time travel

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.

All Aboard the Discovery Express by Emily Hawkins and Tom Adams, illustrated by Tom Clohoshy-Cole

The first thing that grabs the reader is that the whole book looks like a movie. From the first page, a night-time scene of a train on a platform, which introduces the characters who steer the reader through the book, to the final farewell: an air shot of a plane flying above a train on a bridge, a landscape of sailing boats on rivers, and vast plains spread out below. For this is no ordinary fact book about transport – this combines superior graphics, a mystery to solve, and time travel, all wrapped up in an information book that imparts knowledge on transport firsts, transport inventors, the mechanics of pedals, the Panama Canal, steam trains, steam boats, motorcars, hot air balloons and much more.

On the first page, the reader is invited to board the train, but also learns that the expedition’s leader has mysteriously vanished. The idea is to solve the mystery of his disappearance whilst learning about the history of vehicles.

Each spread depicts a different visually cinematic scene, with paragraphs to explain concepts and to further the mystery, as well as information illuminating the science behind the concept in small text or diagrams underneath flaps, which lift to give an extra dimension to the main scene. There are also clues to solve, such as riddles and codes. The first page introduces the invention of the wheel, by diagrams as well as text, and a rhyme to solve. There are tips given in tiny print, upside down, to help the reader. A map illuminates first vehicles around the world. What’s clever is that the reader becomes immersed in the scene depicted, which looks just very visual, but behind the flaps is an enormous amount of information (but all in bitesize chunks).

The overall effect is one of great excitement, as the momentum builds to show how humans have wanted to travel faster and further over time. The book incorporates engineering within the excitement of the transport race, and, as with the best books, communicates knowledge without it once feeling like a chore to learn. The execution is great, but the illustrations are stunning. Timeless, with a light effect that highlights the mysterious nature of the journey, whilst allowing cracks of realism through – the shadows cast by the vehicles themselves, the light from the coal fire on the steam train, the reflections on the window of the submarine.

The only (minor) flaw is the size of the print. In order to fit so much information behind the tabs, some of the typeface is really quite tiny, which makes it difficult to read. However, if the reader is willing to see this as one of the challenges to overcome in solving a mystery, then they’ll be richly rewarded by the end result. Overall, a triumph. Quality information and simply mesmerising to look at. Come aboard here.

Through the Mirror Door by Sarah Baker

through mirror door

Thinking back to childhood, some of the fondest memories of books that captivated me were those with big rambling houses, gateways into other times and places. Books are themselves portals that take you into another world, but those that contain portals within them (Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) lead the reader further and further away from real life, and into a story.

Sarah Baker’s debut novel takes more than one classic motif, and uses them to her advantage, spinning a new yarn with old tools. But it works – captivating and twisty, her use of classic ingredients makes a fantastic new dish.

Twelve-year-old Angela, orphaned in a tragic accident, is invited on holiday with her less than sympathetic aunt and her family. They arrive at a French holiday home – a crumbling old mansion with shut off rooms, falling apart barns, spooky grounds, and even spookier inhabitants. When Angela discovers a strange mirror in an abandoned room, she realises that the only way to uncover the truth about her present is to delve into the long ago past. Stepping through the mirror takes her back to 1898 where she meets a boy, sick with typhoid. Somehow saving him might mean that she can save herself.

One of the best things about this book is the pacing. It’s the kind of holiday read that children lap up – the plot leaps from moment to moment, each chapter leaving the reader slightly hanging, and a protagonist who won’t give up for a moment, but is active all the time – hunting for clues, roaming the house, focussed solely on finding the truth.

Because Angela is orphaned, and treated so badly by her ‘new family’; even remonstrated with in the first line by the head of the children’s home, the reader instantly feels on her side, and wishes for something good to happen for her.

This feeling strengthens throughout the book, as Aunt Cece and Angela’s cousins become more and more vile towards her – almost caricatured in their nastiness: reminiscent of evil replacement mothers throughout time, such as Cinderella’s evil stepmother and sisters. In the end it’s a classic tale of usurpation, like Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey in Matilda – as Aunt Cece is after Angela’s inheritance.

Baker introduces some fresh touches though in her portrayal of a loving friendship/budding romance between Angela and the boy through the mirror, as well as her clever incorporation of typhoid, which leads to some deeper thoughts and correlation between contagious diseases in the past and the present and what they represent. The villagers’ fear of contagion from the boy with typhoid is replicated in Angela’s modern-day sneezing and her cousins’ disgust and nastiness at what they might ‘catch’ from her. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

And there’s also, of course, a clear warning sign about messing with the past. By bringing her French boy something from the future, Angela may save herself, but also alter the past – which has consequences for the future. It’s a great touch, and explored further in an epilogue.

Despite being written in a light style, so that it’s easy to read and there is little description or unravelling of feelings, Baker touches on dark elements with her recall of Angela’s tragic accident and her exploration of the horrors of typhoid.

In the end, this is simply a well-plotted tale, immersive and fun, with lovely little twists and ghostly reminders of the past. Age 9+. You can buy it here.

