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What’s the Big Idea?

Christopher Edge has written many great children’s books over the years, but his latest series of science-related fiction has been phenomenal in its ability to tell an engrossing story whilst encapsulating some of the big scientific ideas. His latest, The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day, was a MinervaReads book of the week in early April, and here he explores writing the science into the story:

A few years ago, when I started writing my novel The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, I remember a friend asking me what it was about. “It’s kind of like the film It’s A Wonderful Life,” I replied, “but with quantum physics.” A frown furrowed my friend’s face. “Quantum physics?” he said. “And it’s a children’s book?”

I don’t think I write children’s books. I think I write stories. And stories are for everyone. But from the moment The Many Worlds of Albie Bright was first published, young readers have demonstrated to me their appetite for the big ideas of science.

At school and literary festival events I’ve carried out live-action demonstrations of Schrödinger’s cat and now as I get ready to start talking about my new novel The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day I’m busy working out the logistics of building the biggest-ever Möbius strip in the world!

Science explores the big questions about life, the universe and everything – the same questions that can underpin the very best stories. Why are we here? What makes us human? How do we know we really exist? Young readers are eager to grapple with these questions and children’s literature can provide the medium to help them to do this.

As YA has grown as a genre in recent years, there’s been increasing discussion about what the difference between children’s and YA fiction actually is. Some talk about the age of the protagonist, whilst others point to the themes and issues tackled, but for me I think of children’s fiction as looking outward at the world, whilst YA books look inward. I’m aware that there are lots of examples that contradict this distinction and I think the best books do both, but this sense of inquisitiveness is what fuels my fiction.

maisie dayMy latest novel The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day is about a girl called Maisie who’s a bit of a science whiz. She passed her GCSE Maths and Science exams at the age of seven, her A Levels when she was nine, and, as the story starts on her tenth birthday, is now studying for a degree in Mathematics and Physics at the Open University. But when Maisie wakes up in an empty house with no sign of her mum, dad or elder sister, Lily, and then opens the front door to see a dense, terrifying blackness outside, Maisie quickly realises that her birthday isn’t going to be any ordinary day.  Trapped in an ever-shifting reality, she has to use the laws of the universe and the love of her family to survive. And as Maisie pieces together the puzzle of what’s really happening, she discovers that reality is not what it seems…

Science and stories both help us to make sense of the world and I hope The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day can feed the insatiable curiosity I find in the children that I meet at school and literary festival events. Through fiction we can inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts, and use science to hook a new generation of children on reading too.

With thanks to Christopher Edge. You can buy The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day here

 

The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge

maisie dayAre you real? It was a question sparked by the picture book There’s a Tiger in the Garden by Lizzy Stewart that started our primary school library club thinking about their own existence. And then Steven Hawking died, and it was time to revisit questioning the universe and the role we play within it.

So Christopher Edge’s latest book seemed ideal as the next book to watch out for. Coming after Albie Bright and Jamie Drake, Maisie Day is the newest addition to Edge’s range of books that deal with complex scientific questions and weave them into a children’s story. And perhaps, not just the newest, but the most sciencey and yet mystifying of the three so far.

Maisie wakes on her tenth birthday busting with excitement and anticipation. But this child genius finds herself in an empty house. Not only have her family vanished, but outside the window what should be a sunny garden soon turns into an all-consuming blackness that is gradually expanding, and even entering into the house, swallowing the materials around it as it does so. Nightmarish doesn’t do justice to the sheer terror of this.

And yet, alongside this horror story (in alternating chapters) is the somewhat happy story of what does happen on Maisie’s birthday – the food preparations for the party, a normal family life revolving around her.

Luckily, Maisie is not only insightful, but a scientific whizz, and so she must use her knowledge of the laws of science to outwit the blackness, and return her state of being to the Maisie in the ‘happy birthday’ chapters.

This is an intelligent and challenging book with oodles of science written into Maisie’s thought process. For some, perhaps even a little too much, and this is hard science. Luckily, Christopher Edge has a good handle on it, and manages to convey most of it in an easy to understand and genial way.

There’s a terrific plot twist near the end that tries to explain, or rather question, the reality of all that we see around us. What it means to be human, to be real, and what our lives really are all about. Involving virtual reality, and the means by which we understand our universe and place within it, this book holds difficult concepts, but within short bitesize chapters, and an easy-to-understand narrative.

Gratifyingly, the book features not just a female lead in Maisie, but also an older sister who is crucial to the plot, and so fits well into the current ambition to pull more girls into science and computer related subjects.

This is an unusual book, very different to other novels for this age group (8+ years), and is short and accessible. This helps the reader to absorb the science whilst not getting lost in the plot, and this is some achievement. From black holes to expanding universes, sibling rivalry and electric endings – this is an intriguing and accomplished book.You can buy it here.

