history

Explore the World by Anton Hallmann, translated by Ryan Eyers

explore the world
I’ve been working with older children recently, outside of my normal primary school demographic. Of course the further into education you go, the more specialised it becomes.

So, it came as something like relief to receive Explore the World by Anton Hallmann in the bookpost this week. This non-fiction title for primary school children neatly marries geography and history, and allows a peek into each era and place – discoveries that shaped the world – piquing children’s interest in the particular, but giving them a broad scope of the general.

Starting with a colour-coded contents timeline spanning 120,000 years ago to present day, and then an introduction explaining what it is to ‘discover,’ the book neatly begins in Africa with the first traces of human activity. Throughout the book, the reader is guided by two friends, Emma and Louis – first glimpsed in the end papers drawing maps, and then the title pages, inventing and discovering. These two children, illustrated on each page, give vocal contributions in speech bubbles to the general text.

The book begins with human ‘wandering’ and the first discoveries and adventures, looking at tools, voyages and resources, and moves into influential people and the spread of religions. It’s a huge subject, and the text is fairly advanced for primary age (it is translated from the German), but its meatiness and depth is rewarding, explaining how we now know certain information, and why the world opened up the way it did.

Taking in the Vikings, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the search for Australia, Darwin and all the way to the Space Race, the book covers a vast amount of exploration and discovery. Happily, there are references to female discoverers too, such as the archaeologist Jane Dieulafoy, and the explorer Anne Blunt, as well as discoverers who aren’t always covered, including Matthew Henson and Inuit explorer, Nukapinguaq. From land to sea and then space, the book certainly tries to cover the extent to which humans will go to find new things. And children reading the book will find a wealth of new exciting information and discovery, leading them, hopefully to make further digs for information in their environments and libraries.

Colour is used well in the book. Each page representative of the environment being explored, with the ocean pages tinted blue and with portholes displaying different information. Each explorer is illustrated in the outfit of their time, and the two children guides, Emma and Louis, interact within the illustrations on the page – climbing out of the Egyptian tombs, clinging to branches when looking at natural world discoveries, and even shown listening to the sounds of instruments down under.

This intimate and accessible way of delving into each page adds an extra element of welcome and warmth to the book, and juxtaposes with the density of information. A fascinating look at how, and importantly, why, humans explore and discover, with good touches and caveats about treatment of indigenous people, oppression and colonisation, those who aren’t credited with discovery or who have been forgotten, the different roles of women in history, and the importance of respecting the natural world and its people. In this way, it is a book best read and explored with an adult, extrapolating what we’ve learnt and what we’ve destroyed, where humans have adventured, and where humans were misguided.

But it is not negative. This is a book about the wonder of the world. There are new things to discover, according to the final pages, and Elon Musk would agree. The book ends on an optimistic note, with adventures waiting to be had. For those wanting to start their own, they could begin with this book and see where it leads them.

With thanks to Little Gestalten for the review copy. You can buy your own here

We Played with Fire by Catherine Barter

we played with fire
Quite often, when I’m running through the benefits of reading with a group of children, the first answer they come up with is that reading gives you knowledge. And although primarily I don’t read to gain knowledge, so much as for pleasure and immersion in a good story, I do appreciate that much of the time, knowledge is being absorbed anyway. Catherine Barter’s last novel, Troublemakers, was a pleasure to read. The characterisation was strong and the plot compelling, and this second novel plays to both those strengths, whilst also giving an insight into a part of history of which I was unaware.

We Played With Fire toys with the story of the Fox sisters, a trio who inspired the creation of spiritualism in late nineteenth-century America, by holding public seances. The book starts with sisters Maggie and Kate in a remote farmhouse, apparently driven from town by Maggie’s strange tales of ghostly sightings and interference. The sisters play tricks on their parents at night by making strange sounds, but when the house starts to join in, seemingly all on its own, the neighbours believe that someone or something is trying to speak to them from beyond the grave. Before long, the girls are believed to be mediums, and with the help of their elder sister Leah, transport their business to New York.

Barter plays with the reader as much as the sisters toy with their audiences, so that one is ever quite sure how much is fabricated by the sisters and how much might have been truly felt by them to be real. Barter focuses in on Maggie as the protagonist, weaving the story from her point of view, and the character fluctuates ambiguously between naïve and scared child, and all-knowing young woman, with hints of Abigail Williams from The Crucible. She is an innocent young teenager, manipulated by her older sister. In fact, the dynamics of the family are as much at play here as the spirits, and as alliances change and split, Maggie becomes more and more sympathetically seen by the reader.