 

Back in the Day 1980’s

Time travelling is a well-used trait in fiction, particularly in children’s books from A Wrinkle in Time by Madileine L’Engel to A Traveller in Time by Allison Uttley and the timeslips in Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillippa Pearce.

back in the day

Jess Bright’s latest novel, Back in the Day, probably has more in common with Freaky Friday or Back to the Future than those mentioned above, as her heroine, Daisy falls through the back of a PE cupboard and ends up in 1985.

For today’s young reader, 1985 may seem like a long time ago, but for me the timehop in the book spelled nostalgia with a capital N. Jess Bright’s incidental details brought it all flooding back, from mentions of Impulse spray (if I close my eyes I can still smell it), to the fashions of the time:

“She was in her uniform now carrying some trendy neon-pink army type bag plastered with all sorts of cool badges and key rings, rammed with folders and books. You could tell she was a fashionista, even with bad Eighties hair.”

Bright also happily refers to the pop songs of the era (she uses 1980’s song titles as the chapter headings of her book, and I can sing every one!) as well as Daisy searching her brain for which Eighties group she likes (she mistakenly thinks ABBA would be hip, when of course Wham or Duran Duran would have fitted the bill). There are ra-ra skirts, pen pals (snail mail), as well as a lack of mobile phones, and the absence of health and safety and ice packs. Daisy’s friend hurts herself in 1985 and yet the reaction to her suggestion of ice packs is laughter from the teacher:

“Normally if anyone fell and hurt themselves there was a huge fuss…No one batted an eyelid this time.”

In the 1980s there was also more freedom, and certainly no Google:

“Outside the gallery I checked the photocopied A-Z map Mrs Northwood had given us (Googlemaps for the Eighties!)…Back in the future, there was no way any kid would be allowed to sneak off into the surrounding area without at least two adults, a satellite tracking system and an embarrassing day-glow school tabard!”

But what did those roaming children read in the 1980s? In the days before Jacqueline Wilson, David Walliams, and even before The Gruffalo or Harry Potter, children weren’t starved for fiction. In fact, I remember a large children’s section at the local library, and remember reading voraciously, yet not running out of titles. We started with classic picture books that are still around today, such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr, as well as Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. These titles didn’t look dissimilar from how they look today. We pored over the pictures in Brambly Hedge, became obsessed with scratch and sniff books – only a step up from sniffable erasers, stickers and a doll called Strawberry Shortcake who smelled of synthetic strawberries – and we were enraptured by terrible narratives just because they had our names in them – personalised books with names spelt backwards were all the rage.

sleeping beautyameliacarries war

There was no such category as ‘middle grade’ back then, but we progressed onto our stock of Ladybird books – and yes, my Sleeping Beauty looked nothing like Chris Riddell’s latest rendering of her – as well as reading The Worst Witch, My Naughty Little Sister, The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse, and then American imports such as Amelia Bedelia and Ramona Quimby, who turned eight a few years before I did. Of course we consumed all the adventures of the Famous Five and Secret Seven, progressed to boarding schools including Malory Towers and the Chalet School, and sauntered through the classics, all still read today, from titles such as I am David to Carrie’s War, The Silver Sword and many many more, although the covers looked a little different then. More American stuff filtered through with Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys Mysteries, and for a school which had far more boys than either St Clare’s or Trebizon, we turned to Sweet Valley High.

that was thenforever

YA didn’t exist as a separate category either, but there was plenty of subversiveness and fear for the future in Z for Zachariah, and it was a brilliant time to be reading teen, as SE Hinton had published The Outsiders and That Was Then, This is Now, in the late sixties and Judy Blume was churning out books in the seventies so that they were readily available for us.

stranger with my faceskin deep

But with the 1980’s came the arrival of the Pan Horizons imprint – a brilliantly marketed array of teen titles that had a distinct look and distinct content; seductive and exhilarating, with the publishers realising that sex was now a key component for the 1980’s teen. With Richard Peck exploring rape in Are You in the House Alone?, Lois Duncan exploring guilt, murder, the supernatural and so much more in her haunting stories, such as I Know What you Did Last Summer and Stranger With My Face, as well as Liz Berry’s tales of the rich and reckless in Easy Connections and Easy Freedom, and authors ME Kerr and many others, Horizons was a huge hit with 1980’s teens.

easy connections

homecoming

Personal favourite authors of the time included Cynthia Voigt, Jill Paton Walsh, Jean Ure, Robert Cormier, oh and don’t worry – we still had Roald Dahl.

Jess Bright has captured the time hop in her book, Back in the Day, without delving so far into the past that the modern reader feels neglected. Daisy falls through a portal (in the PE cupboard – the perfect messy place for a time portal), back to 1985, so she’s at school with her teenage Mum. But what will she do in the 1980’s that will impact her present day – and will she warn her Mum that she’s going to die when Daisy is aged four? Would you?

The book is full of tension, emotion, and drama as Daisy battles with the moral dilemma of what to do, and how to get back to the future, and a future that might be changed by her actions – for everything has a consequence. It’s a great rollercoaster of a story, with lovely ‘historical’ details. I enjoyed my trip down memory lane, but I think today’s children will adore this fun book about what would happen if they met their parents when they were children themselves. Buy a copy for your 9+ years child here.

If I’ve missed out any great kids’ books that you really enjoyed in the 1980s, tweet me @minervamoan

And check out the rest of Jess Bright’s book tour.

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