technology

World Science Day

Saturday 10th November is World Science Day. But every day is science day in our house. Whether we’re working out how much baking powder will make the cake rise, to calculating our speed at running up the steep inclines near the house, to gathering different types of fallen leaves outside the front door. Because, for children, science doesn’t necessarily slot neatly into a named discipline, but fits into everything they do, everywhere they go. In the same way that these books aren’t chemistry or physics text books, but a wonderful mix of non-fiction picture books, non-fiction narrative, fiction etc; and they introduce science into children’s lives in a range of different ways.

Max EinsteinMax Einstein: The Genius Experiment by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein, illustrated by Beverly Johnson

“Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born.”

This bouncy fiction title from best-selling American author James Patterson is a typical adventure story, but it oozes science and is all the more winning for doing so. Twelve-year-old orphan Max lives above stables in New York City, and is obsessed with Albert Einstein. She’s a bit of a genius herself, fabricating records to get a place at NYU. Then one day, she’s recruited by a mysterious organisation, taken to a gathering of the world’s other child prodigies in Israel, and asked to take part in a competition to lead world-saving projects. With teamwork and creativity, Max overcomes various obstacles, and nasty ‘oligarch’ baddies to win the day, providing globally conscious, humanitarian solutions to various scientific problems.

The setting of part of the book in Israel is down to the fact that the book is officially approved by the Albert Einstein Archives (housed at Hebrew U in Jerusalem) and so Patterson liberally sprays his text with Einstein quotes (they all work within the plot and are great fun), as well as simply explaining with a deft writer’s touch ideas such as The Theory of Relativity. These science bits are sprinkled throughout and are lovely touches – buried within the story so as not to feel too sciencey, whilst also clearly imparting knowledge.

Holding many of the ingredients for a key ‘girls in STEM’ title, such as learning about teamwork, caring for the planet, new technology, resilience, kindness to others, and the pursuit of creativity as well as knowledge in problem-solving, this is an excellent story with a warm protagonist who should win hearts everywhere. Includes glorious science-themed black and white illustrations. Find your inner genius here.

The QuentioneersThe Questioneers Book 1: Rosie Revere and the Raucous Riveters by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
I turn to the Rosie Revere picture books time and again for all sorts of purposes – the rhyming, the illustrations, the scientific message, feminism, the humour, characters, and so much more. Now, engineer Rosie has her own chapter book starring her friends architect Iggy Peck and scientist Ada Twist.

In this first of a series, Rosie’s Great-great Aunt Rose introduces the children to the Blue River Riveters, a group of women who built aeroplanes during WW2. One of them, June, wants to enter an art contest but has broken both her wrists in a motor-scooter accident, so needs Rosie to invent something to help her be able to participate.

The book is smart and fun, despite losing the rhyme, and continues the theme of girls in science as Rosie confronts the historical lack of women in traditional science jobs, as well as providing new themes of cross-generational bonding. As always with Rosie, there is learning from failure and experimentation and developing her persistence and resilience, and also a nod to science with the graph paper backgrounds and illustrated inventions. With its short chapters and two-tone illustrations, this is a good follow-on to younger fiction for those who have read the picture books so many times that they need something new. I can see Rosie going from strength to strength – just like her inventions. Ask your questions here.

Secret ScienceSecret Science: The Amazing World Beyond Your Eyes by Dara O’Briain with Sally Morgan, illustrated by Dan Bramall
I really approve of a comedian writing science books for children. Although I generally dislike promoting celebrity books, this hits a good note with me. It isn’t meant to be high-level science, and is delivered as a narrative strand – much like a comedian delivering a standup routine. And yes, amongst the sciencey bits are plenty of fart jokes, and the text is punctuated (probably almost more than necessary) with a huge number of WORDS IN CAPITALS, different typefaces, and many cartoons. This book covers the science that you can’t see – hormones, forces, energy etc, aiming to answer questions that children will spontaneously ask – why does hair stand on end, how do giraffes sleep? There are some lovely descriptions, including how a jet engine works and comparing it to a hose pipe, as well as parts that describe what stress does to the body and how to relieve it. Luckily, there’s a cool index at the end so that you can dip in rather than read the text all the way through, as it can be quite a noisy book. There are also the now necessary warnings about climate change and the environment. An entertainingly busy read. Discover the secrets here.

 

 

Before we tackle the large non-fiction, I must also draw your attention to a new periodical. The Week Junior has long been a favourite of mine for its bright photographs, news round up and excellent cultural coverage, but now there’s a The Week Junior Science and Nature magazine. This monthly 60 page magazine holds multiple entry points – a reader can dip and discover, absorbing fun facts or reading a feature. The first issue was in September, and featured such current topics as the secret behind Fortnite’s success, but also an in-depth feature on superhumans. Each month will have an eight-page Lab section with experiments and a monthly guide to the night sky for budding astronomers. Really excellent quality. You can order it here.