Barter is brilliant at bringing history to life, making the characters sing from the page, and providing just enough detail of 19th century New York with its food and fashions and décor. She also brings history up to date with her modern interjections that dissect the stifling restrictions of the patriarchal society in which the sisters lived. Maggie’s friendship with a woman called Amy infuses the story with a sense of injustice, as Amy is involved with the underground railroad, smuggling slaves from the Southern States to freedom.  Through this prism, the reader sees Maggie’s conflict with the influences all around her – from those who would change society, decrying even the church and its patriarchal hold over women, to those who would call her a witch for her sacrilegious dalliance with the dead.

But mainly, readers will be spellbound by the spookiness of the telling. The raps and knocks, the falling of a picture frame, the ghostly figures in the dark. Each chapter hinges on a cliffhanger, as the reader waits in suspense to see which plot turns are the girls’ doing and which are the ghosts, and who or what will scupper them. And of course, when does fame turn into notoriety, and what does a girl really want from life anyway, and what is she permitted to want?

A fascinating character and period piece, as well as a gripping little historical ghost story – this is a wonderfully told second novel. As I said with Troublemakers, I can’t wait to see what this author does next.

With thanks to Andersen Press for granting me permission to read a review copy.

Holocaust Memorial Day: Fiction for children

How do you teach primary school children about the Holocaust? Many years ago, I edited a large non-fiction title about the Holocaust for children aged eight and over, and each page carried an angst-ridden decision. Which photograph captures the truth and yet is appropriate for learning at that age? Which statistics to include? Which real-life stories? How to describe something so evil to children so young?

Recently, children’s authors have stepped up to this daunting task and produced some amazing titles that give context to the genocide, show truths without resorting to horror, and illuminate the very real emotions and scars of Holocaust survivors.

after the war
In the middle of last year, Tom Palmer, known for his books on football and history, published After the War with dyslexia specialist and reluctant reader publisher Barrington Stoke. Based on the true story of the Windemere Boys, it is a heartfelt and engaging piece of fiction that explores the emotions of survivors, whilst still carrying the boyishness and wonder that is a child’s exploration of the world.

Yossi and friends, Mordecai and Leo, arrive on the Calgarth Estate next to Lake Windermere after being liberated from Auschwitz. With the help of a multitude of kind adults, they try to rediscover joy for life and hope for the future. Palmer gently extricates the intricacies of their friendships, whilst also referencing Yossi’s past in Nazi-occupied Europe, and the terrible scars the boys carry with them. Palmer does a superb job of linking moments in the present to memories of an horrific past, be it the innocence of feathers falling from split pillows invoking memories of ash, to a synagogue service bringing up the scars of the Nazi terrors of book burning and desecration. But there is also the boyhood delight in simple present pleasures – a bicycle, a late summer storm, a bowl of tomato soup.  

And it is all written in an age-appropriate way. The emotions run deep whilst the language remains easy and accessible.

A few hundred children who survived the concentration camps were indeed brought to the Lake District after the war to ‘rehabilitate’ their lives, and Palmer uses their real stories to create a novel of his own. This is a phenomenally sensitive telling of events after the war, and the exploration of what it’s like to be a child in a strange country, without family or sometimes language, with a terrible loss and grief lying as an undercurrent to all the new things to which the child is exposed.  

It honours the memories of the survivors, whilst also showing that in the face of inhumanity, there is hope for the future. Friendship, courage, and goodness prevail. You can find teaching resources to go alongside the novel here and my interview with Tom Palmer about After the War here. For age 8+.

saving hanno

Saving Hanno by Miriam Halahmy, illustrations by Karin Littlewood
This gentle, yet occasionally heart-breaking book, is a welcome addition to Holocaust literature, as it is aimed at fairly young children and describes a child’s world disintegrating from their own perspective, with detail and emotion, and yet without resorting to shock tactics or hyperbole. It is also a gripping and pacey read.

