technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ethan I was Before by Ali Standish and Truth or Dare by Non Pratt

It’s funny how books bucket together. In the past two months I’ve read three books with ‘dares’ as their theme – I Dare You by Reece Wykes, a picture book for the young at heart with a wry sense of humour, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt, a most excellent YA novel with some hard truths at heart, and The Ethan I was Before, a middle grade novel with a dare at its core.

In The Ethan I Was Before, twelve-year-old Ethan is moved with his family to live with his grandfather in Georgia, a far cry from the Boston he is used to. Allegedly the move is to help his grandfather, although it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather is an independent soul, and the move is to remove Ethan from an uncomfortable incident in his past.

Ethan’s relationship with his angry older brother, his new relationship with Coralee (an enigmatic girl he meets at school), and the exploration of his new town make up the bulk of the novel, but all the time the reader is aware of a past secret that Ethan is hiding.

Standish’s prose pulls in the reader from the beginning. There are some key phrases that show flashes of great writing, her similies are excellent and create an authentic sense of place: she describes the air at one point with “humidity like a wet fleece blanket”. Her characterisations too are neat and winning, from her portrayal of forthright and keenly intelligent Mack, who runs the local store, to Ethan’s Mum, who tends to burn food because she forgets having put it in the oven in an endearingly absentminded preoccupation. Standish also has a handle on the unsophisticated twelve-year-old way of trying to describe in words the complex emotions of guilt and anxiety. She also focuses on what Ethan’s therapist has told him to do, extrapolating the way Ethan is feeling without laying it too bare for the readership:

“It’s almost funny, that everything that would make a normal person happy is what makes me feel the most sad.”

And yet, it’s the not laying it bare that holds this book back from being as good as it should be. The ‘secret’ in the past is too often alluded to by Ethan’s family, and himself, and yet doesn’t feel real. Because they are all holding back so much, the constant nudges that there is something else going on, or something big that happened in the past, feel too contrived. Although in real life, we all do keep back parts of ourselves, even in some cases from ourselves, one feels that Ethan’s family would talk more frankly – particularly his brother – or that Ethan, who narrates the story in first person, would be slightly more honest with himself and with the readership. It doesn’t sit well that he hides the past from himself, because it doesn’t fit with his character.

On the whole this was a really enjoyable book; I just felt that it could have been bigger. With slightly more depth and more subtlety, the past could have been explored in more detail and led to a weightier novel. So the denouement, when it comes, feels half-hearted, and I wanted the ‘dare’ to be more dramatic. But for glimpses of what Standish can do, and with the possibility that there is better to come, this is an intriguing debut. It will fit the bill nicely for a summertime coming-of-age novel, and gives a great sense of small town America. You can buy it here.

For meatiness I’d go to the YA coming-of-age title, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt. Although the production at first seems gimmicky, in that the first part is narrated by main character Claire Casey, leaving the story on a cliffhanger, with the second part physically flipped over so that the reader has to turn the book upside down and start from the other end to read the other main character, Sef’s narration continuing the plot, the story itself is far from contrived. In fact, it becomes swiftly apparent reading part two that this consecutive narration adds depth and substance.

Kam Malik suffers a life-changing injury after a stupid stunt goes wrong. Claire, shy and unobtrusive, volunteers at his rehabilitation clinic. When she gets to know Kam’s brother, Sef, together they come up with a scheme to raise much-needed funds to maintain his rehabilitation. It’s a Truth or Dare YouTube campaign, but before long their truths collide and their dares take things too far.

Non Pratt has a magnificent turn of phrase that enables description without the reader feeling they’re reading any. The plot is deft and agile – the book skips along punctuated with accurate and authentic dialogue, and a look into the innermost thoughts of her narrators, which is, at times, devastating.

What shines through is the depth of characterisation, as at first the reader, through Claire’s eyes, really likes Sef Malik, but what soon becomes apparent through his point of view in part two, is that no one shows their true self to everyone, and that people aren’t kind or unkind throughout. Everyone has their motivations, demons, and selfishness. Pratt wheels through a host of issues including prejudice, fame, guilt, and love without once making this an issue novel. It’s a gripping read, as tumultuous as Claire’s relationship with Sef, and deeply satisfying. You can buy it here.

 

Teaching Technology Safety

Do you have a child at primary school? Then it’s likely you’ll have been invited to an e-safety evening. Perhaps your child will have experienced an Internet Safety Day, or you’ll have signed a form with them about acceptable use of electronic devices. But how much of the information is actually absorbed? One of the best ways to teach is through story – narrative telling helps our brains to process information. By weaving information into a narrative, our brains are more likely to make a connection with it – likening it to our own experiences, inviting an emotional response. A narrative actually switches on biochemicals in our brain.