 

 

the speed of starlight

The Speed of Starlight, written by Colin Stuart, illustrated by Ximo Abadia
Subtitled ‘A Visual Exploration of Physics, Sound, Light and Space’, this is an elegant title with simple text and sharp colourful graphics that uncovers the mystery behind basic quantum physics.

It goes beyond starlight to investigate the science behind space but also how we explore the Universe. Divided into the four sections named in the subtitle, the book explains, using simple graphics, Newton’s Laws of Motion, the insides of an atom, soundwaves, photosynthesis, the colour spectrum and then goes into space.

Any author who’s had an asteroid named after him in recognition of his work to popularise astronomy must know a bit about what he’s writing. Not only does Colin Stuart have the expertise and enthusiasm, but he can explain it in the simplest terms without resorting to cliché. Find your speed here.

 

 

 

the element in the roomThe Element in the Room by Mike Barfield, illustrated by Lauren Humphrey
From physics to chemistry in this illustrated guide to the chemical elements. Any book on chemical elements will feature the periodic table, plus a small handy guide to each element, detailing its name, symbol, atomic number, key characteristics and so on. But here, as well as this basic information, the book is set out as a sleuth story, solving the case of the element in the room with a detective (Sherlock Ohms) whose catchphrase is ‘Elementary’ of course. To add spice and fun to the mix, the text is interspersed with full page comic strips, the first of which, for example, is a fun guide to Aristotle’s belief in the four elements – earth, air, fire and water.

There’s so much information packed into this book it would feel bamboozling if it weren’t for the sheer creativity of the author and illustrator, who explore where in the house the element can be found, (sodium in urine, zinc in nappy cream etc), fun experiments (building an electric lemon), and clever explanations of basic chemistry. You can buy it here.

 

 

first book of quantum physicsMy First Book of Quantum Physics by Sheddad Kaid-Salah Ferron and Eduard Altarriba
The very friendly illustrations, and quite large font size in this book belies the difficultly level of the subject matter and text in this absorbing yet challenging physics book. This book goes in a slightly different direction to the two above, exploring theoretical physics as much as the practical stuff. So, you’ll find pages on Schrodinger’s Cat as well as a page exploring waves and particles. This is an exciting book in that it leads to further thought and investigation rather than just imparting knowledge. There are good colourful graphics that attempt to illuminate the harder principles, such as The Uncertainty Principle or the Mystery of Antimatter, and illustrations that will explode the mind, such as the Tunnel Effect. I liked the graphic representation of the periodic table here – building blocks fitting together like Lego, and CERN represented as a toy train track. Amusing, stimulating and challenging – an awesome if ambitious science book. Explore theorem here.

 

Books of Wonder: Information and Knowledge

When I was growing up there was a television series called The Wonder Years, and very often I hear adults talking about a child’s sense of wonder at the world around them. I don’t know who first attributed the wonder quality to childhood, but if a child is less jaded, more open to being amazed or dazzled by the world than adults, then they’ll be even more entranced with this selection of books than I am.

atlas of adventures wonders of the worldatlas of adventures wonders
Atlas of Adventures: Wonders of the World, illustrated by Lucy Letherland, written by Ben Handicott

I first came across Lucy Letherland’s Atlas of Adventures in a school hall in 2014, reviewed it as one of my first books of the week, and since then my blog, and Letherland’s series has gone from strength to strength. The Wonders of the World title, however, is truly awesome, or should I say wonderful. Veering off the path of the traditional wonders of the world, Ben Handicott has picked his own; choosing 30 destinations from as far apart as Death Valley to The Forbidden City.

Introducing his wonders, Ben makes the point of explaining that wonder can be found in the simplicity of a flower blooming in your backyard as much as in the intricacies of the Sagrada Familia, but explains that some wonders are worth travelling for.

Letherland’s full page illustrations of each wonder, drawn from different and intriguing perspectives, and following on from maps of each geographical area, are truly magnificent; each populated with a raft of tourists, indigenous peoples and animals in an imaginative out-of-this-world harmony. And Handicott’s text not only introduces the site with a couple of paragraphs and snapshot information, but illuminates single sentence facts around the illustrations. His annotations on the illustration of Neuschwanstein Castle, thought to be an inspiration for Walt Disney’s fairy tale castle, highlight the modern fixtures and fittings within.