Nine-year-old Rudi lives a typical German childhood, enjoying his mother’s cinnamon cookies, his close friendships, and school, until the Nazis start making rules prohibiting many facets of his life. As things become more dangerous, he is given the opportunity to go on the Kindertransport to England with his big sister Lotte, but has to leave his parents behind, and devastatingly, his dog Hanno. Amazingly, his parents arrange for Hanno to be smuggled to London too, but London is very different from what Rudi is used to. He is separated from his sister, and although reunited with Hanno, discovers that in London too, pets are in danger as the war intensifies. Halahmy has addressed this theme before in her book Emergency Zoo, but in the shorter Saving Hanno, Halahmy focuses in on the Kindertransport and the emotions facing a Jewish German boy during the war, and it is all the more effective for it. Halahmy explores Rudi’s loss and grief for his old life, as well as his new life experiences, and the small specific sadnesses and joys that accompany both.

The mix of Rudi’s gratefulness for his new circumstance, and yet uncertainty in the face of new customs, and warfare, are intense and yet delicately written, and entirely age-appropriate. A special book that will teach empathy and allow current readers to understand the devastation of Jewish children’s lives during the war.

An age isn’t specified by the publisher, but I would recommend for age seven plus. There is a glossary and note from the author at the end.

when the world was ours
A fantastic new addition to Holocaust literature for children is the newly published When the World Was Ours by Liz Kessler. My review of this book is featured in this month’s Books for Keeps, and you can read it here. The book is for children aged 11+.

With all Holocaust fiction, it’s worth making sure that parents and carers have a conversation around the context of the fiction.

With thanks to Otter-Barry books for the review copy of Saving Hanno, and thanks to Tom Palmer, who kindly let me read an early copy of After the War and voice my opinion.

27 January is #HolocaustMemorialDay, when we remember all those murdered during the Holocaust and more recent genocides. #HMD2021 #LightTheDarkness

The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll

The Ghost Garden
The Secret Garden
by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a much-loved and yet rather strange children’s book. Although it can be embraced as a paean to gardens and the healing power of nature, and although it remains a favourite of mine for its ability to feature prickly rather than immediately loveable children protagonists, when you come to it as an adult you have to ponder its darker side. After all, the novel starts with Mary’s family all dying quite horribly and the child being forgotten. Then when Mary arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, a father is projecting his grief onto his son and purposefully making him out to be ill – Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Whatever you think of it, its imagery lingers, which is why modern-day books that allude to it hold a special place in my head and heart. Emma Carroll’s newest book, The Ghost Garden, her first with dyslexia-specialists Barrington Stoke, is beautifully atmospheric, historically detailed, but also contains barely contained allusions to the aforementioned Secret Garden. Indeed, even on the cover, a girl pushes around a boy who has become wheelchair-bound.

The Ghost Garden is set in the summer of 1914, and a young girl, Fran, stumbles across a bone whilst digging in the garden of a country house. That same afternoon, coincidence strikes when the young boy of the house breaks his leg. Then more strange happenings in the garden lead to a burgeoning friendship between the two, all set against the very dire backdrop of impending war.

With stylised illustrations from Kaja Kajfez, The Ghost Garden is marginally spooky, but bursting with particular detail. As one would expect from Carroll, the characters are swiftly yet beautifully drawn, so that the reader feels as if Fran exists far beyond the pages of the book, and the tale is well-executed and rather fun. Its final message is that, despite the world’s sometime devastating bigger picture, things are best faced as a community rather than alone. And that we should create and embrace positive moments and memories during the good times, making the most of the time we have. At the end of 2020, what better message could there be? A sumptuous little feast, to be devoured in one go.

With thanks to Barrington Stoke for the review copy. The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll is published in January 2021 but is available to pre-order now for a post-Christmas treat.

World War Two Explored

A range of books to explore World War II with any budding historian, including a young adult title suitable for reluctant readers or dyslexics, a middle grade adventure story with a shocking ending, and a non-fiction book that brings the National Archives to children’s learning so that they can see history from actual source materials.

white eagles

White Eagles by Elizabeth Wein
As war breaks out across Europe in 1939, Kristina Tomiak has been called up to join the White Eagles, Poland’s air force. But when the Nazis invade Poland, and reach her town, killing her twin brother, she knows she must use her flying skills to escape. What she doesn’t realise is that there’s a stowaway in her plane, and he wants her to fly further than she thinks is possible.

Wein is a master at depicting a female perspective during World War Two, and this doesn’t deviate, in that she shows both depth of character and the horrors of war all within a small novella. Kristina is based on the true story of Anna Leska, a pilot for the Polish Air Force, and Wein’s passion and in-depth research of this period of history and the female aviators really shines through.