Last year an excellent title, Chicken Clicking by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross came into the marketplace, explaining how meeting strangers on the internet wasn’t necessarily a good move. This year, Troll Stinks! by the same team talks about sending nasty messages – trolling someone on the phone.

troll-stinks

Troll Stinks by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross
In a subtle way, Chicken Clicking references the fairy tale canon, using inspiration from Chicken Licken to tell its tale. Troll Stinks is even more blatant in its reliance on the reader’s prior knowledge of the story The Three Billy Goats Gruff.

Billy, the goat, and his best friend Cyril, are playing with a mobile phone they’ve found. They take silly selfies, film funny things and generally have fun. Until they decide to send text messages to Troll. They’ve heard from Grandpa Gruff that trolls are bad, live under bridges and terrorize goats, so they send some rather mean messages to Troll. But when they decide to take a nasty picture of Troll and blast it all over the Internet, they stumble upon something rather surprising. And realise that being mean over the phone/through the virtual world is a horrible thing to do.

Of course, Jeanne Willis shows enormous imaginative flair in dealing with the subject, creating a really great story filled with humour and pace, all told in a rather delicious rhyme so that it’s easy to read aloud and easy to absorb. Andersen Press have enhanced her text superbly by pairing her with Tony Ross again – who himself adds intense detail and humour to each page and each situation, so that this a fun story rather than a heavy handed message.

Billy Goat hides the phone from his parents, knowing they wouldn’t allow it – and Tony Ross illustrates the goat parents with huge panache – a sumptuous living room complete with a portrait of an ancestral goat, and the newspaper strewn on the floor.

Throughout the book, Billy and Cyril’s attention is firmly fixated on the screen, with an intense stare – although one which doesn’t alienate the reader. The familiarity of Ross’s style (from his Horrid Henry illustrations) are morphed into goat characters here, in his own inimitable thorny style – one could almost imagine Henry holding the phone rather than Billy, but the enhanced billy goat grins and hooves make this even funnier than if it were people of course. And the denouement when it comes is equally well depicted. The goats look sheepish, their lesson is learnt. And not only that, but they turn to a more friendly, less electronic, game.

It’s filled with fun, pathos and drama.You can buy it here.

(Please note that the copy I reviewed was not final)

chicken-clicking

Chicken Clicking by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross
If anything, the lesson in this book is even harsher, despite the illustrations being much softer.

Set firmly in a farmyard, a small mischievous chicken goes into the farmer’s house when he is asleep and browses the internet. She develops a tendency for buying goods, although is rather generous with her gifting. She loves the diamond watch she buys herself, and bags and shoes, but she also buys scooters for sheep, skates for the pigs, and sends the bull on holiday.

Her shopaholic-ism is an issue, but trouble begins when she seeks a friend online – sending pictures of herself and giving her name and age. In the end, she goes off to meet her lovely new friend, without telling her mother and father – and it turns out her new ‘friend’ has rather ill intentions. The ending of the book is brilliant for discussion with a young primary school reader – but if you’re clever, you’ll show the youngster the back page of the book which illustrates the young chick running to safety afterall!

This book too has Willis’ sharp snappy rhymes, which possess a perfect rhythmic scan. Tony Ross has gone to town on the illustrations here too. Deviating from his usual style, these are far more fluffy and innocent, as befits our protagonist chick – but it’s the humour that packs a punch, along with the internet message.

The chick buys the bull a holiday in Spain – Tony Ross illustrates him reclining on a beach, whilst next to him a small boy in swimming trunks waves a red towel. Chick’s overbuying in shoes and bags is depicted by Ross’s brilliant illustration of the farmer blaming his wife for the overspend.

This is a rather wonderful book, and with Troll Stinks!, a great pair of books that seems to nail the message of internet safety. Buy Chicken Clicking here.

Technology in the modern kids’ book

As anyone who lives or works with children knows, technology is an integral part of their day (and night). And it’s cropping up more and more in contemporary children’s literature as writers portray how contemporary children live. Of course Mary couldn’t have texted for help when she was left alone at the beginning of The Secret Garden, any more than Five Children could have googled ‘It’. But today, children in books are not only navigating their way out of trouble with iMaps, and texting parents their excuses for staying out beyond curfew, they are actively using the Internet to seek adventure.

my embarrassing dad

My Embarrassing Dad’s Gone Viral! By Ben Davis, illustrated by Mike Lowery
Nelson’s mum has left, leaving him, his little sister Mary, and his Dad; and as a result Nelson’s life dramatically changes. Written as a series of vlog vignettes as if the reader were viewing Nelson’s videos on YouTube, this is Nelson’s hilariously funny account of what happened to his family.