This is a bold book, in the choice of wonders and also in the guilty irreverence of some of the illustrations, (Merlin at Stonehenge, for example), but all provoke fascination in the reader. Maps fix the natural and man-made wonders firmly in their geographical position. Watch for the tourists posing at the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the bears in Yosemite. I found a marathon runner on the Great Wall of China. Can you? Find your wonder here.

welcome to our world
Welcome to Our World: A Celebration of Children Everywhere by Moira Butterfield and Harriet Lynas
With illustrations and theme reminiscent of Disneyworld’s It’s a Small World ride, this is a colourful look at childhood around the world, highlighting differences but above all sending the message of what humans have in common. The first page highlights flags, then the author looks at various ways of saying hello in different languages (with a phonetic spelling for pronunciation), as well as showcasing types of names, foods, homes, pets, and transport in different countries. For any child wanting to see how others live, this is a great introduction. There are quirks, as well as that which is familiar and relevant to children, such as school uniform, musical instruments etc. The quirks include cures for hiccups, phrases, manners and playground games. With their saucer faces and big black button eyes, the illustrations are doll-like and immensely colourful, reminding me of the collection of native dress dolls that I had as a child. Appealing and eclectic, this is a great fact-finder for the very young – kids will enjoy the celebration cakes from around the world. There’s a list of countries featured at the end of the book, and great production values throughout. Age 4+. Welcome to your world here.

one day so many ways
One Day So Many Ways by Laura Hall, illustrated by Loris Lora

Not so dissimilar is this large-size illustrated guide to 40 children from around the world, also looking at a 24 hour period, in which it compares lifestyles and habits, including houses, meals, transport to school, playtime and so on. The illustrations of the children here are slightly less doll-like, but also stylised to look similar despite their differences – almond eyes, simple bodies – they reminded me of Topsy and Tim in that last-century-retro-way. Features that differentiate from the book above include a spread called Quiet Time, which features prayer, reading time and meditation amongst other pursuits, and asks the reader to contemplate their own life features. Weekend jobs, family time, helping out and reading are also explored, as well as the more mundane foods, bedtime, friends and homework. The Highlights page showcases the highlights of some of the children’s days, and it’s clear that weather can play a large part in how children live their lives. There’s a list of countries at the back with flags and facts, and this will be a good addition in showing children the different cultures and ways of life around the world, despite the inherent similarities of childhood. You can buy it here.

wonders of the world
Wonders of the World by Isabel Otter and Margaux Carpentier
Where best to find wonder than in the traditionally designated ‘seven wonders of the world’? This book is much smaller and squarer than Lucy Letherland’s Atlas of Adventures: Wonders of the World and is aimed at younger children, highlighting the Ancient Wonders and Modern Wonders, exploring all 14 in a colourful lift-the-flap informative book. Each wonder receives a full page, with introductory text, and some supplementary information in small paragraphs, such as exploring that the Colossus of Rhodes was the inspiration behind the modern Statue of Liberty.

An interactive wheel displays the plants of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, as well as the features of the Lantern Room on the Lighthouse of Alexandria. This is a colourful dip into the beautiful buildings that defined their eras, and the colour palate matches well with the romance behind each – pink and patterned egg blue for the Taj Mahal, deep orange and yellow for the Great Pyramid of Giza. This cardboard novelty book has a page at the end detailing some natural wonders too. Age 7+. Find a wonder here.

treasure hunt house
Treasure Hunt House by Kate Davies and Becca Stadtlander
Not all wonders are to be found in distant places and time. This book is both a game, in that it’s a literal treasure hunt – readers must lift the flaps to solve the clues – but also a treasure trove in that it gives fascinating facts about the wonders to be found in a domestic realm. Two children go to visit their Great Aunt Martha in her house – this is not an ordinary house though, containing a music room, conservatory, library and hall of inventions. More like a stately home, although many of the items are to be found in every domestic environment, and the book gives the history behind the telephone, fridge, toilet and bath as well as stepping into the more eclectic, such as exploring a Chinese lacquered mirror, platform shoes, Renoir painting and more.

This is exploration and history and activity all in one book. The illustrations themselves are like a treasure hunt – detailed, fascinating and rather intricate – they immerse the reader in the book. The readership is hard to define here – it’s probably something that could span a host of ages – the clues are very easy to solve, but the text in some places feels older. Age 7+. Find your treasure here.

curiositree
The Curiositree: Human World: A Visual Compendium of Wonders from Human History by Amanda Wood and Mike Jolley
A second in this series – the first Curiositree explored the natural world – now we are into human history. Divided into sections – with three colour-matching ribbons to bookmark a reader’s place – each spread is labelled as a ‘chart’. This is down to the fact that the book is remarkably visual. There is a glut of information on each topic, and although the typeface is minuscule, each ‘chart’ is different from the one before and includes many illustrations, infographics and diagrams to showcase the topic.