Although this is more character-led than plot led, it gives a good insight into the fears and determination of different people at this time, and inserts tiny details that resonate in the mind and stay with the reader long after the book is finished.  

It may have been written and published with struggling or dyslexic readers in mind, but the relationship within the story, and the authentic descriptions of flying make for an altogether brilliant read. An author’s note at the end gives some extra true detail to her fictional story. You can buy it here

the runaways
The Runaways by Holly Webb
The story begins in London at the outbreak of the Second World War. Molly’s school is being evacuated to the countryside, but her mother refuses to let her go, and so she’s stuck at home, helping her mother in the shop, and watching her older sister go off to join the war effort. When she hears that Londoners’ pets are to be put down, because supplies will be short, she runs away with her beloved dog Bertie. Once in the countryside, she meets other runaways, with even sadder stories, and before long, home seems like a distant memory.

After reading some of Webb’s other stories, I imagined that this book might be fairly animal-led and quite tame, so it was a surprise to read that Webb doesn’t hold back in trying to present some sort of reality of how miserable the war might have been on the home front. It wasn’t all gusto and bravado, and some children (and adults) suffered terribly. The book is an easy read – fast-paced and punchy, but it also bears a depth of loss and grief, which is sensitively dealt with, even if the end comes as rather a shock.

This is carefully written historical fiction that aims to portray the uncertainty of wartime, and show the effect of displacement and family break up. A refreshingly different take on World War Two fiction. You can buy it here

national archives
National Archives: World War II by Nick Hunter
So often, secondary school children are told to look at the source material when writing about history. And yet for many primary school children, source material is a distant object – they are just presented with a list of facts. This lively, colourful, and informative book aims to lay out some primary sources and let children discover them for themselves.

From Hitler’s rise to power to the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, the book uses photographs, artefacts and original documents from the National Archives to bring the history to life. Each spread has a sprinkling of colour as well as a number of black and white photographs and documents, all interestingly laid out to pique a child’s curiosity. To accompany the archive, Hunter includes introductory paragraphs, captions and facts, to provide a fuller explanation of what happened.

Children may read it chronologically, or dip in for information they need. There’s a lovely range of sources and some interesting detail on technological advances, and war on the home front. I’m impressed that it doesn’t shy away from details on the horrors of the Holocaust and Nagasaki, but it also brings the book to a good close with reflections on physical reminders of the war, and the importance of historical documentation and remembrance. You can buy it here

With thanks to Barrington Stoke, Scholastic and Bloomsbury Publishers for the review copies. 

Nevertell by Katharine Orton

nevertellMany a children’s book has been set in a snowy landscape with chasing wolves and stretching vistas, from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken to Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder, promising the romance of ice crystals and the danger of snapping jaws. Of course, there’s nothing romantic about the punishing Siberian prison camps under the reign of Stalin, which is where Orton has chosen to set her debut children’s book, Nevertell.

Lina, born inside one of these Siberian prison camps, has never seen the outside world, so when the opportunity for escape is presented at age eleven, she grasps it wholeheartedly, despite having to leave her mother behind. However, Lina and best friend Bogdan are soon pursued not by Soviet guards, but by ghost wolf hounds and a dangerous sorceress, who lives in a Frozen-esque ice palace and bears a resemblance to Baba Yaga and The Mistress of Copper Mountain from Russian folk tales.

This is in essence an adventure story across the snowy tundra of a Russian winter, and Orton’s lyrical writing interweaves the magic of the landscape she is describing with the thrilling pace of a chase. Her descriptions of cold are indeed chilling, and the frozen fractals feel both dangerously icy but also wonderfully enchanting, as if the reader is spellbound by the cold as Lina and Bogdan are by the sorceress.

“The sky itself stretched cloudless and pale, like a flawless frozen lake. It all felt upside down, as if the sky had switched places with the earth while they slept and now they were wading through yesterday’s storm clouds.”

As well as the escape to freedom, Lina is on a quest to discover her heritage. She sets out on a path to Moscow to find her grandmother and discover what she is like, all the time wondering who in the left-behind camp is her father. What becomes apparent through the telling is the importance of family – both in their presence and their absence, and how belonging is so key. Separation was a cruel punishment oft inflicted by Stalin.

