think you’ve got something different, a twist on the familiar that hopefully adds a little more to the story.

Villains. Villains are always fun… but I can’t give too much away… but if you know your inventors then you may get some of the in-jokes…

So, to end, what can I say about The Inventory. Very little apparently. And my favourite moment? Well, ultimately perhaps it was when I wrote the words Chapter One, in the second book that follows on, and is out later this year. The only problem is I already know which two words my editor is going to change…

www.andybriggs.co.uk

@abriggswriter

With huge thanks to Andy. Suitable for children aged 9+ years. You can buy the book here.

 

Professor Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure by Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman

astro cat atomic adventures

This is an oversize square book, packaged in a beautifully textured hardback with the now familiar illustrations of Professor Astro Cat adorning the cover (we previously saw and loved him in Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space). The Atomic Adventure aims to explore the scientific laws of the Universe, ie, physics.

It poses and answers questions such as where does electricity come from? How do we see colours? How does a boat float? Why is the sky blue? And many many others. As in the previous title, this author cat addresses the reader in the first person – so that I am talking to you. This is a great way to pull the reader into the book:

“If I jump in the air or throw a ball really high, I know that the ball and I will always return back to the ground. This is because of gravity, which is an invisible force that pulls us down to the ground.”

Not only does the text pull in the reader, but it’s interactive too – suggesting experiments for the reader to partake in, (and not with a whole host of difficult ingredients, but simply and easily, such as measuring time with a stopwatch, and spraying a hose on a sunny day to make rainbows).

One of my favourite pages is ‘The Man Behind the Cheese’. Not only does it explain the origin of the idea of atoms – but explains to the child that “It just goes to show that you can work out rather a lot just by thinking about things hard enough.” A lovely end to the tale of Democritus.

There’s also a great deal of humour and wit…from the text:

“There would be over ten trillion atoms right on that very tip of the pencil. That is CRAZY SMALL!”

As well as particularly, from the illustrations – a combination of comics, diagrams, cartoons – Ben Newman has used many different ways to illustrate the various scientific concepts, with our Astro Cat but also Astro Mouse guiding the way.

Great colour dynamics dominate the book, reflected in the blue, orange and yellow of the cover. It gives the book a distinctive look and flavour, but also manages to focus the mind when perusing the book – I was completely engrossed and lost inside it – my physics teacher would be proud. The design is elegant, well thought out, and perfectly executed.

Delightfully, as in the previous space title, the book doesn’t purport to be the final frontier. In fact, it talks about things scientists are trying to do in the future, rather than wrapping it all up in the present. Yes, this means at some point the book will date, but seeing as all non-fiction books date at some point, it’s rather refreshing to have concrete speculation, such as the scientists using the idea of ridges in gecko feet to make amazing new materials, as well as working on lenses that never blur.

Written by a quantum computer scientist, this appears to be an incredibly comprehensive and trustworthy title, with complex ideas explained simply, and importantly, in a fun way. Digestible, easy to decipher science and a push for the reader to keep reading and discovering. A perfect key stage two accompaniment to school physics, or a tool for home learning – it certainly enlightened this non-scientific reader.

As I said, I’m no scientist, but one quibble as a reader is the order of the topics – it is surprising to me that gravity is the first page, but ‘forces’ aren’t introduced until much later. One reason may be the explanation that gravity is the reason the Earth was created – so there is some method to the order, I’m sure. My other quibble would be the lack of contents page (I’m a traditionalist), although I heartily approve of combining the glossary and the index. Something I’ve always thought was an excellent thing to do in non-fiction books for children.

Highly recommended – you can buy it here.