Below Zero by Dan Smith

below zeroCold landscapes enthral the mind in these icy months, but there are no ice queens, lyrical snowy descriptions or frosty ice rinks here. This is a fast-paced, gripping thriller that alludes to Star Wars, involves spider drones, artificial intelligence used for mal purposes, and has a protagonist who is both emotionally engaging and full of wit and charm.

When Zak and his family crash land at Outpost Zero, an Antarctic research base set up to house people who may in the future be the first humans to live on Mars, the power is out and it is as cold and dark inside as out. The people are nowhere to be found, and Zak starts to have visions of things that aren’t there, things that might be connected to something lurking beneath the ice.

The action dips back and forwards between Zak’s present day reality, and the actions of mere hours before, in which Sofia, one of the people housed on the research base, discovered something rather fascinating and dangerous about a substance beneath the ice. The time jumps sharpen and intensify the plot, and lend a satisfying anticipatory buildup to the action.

At about the time of reading, I was also watching Attenborough’s Blue Planet II and the discovery of the deep sea’s hydrothermal vents – perhaps the origins of life on Earth. Smith’s novel ideas timely dip into these vents, with the idea that what Sofia finds deep beneath the ice is alive, and indeed life-giving. His preposterous plot becomes more real, more plausible.

But it’s with the idea of the spider drones that Smith really taps into our current zeitgeist. Zak’s parents are scientists, the inventors of the spider drones that are used on the research base to perform a number of robotic tasks. When the life-giving matter beneath the ice attaches itself to the drones, the artificial intelligence of the drones suddenly isn’t so artificial. But are they a force for good, or for evil?

Smith’s playfulness with artificial intelligence and human’s use of the environment makes sure that although this novel drives home some deep thoughts, the story remains as a thriller should – playful, light, page-turning.

Zak is a warm character – he suffers from a brain tumour, and is accompanied throughout most of the action by his parents and sister, which gives him both a rounding and a humanity as he responds to his parents’ worries, and his sister’s goading. But mainly he’s a lovable character on his own. Thoughtful, daring and very real.

The author also throws in a third point of view – a mysterious character called The Broker, who has nothing but evil intent, although intriguingly enough, he too is shown with family.

And it is through families that Smith views the world. Motivation and ultimate victory comes to those who most care about the consequences their actions have on others. Despite the implausibility of most of the story and the ending, this is a cracking good read, with heart-pounding tension, limitless action and a wonderfully remote and exciting setting.

Top adventure, great fun, and a nod towards our own future. You can buy your own copy 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 

 

You Choose in Space

Whenever I sneak a look at the top ten most borrowed books in the school library, there’s one book that always features. You Choose by Pippa Goodhart, illustrated by Nick Sharratt is that dream of a book: children can read it over and over again, huddled around its pages with their friends, changing the narrative each time, reinventing the story in multiple ways, daydreaming their future. After a while, there is even a comforting familiarity about the illustrations. Just this week, some Year 3 pupils were going through the book making choices based on how much money their character had! So, it was with open arms that I embraced the new title, You Choose in Space. Whether it’s which alien you would befriend, what mode of transport you would use, or which freaky food you’d eat for your space snacks, the book has everything for a fun-filled interactive space adventure. Just as the original, the pages are packed with vibrant, colourful, happy images, giving full boost to any child’s imagination. It’s amazing to think that the original premise was rejected by publishers – for many children, You Choose has been their introduction to books. So, to turn the world on its head, I didn’t ask readers what they would choose in space, I asked Pippa and Nick. Here, are their choices for You Choose in Space:

 

 

Pippa:

Nick and I are actually pictured in the space craft coming in to land on Planet Pick-and-Mix.  Search carefully, and you’ll spot us!

If I had all those choices to choose from when we came down to land, I think I’d mostly go for blue things.  Why?  Because blue is my favourite colour.  I’d pick the blue bobbed hair to wear.

Nick: I’d choose the blue and orange hair and the Saturn top.

Pippa: A blue iced donut to eat.

Nick: It has to be the rainbow jelly for me.

Pippa: I’d very much like to meet the smiley blue alien with knobs on her head who rides a scooter and makes blue sandcastles from soft blue sand. I think she would make a fun friend.

Nick: I think the tall alien with the spike on the top of his head looks like he’d be nice and friendly.

Pippa: I’d also like to try and spy a duckafly from all the strange animal things as I fly by in one of those big baskets with wings.

Nick: My favourite is the horse bird.

Pippa: I’d very much like to ride on a pink-powered orange space hopper.  Why?  Because space hoppers were a new toy here on Earth when I was about ten, and I got one for my birthday, and I hopped and hopped on it again and again.  If it had that added pink zoom power I could hop it higher into the sky, and maybe even fly into space and explore all those other planets.

Nick: I had a space hopper too! But I’m going for the rollercopter.

With huge thanks to Pippa and Nick for taking time out of their busy writing and illustrating schedules to read their book with me. What would you choose? Go into space and make your own choices 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.

