science

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 Published 2012, so in no way old and out-of-date, this is an exciting illustrated title for young enthusiasts.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+.

 

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.