There are familiar children’s books tropes in Nevertell: a chase across countryside, a fierce and loyal friendship between the protagonist and a sidekick of the opposite gender…but where the novel stands apart is the terrific juxtaposition between the harshness of Russian gulags and Stalin’s reign with local folklore and fairy tales, which conjure a different kind of adventure story.

The idea that creativity was stifled in Stalin’s Russia, that a repressive regime sought to shut down any telling of fairy tales and folk stories is barbaric – after all freedom of thought and imagination are some of the most precious assets of being human. Orton plays with this idea of repression, and of course sets it free by taking Lina and Bogdan away from the harsh realism of a Siberian prison camp and placing them within the magical realms of a sorceress, even if that magic can also be used for harm.

Orton also plays on the importance of objects – again a device taken from native folk and fairy tales, in which one thing can be of such import – be it a house of chicken legs, or simply a stone. Lina wears a stone around her neck that provides pulsing warmth in times of great cold and throbbing heat in times of danger. The sorceress relies on her cape for much, but it is also in the human realm that objects are important: a winter coat, a bag of vegetables, a horse for transportation. These are essential elements of survival: food, warmth, shelter.

At times the magic is complex, at times simple, as are the relationships, but there’s a shining simplicity to the images of growth and gardens that frame Lina’s story. The idea of being able to conjure magic within a garden has been used for decades in children’s literature – a garden showing the flourishing of the heart and soul, the blossoming or growth of a forbidden fruit actually proving to be sustenance and food for thought rather than evil temptation. Orton sets up the magic vibrancy of fruit vines against a Siberian snowy backdrop and it is with strong images such as these that her power as a storyteller glitters most strongly.

The reader is left with an array of visuals – ice crystals frozen from wintry breath, a fluttering moth, a shadowy girl, an ice palace. With a startling cover illustrated by Sandra Dieckmann, interior illustrative snowflakes and more, this is a winter read with staying power. You’ll be as enchanted as if you had been captured by a sorceress. A perfect wintry read. For ages 8+.

With thanks to Walker books for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here.

Explorers and Pioneers

From the history of exploration to the extremes of our planet, from game-changing theories to contemporary outdoor adventures, these four books take the reader on journeys of discovery and endeavour.

darwins voyage of discovery
Darwin’s Voyage of Discovery by Jake Williams
Pure, simple illustrations from upcoming illustrator Jake Williams make this new book about Darwin rather distinctive. Publishing to celebrate 160 years since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it follows Darwin’s journey on the The Beagle to Cape Verde, the Galapagos, Australia and more, paying careful attention to the discoveries Darwin made. Split into sections of the journey, with the beginning profiling Darwin’s early life and then the ship and preparations for the voyage, the rest plots the geography with basic maps and then wildlife of the region that Darwin noted.

The book goes into detail on the creatures, noting their features, but also the questions that Darwin asked about them, sparking ideas of evolution and ancestry. As the book highlights these, today’s reader will also begin to think – about exploration and discovery, but also about making connections and learning from nature – how analysis of behaviours and patterns can provoke theory. The space on the pages allows for this freedom of thought. There are no contents, no glossary…this is a book as a voyage – a linear discovery. You can buy it here.

dk explorers
DK Explorers, illustrated by Jessamy Hawke, written by Nellie Huang
This is a beautifully designed primer to exploration, with an introduction from explorer Barbara Hillary. Taking in the breadth of what exploration means – from adventuring to the furthest reaches of geography, whether it be deep sea or outer space – to understanding the commitment, determination and courage that being an explorer means, this book will open up the reader’s eyes to what has been achieved and at what cost.

Divided into sections: sea and ice, land, air and space, the book focuses on personalities – taking a double page for each explorer. There is a marvellous mix of graphics, of course maps, but also photographs of artefacts from American William Clark’s compass,  to photographs of British archaeologist Gertrude Bell on exploration, as well as full page illustrations that bring the scenes to life. There are first person accounts and quotes, as well as third person explanations and captions. Engaging and informative, this is a lovely nonfiction book, with careful nods to inclusivity, and a reflection on the darker side of exploration, all appropriate for the age group (9+yrs). You can buy it here.

adventures on earth
Adventures on Earth by Simon Tyler
This too divides the world into geographical regions, including polar, mountainous, volcanic, oceanic and more, looking at the extremes of our Earth, and noting their features, their wildlife, and the people who have discovered and explored them. With a nod to conservation issues too, this is a compelling looking book, with large shapes and blocks of colour denoting entire regions – deserts in terracotta and brown, caves in deep black, and oceans, in a nice touch, with a deep sunset beyond.