 

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

When I was twelve years old a new English teacher started at my school. She was young and glamorous, and I wanted very much to impress her, especially as she taught my favourite subject. Then, one day she handed out our homework assignment on the text we were studying – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She wanted us to depict a scene in a comic strip. I was devastated. Drawing wasn’t literature, I thought. My level of drawing barely matched Wimpy Kid levels, my love for my teacher plummeted as swiftly as Sir Toby descends into revelry. The effort I put in matched my grade. Low.

But it remains one of the Shakespeare plays I best remember. The cross-garters (easy to depict visually), the gender disguises, the triumphant reuniting of the twins. And perhaps that was to do with having to try to make a visual representation.

One of the ways in which the children in my library club best engage with the books I’m reading to them is if we use the books as inspiration to discuss and draw the contents. We may do craft, or create our own story, or redesign covers, or simply draw our feelings.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth is a series of comics presented in paperback book format. In fact, the publisher very kindly sent me the first three, which I devoured with glee, chortling nonstop. Hilo comes crashing down from the sky, clad only in silver underpants, and has no idea where he comes from, or what he’s doing on Earth.

DJ, a normal kid from an overachieving family, and his friend Gina, try to figure out where Hilo comes from, and by the end of the book, how to fight robots in order to save the world!

The comic is fast-paced – action leaps from frame to frame, but the book goes much deeper than that. DJ has pretty low self-esteem, believing that he lacks the skillsets he sees in his siblings. With the friendship of Hilo and Gina, he grows in confidence, and finds out what it takes to be a real hero.

Winick evokes great humour in his portrayal of Hilo, who has no idea what food and clothing are for, and yet absorbs new information at a startling rate. He introduces catchphrases for the friends, and references other comics and movies.

The books are bright and bold – the colour screams from the page, and the characters are wonderfully empathetic and emotive in their depictions.

There’s long been, and still is, a snobbery about comics, and yet by using them for readers who don’t want to be confronted with a large chunk of text, comics can easily imbue children with great storytelling skills.

One of the great things about comics is that they explore the angle of a scene – like assessing the point of view. The reader can explore each individual picture to see why the illustrator has drawn it in that way – what is shown in this scene, what is not – where is the ‘camera’ looking from, is it a close-up? The language has been carefully selected – after all there’s only so much the author can fit into each square – why did he chose those particular words? And more than that, what is the narrative stream between the different frames? – the connectivity of panels relates to the connectivity of sentences in a narrative text.

With a diverse cast, a cliffhanger ending, and a message of friendship, loyalty and bravery, this is a great new series. For 8+ years. Discover 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

 

Why Space Matters To Us All: A Guest Blog by Colin Stuart

I am delighted to share with you, as part of National Non-Fiction November, a blogpost from Colin Stuart, an astrophysicist who specialises in giving talks to children, educating and entertaining them with his knowledge. He published Why Space Matters To Me this year, a great non-fiction book for 7+ years, explaining such pertinent questions as “Did you know you are 90.5% stardust?”

why space

Stars and maps go hand in hand. Rewind through time, back through several millennia, and the average person could not read or write. The printing press and Wikipedia were still a very long way off. There weren’t even sophisticated ways of keeping track of the time. So instead people passed information from generation to generation by telling stories. Some of the most important tales related to mythical creatures seen in the stars, which move through the night sky as the year progresses. Certain stars and constellations rise above the ground at particular times of year, and so teaching your children to plant the crops by these patterns was a way to ensure this vital information wasn’t lost.

And so the ancients took the stories already existing in their cultures and used the night sky as a giant picture book to illustrate them. Tales of princes and princesses, of sea monsters and dragons, unicorns and flying horses are all played out in the stars. Over the centuries astronomers and artists alike have drawn intricate and beautiful maps of these imaginary icons, all in the name of preserving ancient wisdom.

Yet the link between stars and maps is far from restricted to the constellations – the stars themselves help us to draw maps of Earth too. If you look up at the night sky, over the course of several hours you will quickly notice the stars slowly creeping across the heavens. They are not really moving. It is simply that our view of their position changes as the Earth rotates. This is true for all but one star – Polaris. Also known as the ‘Pole Star’ or more commonly as ‘The North Star’ because it sits in a direct line above the North Pole, it barely seems to move as we spin. It is this steadfast nature that has helped humans to navigate for centuries.

If you were standing on the North Pole you would see Polaris directly overhead, at the very top of the sky. But the further you move towards the Equator, the further it sinks towards the horizon. So by measuring the angle between the ground and Polaris you can tell exactly how far up or down you are in the Northern Hemisphere. When intrepid explorers set off in the Middle Ages to chart new lands, they were able to create maps of places they’d been based on knowing their position by the stars.

Space may seem a very separate place to the Earth. But to me that’s just as crazy as saying your heart is completely separate from the rest of your body. It’s all connected. And as humans we learned long ago to use space to our advantage. As we continue to explore the universe we are finding many more ways to improve the lives of people on ground, proving once and for all that space really does matter to all of us.

With thanks to Colin Stuart.