The three colours of the ribbons, like the colour-coding inside, represent the three strands of discovery in the book: human history, art and culture, science, trade and technology. I expected more page cross-referencing across the topics, but was nicely surprised by the depth of knowledge on individual items, such as the history of metal usage, breakthrough thinking ie in maths, and the over-riding themes of the history of farming and music.
curiositree writing
It’s difficult to showcase thousands of years of human development in a 112 page book for children and the authors do an admirable job. Of course there’s much missing, and I had rather hoped for a little more information on religion and philosophical thought before launching into Stonehenge, ancient temples and tombs, but on the whole this is a great resource, and I suppose why it is a compendium rather than an encyclopedia.

Towards the end there is information on printing and world exploration – because the book travels up to the early 1600s only. Although this is clearly aimed at much older children, in that it introduces complex themes, has a complicated layout (for dipping and researching), and articulates in a non-patronising but technically more sophisticated manner, younger readers will enjoy the detailed and colourful illustrations throughout. Aimed at 8+ years and older. Stimulate your curiosity here.

transport and travelfoods of the world
Transport and Travel Mini Hardback by Sandra Lawrence, illustrated by Jem Maybank and Foods of the World: Mini Hardback by Libby Walden and Jocelyn Kao.
For those who prefer their factual information to be more bitesize and topic-based, these two excellent little companions will be useful for curious children wondering about the world, and useful as classroom resources. Rather than holding an encyclopaedic knowledge of the topic, these dip in with illustrations dominating each page, and a couple of sentences at the top to give background.

The transport book divides nicely into wheels, rail, air and water and picks out where transport has become rather famous – the San Francisco tram, the Shinkansen railway network in Japan. There’s also a nice mix of history – the Viking longboats, and future – the jet pack. Foods of the World is even more random in its choice of information. There are customs and traditions, celebratory food and a strange section called ‘playing with food’, with quirky facts such as competitive eating, food fights and the accidental creation of bubble gum. More fun than fodder for thought, this is a good title to have in the KS1 classroom. Age 5+ years. You can buy them here and here.

Books for Younger Readers

I’m constantly blown away by the quality of books for younger readers, otherwise known as newly independent readers. This, of course, is how it should be. It’s a crucial time to create that love of reading for pleasure. If they actively want to spend time reading at this age and it becomes habit, then their transition to reading longer texts will follow. Here is my round-up of recent texts for newly independents – about age 6-7 years onwards (although each child reads at their own pace and shouldn’t be rushed).

Sam Wu
Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts by Katie and Kevin Tsang illustrated by Nathan Reed
Sam Wu is afraid of many things, but no one likes to admit being a scaredy-cat. After an incident during a school trip to the science museum, everyone, especially the school bully, figures out that Sam Wu is quite scared. To prove his bravery, Sam opts to keep a pet snake. The only problem is that he’s scared of snakes.

This is a new series by husband and wife team and their compatibility obviously pays off in the writing. Never a dull moment, and packed full of laughs, this is an endearing look at different cultures, friendships, and how to be brave. There are particular stellar characters, including a grandmother and a little sister, who delightfully is not stereotypically annoying, but actually a great help to Sam. There’s a fun layout with large typeface, capital letters to emphasise embarrassing and scary moments, and lots of fantastic illustrations from Nathan Reed. A great introduction to chapter books. You can buy it here.

great telephone mix up
The Great Telephone Mix-Up by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey
An absolutely charming tale about the importance of community, helping your neighbours and reaping the surprising benefits. When the phone wires in a sleepy little village get mixed up, the neighbours start to discover things about each other as they receive the wrong phone calls, and then have to pass on the messages.

It turns out that meeting each other face to face not only brings new friendships, but brings awareness of who in the town is struggling, needs help or may need to find love. Nicholls carefully gets over the problem of mobile phones by explaining there is no signal in the town (a message not entirely lost on rural communities), and so everyone relies on their home phone.

The story is simple, the text well-spaced, and illustrations by Sheena Dempsey positively charming. Each character is well delineated and there’s a diverse mix. A lovely addition to the Little Gems selection. You can buy it here.

noah scape
Noah Scape Can’t Stop Repeating Himself by Guy Bass, illustrated by Steve May
An altogether more nightmarish story from Guy Bass, in which the protagonist can’t get what he wants. Noah decides that if everyone in the world were like him, then that would solve the problem- after all the majority rules, right? It starts, as all school problems do, in the school canteen when Noah is served meat pie instead of spaghetti with tomato sauce.