At times, the text is hard to read against its dark background, at other times stark against the polar regions, but always fascinating and packed with information. Maps and a glossary give clear guidance. Tyler’s background as a graphic designer shines through – some features look poster-like in their blockiness, and the design feels bold and sophisticated. Like some of the explorations it features, such as El Capitan and Dos Ojos, this is certainly attention-grabbing. You can buy it here.

wild girl
Wild Girl: How to have Incredible Outdoor Adventures by Helen Skelton, illustrated by Liz Kay
For those inspired by books such as those above, this may be a child’s entry point into their own exploration. Skelton has been and done many things and this book showcases her various explorations, from cycling to the South Pole to kayaking the length of the Amazon. It tracks the adventure, describes the preparation, kit and training, as well as the specific details such as going to the toilet and staying hydrated, as well as highly personal details such as cravings for apples and drying hair. Then each section attempts to give hints as to how a child can have their own adventures and explorations closer to home.

In the ‘sand’ adventure section, it suggests beach running, campfires and even sand boarding. For ‘rivers’, Skelton encourages ghyll scrambling, rafting, kite-surfing and more. These are not adventures for the garden, but certainly high-level activities that require some ‘warnings’, which are in place in the book. I particularly liked the idea of having a wild adventure in a city, making use of seeing things from a different perspective, such as going low, or going high. This is a highly personal recollection of voyages taken, but also an aspirational one for children wanting to be like Helen Skelton. The design is busy, but nicely arranged to read part-diary, part information manual, with plenty of colour, illustrations and photographs to draw the eye. An admirable non-fiction on the realities of modern exploration. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Pavilion, DK, and Walker publishers for the review copies.

The Apartment: A Century of Russian History by Alexandra Litvina, illustrated by Anna Desnitskaya

the apartmentNot all good books have to be new ideas. Sometimes the brilliance is in the execution. When I first started working at Dorling Kindersley publishers, one of the big titles was A Street Through Time by Steve Noon, which time travels a street to the Roman times, through history to the industrial revolution and Victorian England. Recently a documentary series on the BBC showed a similar concept – A House Through Time – with historian David Olusoga painstakingly researching a single house through different eras.

So The Apartment is not unusual. Except that this oversize piece of non-fiction for children is exquisitely presented, with so much information and curiosity within its pages that it feels as if it were recreating the concept afresh.

The illustrations and text follow the story of a six-bedroom apartment in Moscow from 1902 to 2002, showing the reader not only who lives there and why, but also their personal stories, political changes and upheavals, and the cultural choices and developments that then rippled from Russia across the world. Events in Russia are documented and remarked upon first and foremost according to their impact on the inhabitants of this apartment, but there is also a wealth of extra material.

A double-page family tree opens the story. This large extended family features the inhabitants of the apartment, and also indicates which pages of the book each person appears on. This handy tool helps the reader to navigate, particularly when some of the names may be tricky for an English readership.

The book opens with Irina Muromtseva in 1902, a young child moving into the apartment with her family and their dog. The cutaway apartment shows the different rooms and belongings, with annotations to characters and objects. There’s a fictional feel to the narrative, a first person introduction citing smells and emotions, but there’s a non-fiction feel to the rest, documenting the type of belongings the family had, the technologies of the time, including here a hot tap, and the inhabitants’ professions and general way of life.

Interspersed between the generational page cutaways – in which the current child of the family gives their impression of what is happening – there are double pages that explain the historical and political landscape, and show the reader smaller illustrations of particular objects and scenarios – from speech bubble vignettes of political or philosophical conversations, to types of pens for letter-writing, tree ornaments for Christmas celebrations, types of money and even recipes. This broad spectrum highlights a whole life – the feelings about war and revolutions, about communism and leadership, but also about the day-to-day: from embroidered school collars to samovars and newspaper articles.