Of course at the heart of the comedy is the extreme pathos of the situation – his Dad’s sadness, the change in family circumstance, and Nelson’s heartrending search for his mother, but because Nelson’s voice is brilliantly funny from the outset, and because he documents what happens to his father so well and in such a comedic way, this is a laugh-out loud book.

Nelson’s father decides to shake up their lives even more dramatically after his wife leaves, and they move house to the middle of nowhere, with no mod-cons, Nelson’s Dad banning TV, Internet, computer games and even buying a house with no plumbing – the toilet is outside. He takes up whittling as a way to earn money (having previously been an estate agent).

Nelson reports not only the hilarious consequences of his father trying to live ‘at one with nature’ in a Bear Grylls type parody, but he also describes viewers’ comments on his videos, repercussions at school, and the difficulty of making the videos (because of having to hide the equipment, but also the technical hitches).

His relationship with his sister Mary is both touching, and equally funny, as he explains her obsession with a cartoon called Peter the Pirate, and her reaction to sugar overloads.

It takes quite something to make me laugh out loud – this book had me crying with laughter. Delightfully, despite its happy and tech-embracing ending, it also extols the benefits of doing some outdoorsy stuff too. All in all, a very funny, entertaining read. Giggle your way through it here. For age 9+ years.

secret cooking club

The Secret Cooking Club by Laurel Remington

A technically reverse situation in The Secret Cooking Club, because it is the mother doing the blogging. In fact, Scarlett’s mother is a very successful blogger; her blog is about parenting and contains anecdotes taken from her daughter’s life. Twelve-year-old Scarlett finds this mortifying, to the extent that she has stopped doing any activities at school, and pretty much shut down her relationship with her mother to avoid any of her personal embarrassing incidents being related over the Internet.

Then, one day Scarlett discovers a gleaming kitchen in her next-door neighbour’s house – left empty when the occupant is admitted to hospital. Scarlett enters to feed the cat, and finding the correct ingredients on the work surface for delicious cinnamon scones, she starts to bake. Before long, her successful baking leads to a secret cooking club, and has consequences that will change her life forever, and in turn, show her the good side of the blogging world.

This is an intensely readable book, published at a time when baking is in the public headlights, with The Great British Bake Off leading the way. With warmth and mouth-watering descriptions, this is pitched perfectly at a young readership who may be unsure of their place in the world – one in which they have to forge friendships at school, and navigate through tricky family relationships.

A particularly poignant note in this book is the young girls’ relationship with the elderly neighbour, and the cognisance that the elderly need caring for and company as much as young people. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

bus stop baby

Bus Stop Baby by Fleur Hitchcock
So many connections are made and held today because of the Internet. When 13-year-old Amy finds a newborn baby abandoned at the local bus stop, she can’t stop wondering about the mother. Her grandmother, Zelda, a feisty loveable character, agrees to help her on her mission to find the missing mother, in return for a few favours of her own. And before long, Amy finds out that there’s more to her grandmother and tales of missing mothers than she had previously thought.

This is a gem of a book – it’s written with warmth and comes across as kindhearted and welcoming. There’s a priceless relationship between Amy and her grandmother that’s never too schmaltzy, but strikes a chord as being quite real – Amy doesn’t adore her grandmother – in fact she finds her difficult at times, but gradually as the story develops, she realises more and more that her grandmother is a person in her own right with a history, and relationships and feelings.

In fact it’s this startling awareness that sells this book. Fleur Hitchcock has drawn Amy perfectly – a young teen who is beginning to look outside herself, and beginning to realise that the world doesn’t operate in just black and white – that there is a great deal of grey space between what’s right and what’s wrong in certain situations.

The baby’s abandonment has resonance for Amy, because her own mother left her and her sister ten years ago, and the book explores the ability of the Internet to plug gaps or create them in modern life – from Amy helping Zelda to find old friends, to Amy talking to her mother in Australia via Skype, to trying to solve the mystery of the missing mother on the Internet.

With wonderful complex characterisation, and true-to-life emotions, this is a great story to provoke thought in your young tween or teen. You can buy it here.