When Noah wakes the next morning and goes to school, he finds himself already sitting in his seat – there are two of him. And each day the number of Noahs double until finally they get what they want. They also share the same opinions like a modern day echo chamber.

Or do they?

When the original Noah is outvoted by his 63 copies, Noah realises he still isn’t getting his own way. This is a brilliant examination of how to get along with others, as well as a great representation of coping in school when a child is having to manage a mental health issue such as OCD, which dictates that routine is of paramount importance to the day. Of course, there’s the numerical element too. Bass hasn’t quite tied up all the loose ends of the story either, so there’s plenty of room for speculation after reading. A fun, and also highly accessible read. You can buy it here.

happyville high
Happyville High: Geek Tragedy by Tom McLaughlin
One of the most hilarious young fiction titles I have read in a long time, I couldn’t stop sniggering, which of course made all the children near me want to read this too. Tyler is too smart for school and has been homeschooled for much of her life. But when she and her Dad move to Happyville, he enrols her in the local school.

This is no ordinary school though, and Tyler realises there’s something inherently wrong, especially when she reads the motto: “The more popular you are, the happier you become!” Being a bit of a nerd means that Tyler definitely isn’t popular, but she does make two friends in the library, who are equally ‘geeky’. Tyler is enthralled when she discovers that one of them has developed an algorithm to decipher which candy bar is best, with the results laid out on a spreadsheet. (Tyler’s excitement at being invited over to see this knows no limits.)

When the popular kids are struck with an affliction – their right arms elongate to enable them to take better selfies – the three new friends have to use their brains to rid the town of this vain disorder. There is much slapstick and silly humour but also a biting satirical look at the way our society ranks people and behaves. Fabulously funny in many ways and incredibly readable. For slightly older readers than the other books on this blog. Self-illustrated too. You can buy it here.

magical kingdom of birds
Magical Kingdom of Birds: The Sleepy Hummingbirds by Anne Booth, illustrated by Rosie Butcher
A gentler start to a series in this book about magical escapism – something we all might need from the world of selfie-sticks and cool school heroes. When Maya colours in the pages of her colouring book, she is whisked into a magical kingdom filled with the most enchanting colourful birds and their small fairy friends.

But, as with all idylls, trouble is brewing, and the evil Lord Astor has a plan to capture the tiniest, most vulnerable residents and put them into cages. Maya has the privilege and great responsibility of being Keeper of the Book, and she must protect the kingdom and its birds at all costs.

An early introduction to the beauty of the natural world, with each book in the series showcasing a different species, this is a wonderful start to early reading. The pages are exquisitely illustrated in black and white by Rosie Butcher, the text in many cases framed by a leafy border, encapsulating the words and the story in this natural landscape. Beautiful descriptions bring the birds and their habitat to life, and Booth hasn’t been afraid to introduce more difficult vocabulary, explaining words such as torpor, tubular and prophesy. You can buy it here.

unicorn academymuddle the magical puppythe spiderwick chroniclesA quick mention to three other series. Unicorn Academy by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Lucy Truman has hitchhiked perfectly onto the current zeitgeist for all things unicorn. With its sparkly covers and more grown-up illustrations, these reminded me of my adoration and loyalty to all things My Little Pony when I was a child. The Unicorn Academy adventures are school stories in which the girls each have their own unicorn, and each book introduces themes such as friendship, loyalty, and independence. The first in the series, Sophia and the Rainbow, introduces ten-year-old Sophia who finds out that each unicorn has its own special powers. The stories are simple, chapters short, but the series has the magical potential to turn reading into a habit. Likewise with Muddle the Magic Puppy and Cuddle the Magic Kitten series by Hayley Daze. Cute illustrations adorn the front and continue inside, with big eyes as a feature. In Muddle the Magic Puppy: The Magic Carpet, Muddle goes on a flying carpet adventure in Arabia. A long-established children’s writer has penned these, and the story is straightforward. Large typography and short chapters make comprehension easy. Lastly, for more advanced readers, the publisher Simon and Schuster have republished The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black in beautifully illustrated hardback editions. This gothic fantasy series is a great choice for fluent readers who want to expand their literary landscape – with a richly imagined world of dark fairies. The Grace children move into the Spiderwick Estate and through secret passageways and hidden doors, they discover that they are not alone in the new house. First published in 2003, with a 2008 movie, the series is well-worth revisiting for a new young audience.

 

 

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.