Further on, the apartment is split as more families move in and share the space. Then more lives are documented, and the apartment sees arrests, deaths, a wedding, the advent of a telephone and television, men in space. The text introduces terms such as glasnost and perestroika, documents Stalinism and the Thaw, right up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

There are so many features in the book. There is of course an extensive glossary, timeline, bibliography and more. There’s a search and find game to see which objects survived how many years of change. But my favourite is the Afterword, explaining how much history and social history we glean from mere objects in everyday homes. And how for some of Russia’s history, there were things that could not be talked about. Could not be mentioned. And how books such as this can open these conversations.

We often say that to know who we are, we have to know where we came from. Our personal histories can provide a focus and explanation for how we see the outside world. And this book is a perfect example of how fiction and nonfiction can mesh and explore, can explain and provoke understanding. The text is dense, the pictures intricate, but it is a world waiting to be explored. All within one apartment.

With huge thanks to fellow children’s book blogger ReadItDaddy, without whom I would never have discovered this scintillating book. And proof therefore of the power of the children’s book blogger.

Translated from the Russian by Antonina W Bouis. For curious children aged 9+ and curious adults. You can buy it here.

The Pearl in the Ice by Cathryn Constable

pearl in the iceSet in 1912 with an impending global conflict, twelve-year-old Marina is the daughter of a Naval Commander and a long-absent mother, so is often left on her own. The book opens with Marina up a plane tree in a leafy London suburb contemplating imminent boarding school. Yet, bound within Marina’s daydreaming and watery metaphors, is the inexorable pull of the sea, and before long Marina is swapping one train for another and heading to Portsmouth to stow away on her father’s ship.

But as with so many stories, all is not what it seems. In any way. This 1912 is a slightly alternate reality, with the enemy of the British the fictional Mordavians, and a battle over codes, transmitters and missing ships being waged near the fictional town of Svengejar near the very real Sea of Murmansk. By cleverly mixing reality with fiction, Constable creates a tangible landscape for her story, and makes sure that mentions of sea beasts and mermaids don’t feel as far removed as they should.

Much of the novel takes place aboard The Sea Witch, where Marina’s father is the captain. Discovered by the crew, Marina quickly earns her place on board, looking after the dogs who will eventually pull the sleds when the ship docks in the Arctic Circle. As well as painting an intriguing picture of life on board a ship, complete with sailors’ superstitions, roles and responsibilities, ropes and rigging, there’s also the tension of imminent war, codes and code-breaking, and the mysteriousness of her father’s real role in the conflict.

By basing her book half in reality and half not, Constable sets up some wonderful tension in her characters; the reader having to guess who is speaking the truth, and who not. Near the beginning, Marina makes fast friends on the train with a Miss Smith, whom she admires for her feminist outlook, her insistence that women are just as good as men. This modern sensibility takes a battering on the ship, where Marina is referred to as ‘Boy, 2nd class,’ as girls do not feature as seamen. But her respect and admiration for Miss Smith doggedly follow her through the story, and by the end her feminist beliefs are restored, although she learns that even the bravest feminist can be on the wrong side.

The main tension in the book though, is not Marina’s seafaring adventure, or the end quest to save her father, but more her understanding of where fantasy meets reality, and the true understanding of why her mother disappeared. This is most clearly borne out in the very frightening and gripping dream/memory sequence at the end of chapter three, as Marina’s earliest memory seems to be that of being nearly drowned in the bath. From this sprout ongoing hints as to who Marina’s mother really is. By the end, the book’s plot – filled with double lives, spies, and codes – bends to encompass a fantasy realm too.

For readers of this age group, there is solace to be found in reading of a girl’s search for greater independence, not just in knowing who she is and where she comes from, but mainly in where she is going as she makes the leap from childhood to adulthood, understanding the premise that not all adults are to be believed and that challenging them can reap its own rewards.

This is a far from watery novel – in fact like the dark shape that follows Marina’s quest across the seas – it has real bite. The characters are well-formed – Miss Smith rather glamorously reminiscent of shades of Mrs Coulter – and the messages behind the story strong and well thought-out. But it is the imagery of the sea and what lies beneath that leaves lingering visions in the mind: the power of a storm, the surging dance of the waves, and the ever-changing colours of the water above the darkness below.

For 9+ years.

With thanks to Nina Douglas and Chicken House publishers for my review copy. Catch up with the rest of the blog tour below. And you can buy your own copy here.