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy

brightstormThe great era of exploration is over. Much of our world has been seen and documented, but humans haven’t lost their drive to be the first, to make their mark, and certainly haven’t let go of the idea of heroism. But so often the marks humans make, the braveries people display, are small acts of heroism in a known world. So, we turn to fiction to replicate that experience of exploring the unknown, of seeking out a new world and experiencing new adventure within it.

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy is doubly exciting, because it is not just the reader who is doing the exploring, but the protagonists too.

Twelve-year-old twins, Maudie and Arthur Brightstorm hear that their explorer father has died in an attempt to reach South Polaris – the very southernmost point in their world. Not only that, but he broke the moral code of explorers, stealing fuel from his competitors on his way. The daring twins are intent upon not only clearing their father’s name, believing he would never do such a thing, but also exploring the region for themselves – after all they are Brightstorms.

What could be a run-of-the-mill adventure story, Hardy turns into a fresh, insightful and clever novel of exploration with her clear-eyed writing, and her host of memorable characters.

Maudie possesses exemplary engineering skills, using her analytical mind to solve problems and provide technical solutions. She may be sited in a fantasy landscape, but she approaches technical tasks with a modern outlook – pragmatic and able – there is no gender discrimination here. She forges a prosthetic iron arm for her brother, but has the foresight to see that when they are lost, with the addition of a pool of water, it could act as a compass.

Indeed, Arthur is almost the only male in this female dominated cast, and it is he who shows his sensitive side – painfully aware of the feelings of others, sensing shifts in body language, danger in the air. But he too is an explorer – brave and intrepid.

Maudie and Arthur join Harriet Culpepper’s expedition to track back to South Polaris, on her ingenious sky-ship that uses water as fuel in a new environmentally friendly development, much to the admiration and envy of her peer explorers. What’s more, her ship has a canny disguise, to avoid saboteurs, and even I was envious of this quirk.

The environment is touched upon further with mentions of whale huntings, and humans’ domination of the landscape, all cleverly woven into the story without being preachy or self-congratulatory.

But as well as being aware of our modern leanings towards gender equality, saving the environment and STEM solutions, Hardy also shows us a mirror of our own world in the inequalities of hers. There are the slums of Lontown, the drudgery and hard work. There is the indignation of those of the Third Continent, who do not like to be called by such a derogatory name. And there is also, of course, a villainous explorer who will stop at nothing to sate her ambition.

But among the cogs and compasses, there is humour too: the cook Felicity and her penchant for endless cups of tea, Harriet and her dashing ways of pushing through the darkest moments.

Small flickers of other inspirational books light the path for readers too – I sensed a glimmer of Pullman in the ‘sapient’ animals of the Brightstorm world, who are less present than the daemons of Northern Lights, but also crucial to the plot, as well as the helpfulness of wolves from Piers Torday’s The Last Wild, and many more besides.

But mainly, Brightstorm feels fresh and modern – because although Hardy has veered into fantasy by creating her own world for the Brightstorm twins, she shows us its beauty through its simplicity. None of the landscapes are hard to envisage, none of the ships’ whirrings hard to grasp. This is a beautifully written children’s novel, matched by exquisite production with foil on the cover and a map on the gatefold.

It is testament to the accessibility of Hardy’s novel that it makes the reader think at the end, in the same way that the talking wolves ask the question to the twins – why is it that humans have the need to explore? When it is not for food or shelter – is it to seek the truth? Or to discover the beauty and complexity of the world? Like fiction, it is both and more. To discover a bit of ourselves, and a taste of the possibilities that are out there. Brightstorm is a triumph – it’s time to take the adventure. You can buy it here.

Tin by Padraig Kenny

Tin by Padraig Kenny“Without a knowledge of history to give him [a student] a context for present events, he is at the mercy of every social misdiagnosis handed to him.” So said Hilary Mantel about history. And whilst Tin isn’t a historical novel, it is set in a distorted past, providing an opportunity to open the reader’s mind to thoughts about an alternative future. For this is a book about Artificial Intelligence, cleverly disguised as a Pinocchio style adventure.

Christopher works for an engineer, making ‘mechanicals’: children-shaped metallic figures with magical glyphs, like computer code, which empower them to act like humans. These mechanicals become some of his closest friends and family. But a devastating accident reveals a secret about Christopher’s past, and leads him down a path of self-discovery, and also a glimpse of what mechanicals could really do.