Prisoners of Geography: Our World Explained in 12 Simple Maps by Tim Marshall, illustrated by Grace Easton and Jessica Smith

prisoners of geographyThere’s much book reading in my house. But my husband is the one who consumes the most non-fiction: a range of topics from tech, feminism, history, sociology and more. One day a few years ago, he came in from his commute raving about his latest read – an intriguing look at our world called Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. And although the ideas in the book are set out with supreme clarity, it was never going to make it onto my nine year old’s bedside reading pile.

And then, to my huge delight, Simon and Schuster advertised the fact that, with Tim Marshall, they were publishing a children’s version. And it’s now available from all good bookshops.

This book magnificently stretches across the curriculum, pulling together geography and history to explain why countries might act aggressively towards others, where the world’s resources lie, why borders and access to seas are so important, and how our human expansion across the globe has precipitated wars and hostility, peace and collaboration. An introduction and explanation of geopolitics for children.

The maps aren’t to scale but that’s not what they’re for in this book. In fact, some of the ideas of the maps work better when toyed with – one of the most intriguing maps in the book is ‘the true size of Africa,’ in which Marshall, Easton and Smith illustrate the actual size of the continent, cleverly fitting other countries into its space for relativity.

With other maps the idea is to offer a fresh perspective on their use and influence – a range of mountains may look pretty, but it also provides a barrier from one region to another, sometimes useful and sometimes not. Large coastlines may prove useful for trade but difficult for security. Huge resources may grow a country’s wealth, but leave it vulnerable to exploitation.

Marshall writes and explains these issues with lucidity and a greatly assured calmness. The text is accessible and coherent, even when dissecting the thorniest political moves. And in short chunks or paragraphs surrounded by numerous illustrations, so that the brain is kept busy, engaged, and informed.

The book deals with all major areas of the globe region by region, starting with Russia, and moving on through China, USA, Canada, Europe, Africa and beyond, looking at their geology and how this affects politics and economics. There’s a great caveat at the start of the book explaining how this book contains abridged ideas from the adult version and can’t cover everything, and for me, it worked in covering the major geopolitical issues of our time, (even though the paragraph on the reasons for European cohesion may make some Remainers wince in acknowledgement). This is, after all, a point of view rather than an out-and-out fact book.

This Illustrated children’s version adds a simplicity and accessibility to Marshall’s prose explanation. Each map has small graphics depicting major symbols and landmarks, such as The Great Wall of China, the Mojave Desert, the Amazon Rainforest, while the prose and captions explore why these are significant both geographically and politically. Rather marvellously, our understanding of the USA as a global superpower is illustrated by a map of military bases across the world, as well as the geography of its own country. And as well as maps, there are large full page illustrations to highlight key distinctive factors of a region. Africa is beautifully portrayed with a thriving city as an example, as well as a stunning illustration of the Victoria Falls. But there are smaller vignettes too – Europe’s industrial revolution, China’s navy.

Every page holds interest and provokes thought. Of course there are territorial lines, disputed areas, gas pipelines, oil refineries, raging waterfalls that hinder transport, and a dissection of how crucial pathways were opened up – the Panama Canal, the Northwest Passage.

Country names are written across the map in a kind of handwriting scrawl typeface which makes the image feel familiar and personal, and this touch matches the prose, which reads as if it is written by a great storyteller – slotting into that narrative non-fiction genre, which is so popular. The informality of the chosen typeface for place-names also emphasises the somewhat arbitrary nature of the countries – borders and names often imposed by faraway strangers, particularly in the case of Africa and the Middle East.

Marshall highlights the incredible importance of transport, from rivers to access to seas and therefore global trade, as well as land rich in resources and land fertile for farming. These are all things that are and will be affected by climate change, and the impact is there to see – floodplains and regions hit by fires, melting polar ice and more. But also, by pointing to these land attributes, Marshall pinpoints the geographical ties that bind humanity despite any cultural differences. We all need food, shelter, security, community and trade, and that’s why the world we inhabit is both small and large, and such a topic of massive import.

Why is Tibet important? Why is Bangladesh poor? Why is America a superpower?

This is one of the most important children’s books published in the past few years. Buy your curious children a copy, and entreat them to try to understand others. It’s a definitive tome for how we think about the world, and will open up their compassion to people from around the world – why we move where we move, how we use the world’s resources, and an insight into how the world’s geography might change with climate change and how we might have to adapt because of it. Fascinating, educational, vital reading.

With huge thanks to Simon and Schuster for the early review copy. Credit also to adapters Emily Hawkins and Pippa Crane.

Buy your own copy here.