Not only is this an extraordinarily clever novel, but it is also a gripping children’s read, and a social commentary at the same time. The mechanicals are wonderfully written – Kenny showcases them with varying degrees of intelligence, knowledge and sentience – not unlike humans it must be said, but manages to portray each with its own particular personality, as well as consistently showing them to be not quite human. There’s Rob, simple, naïve, excessively loyal and caring. Manda, the small girl with her teddy bear, Gripper – the oversize muscle robot. Each has its own role, and part in the plot, but Kenny cleverly writes them ‘reading’ human interaction by studying humans’ body language and imitating it, not unlike how babies’ read their parents, but this is more stated, more blatant. The mechanicals also spell out how they are deciphering the meaning of words – especially when a word has more than one meaning. In this way, the mechanicals seem slightly less nuanced, simpler in their emotional intelligence, more childlike. And yet, they pulsate with emotion and the reader has endless empathy for them. It’s a clever manipulation of the reader, and by doing this Kenny is also showing how artificial intelligence could indeed manipulate humans.

In fact, Kenny’s point throughout this is to provoke the reader into thinking about what makes us human. With allusions to Pinocchio, who wanted to be a real boy, and was introduced to the concepts of responsibility and shunning frivolity and temptation in order to become real, and also The Wizard of Oz, in which Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man all want various human assets in order to be real, Kenny probes the essence of humanity:

“Rob turned to look in the direction of the sound. If he had a heart it would have skipped a beat -”

But in Tin, the mechanicals discover things about themselves through their interactions with others – both fellow mechanicals and humans. They realise that what makes somebody human is familial ties – the ability to love and mourn. The mechanicals experience loss, and then love to a certain degree, but they are still not completely human – they remain mechanical because they don’t have a soul, some essence of something that can’t be defined. They remain simple without ‘real’ memories.

They also remain mechanical because they can’t experience ‘malice’ or aggression. This is where Kenny steps up the pace of his book, as he explores the idea of mechanicals ensouled in order to work as soldiers. Here, Kenny nods towards The Terminator, and explores the idea of artificial intelligence used for mal-intent. What makes us human, he implies, is not just the ability to love deeply, but the ability to harm deeply too. Humans are all about power. And, most apt, in these times, a human’s ability to distinguish between lies and truth.

By setting the novel in a distorted past (a revised 1930s), in which the Great War has happened with appalling loss of life, and cars are on the increase, although there are still horses and carts, Kenny has inserted mechanicals/robots in a small way – they are chauffeurs and work in retail – although they haven’t completely dominated the landscape – there isn’t an implication of robots taking on all elements of industrialisation, yet.

But what the robots have done, in a roundabout way, is to crush the women’s movement. In Tin, females are vastly absent. There is only Estelle, who works for the engineer Absolom, albeit in an illegal way, as women are forbidden from being engineers/craftsmen. In this way, the reader can assume that if robots are working at certain tasks, the number of jobs available to humans is diminished.

Despite some horrors within the story, this is a positive book, with much humour and many more allusions to other great works. Toy Story yes, but also Willy Wonka – who ran a factory of Oompa Loompas, and was revered as the greatest chocolate maker, just as Cormier in Tin is revered as the greatest mechanical creator:

“He’s in there, behind that gate,” said Sam, pointing in the opposite direction. “No one ever comes out, and no one ever goes in.”

The outcome of the book is vastly upbeat. This is a children’s book after all, and they tend to end in a more uplifting way. But what the reader takes away is a thoughtfulness about humanity – who we are, how we treat others, and what the future may hold. As well as how humans can be better people, how we can overcome malice and aggression and the seeking of power, and look instead to focusing on love and family and connections:

“You don’t have a soul. You don’t need one. You’re not proper. You’re better than proper.” 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.

A Light-Hearted Start to the New Year

Sometimes we just want a good laugh. In fact, a 2015 Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report found that 63% of children aged 6-17 wanted a book that made them laugh more than any other criteria. But humour doesn’t work on its own in a story – that would just be a series of jokes – a joke book in fact. Recently, the adults in my household have been watching The Marvelous Mrs Maisel on television about a woman who turns comedienne. What’s clear from the start, is that although there are many laughs and jokes, the story has to have pathos too, and character, and plot, because if you aren’t invested in the person, you aren’t invested in the laughs either.

I Swapped My Brother on the Internet
I Swapped My Brother on the Internet by Jo Simmons
Who hasn’t wanted to swap their brother at some point in their lives? (I really hope my brother isn’t reading this blog). When Jonny finds a website called SiblingSwap.com he thinks he’s found the perfect solution to his irritating obnoxious older brother issues. But he pays little attention to the form he’s asked to submit for ‘swaps’, and the company send him a replacement that’s even less human than his real brother. Before long he’s returning and exchanging, but none seem quite right.

Along with the obvious hilarity from the premise, there is zaniness and wackiness aplenty in this tale of sibling replacements who happen to include the ghost of Henry the Eighth. But below the surface is more than a touch of what it means to be a sibling – the loyalty, the tenderness, the protectiveness, the responsibility. And what’s more, there’s a lesson about false advertising on the Internet, and being careful what you wish for.

Jonny is a likeable main character with his own quirks, but real enough, with his friendships, and penchants for Xbox, doughnuts and pasta. Add in a girl geek to the mix (everyone needs a good coder in their lives) and an extremely absent-minded carefree mother, and the comedy is set. This is a good laugh, with happily comedic illustrations, and a great ending. You can buy it here.

Stand By Me
Stand by Me by Judi Curtin
Not a ‘comedy’ as such, but with oodles of humour and light-hearted fun, this is a book that squeezes many different emotions into a story and features inter-generational relationships, and a look back at personal histories.

A sequel to Time After Time, although it can be read as a stand-alone, Stand By Me follows the adventures of friends Molly and Beth, who have found a way to time travel. These best friends are slightly different though, in that they live together – their two families joined together, and although there was some tension at first, by this book the two are firm friends.

Molly and Beth travel back to the 1960’s to discover what happened to an old friend of their favourite uncle, and to try to exonerate their uncle from a misdemeanour that he feels he committed long ago. Once back in the 1960’s, the author shows what fun can be had writing ‘historical fiction’. Everything seems different and unusual to the modern girls, from the hair styles to the phone boxes, to pre-decimalisation and the lack of technology (mobile phones), and Curtin cleverly interweaves all these things into the plot – as well as showing changing attitudes to disabilities over time. It’s good to see the not-so-distant past represented in this way for modern children – an eye opener to the world of their grandparents.

Rather than out and out ‘historical fiction’, the idea is to explore the recent past: the time of parents (1980’s in Time after Time), and grandparents (1960’s in Stand By Me).

The book delves into feelings of guilt and blame, but is mainly about friendship – how we deal with adversities with friends, and how friendships last or break up, but overwhelmingly the feel of the book is light-hearted, with much fun, humour and liveliness.

Music is prevalent too, not only in the book titles, which are taken from song titles, but in scenes in the book, and the illustrations throughout. It’s interesting how quickly we define eras by the music created during the time. A fun look at friendship and fixing the past. You can purchase it here.

 

Girls Who Code by Reshma Saujani and Sarah Hutt, illustrated by Andrea Tsurumi

I’ve been trying to think about which book would suit my last book of the week for the year 2017. What trends have there been, what news, what good coming out of the year? There’s a lot of doom and gloom with Brexit, Trump, and plastic in the environment, but I wanted to focus on the good things.

One good thing, and slightly closer to home, is the surge of awareness of gender equality. Of society beginning to see women and girls as equal to men and boys and fighting harder for a lack of discrimination, harassment and stereotyping. There have been hugely successful children’s books covered by mainstream media, such as Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, but how do we teach our girls to not only look up to pioneers who went before them, but also to change the world for the better? Technology is a huge part of our modern world – a massive chunk of our children’s waking lives. So, rather than just getting them to use the technology, let’s teach them to understand how it works. You can’t beat an algorithm if you don’t understand it.

Recently, various girls in my school have been learning to code. And one pioneer of this revolution is Reshma Saujani. You can see her TED talk here, which explains why we should be teaching girls bravery rather than perfection – a key message in her book too.

Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World is proving to be helpful in many ways.

It is not just a manual for learning to code – in fact it’s not for beginners learning to code, but a resource to explain coding, and to promote confidence in doing so. The book doesn’t teach a specific coding language – as say Usborne Coding for Beginners Using Python, which is a step-by-step guide and a very useful one at that. Rather, Girls Who Code tries to indicate the logic and theory behind programming, often using cartoons in real-life applications to extricate the meaning of making the code. Although it might sound complex at first, with a little concentration my pre-tween tester completely understood the premise.

There’s also coding history and interviews with women working in programming, all of which give the message that STEM is great for girls, but that also failing and retrying are essential. Wrapped up in these is Saujani’s key message that perfection is not what girls should be striving for, but aiming instead to learn from mistakes. After all, penicillin was discovered by mistake; the first pacemaker was invented by mistake too. As was Coca-Cola – and look how successful that became.

Of course, the fun bit of coding is included in the book too – fun projects with apps, games and art etc. Throughout the book are illustrations in one-tone teal, which show a diverse cast of girls learning to code, with speech bubbles, diagrams and comics – these break up the text and are hugely informative.

In the end, the idea is that as well as understanding what coding is, and how to go about it, girls will understand how useful it is, how accessible computer science is. With a knowledge of programming, girls can go on to solve problems, take control, and in essence, change the world. An admirable book to look forward to a new year. You can buy it here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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