Non-Fiction Book Reviews

Allies: Real Talk About Showing Up, Screwing Up, And Trying Again

Shakirah Bourne, Dana Alison Levy eds., pub. Dorling Kindersley

Being an ally, having an ally, what does it mean, truly? As this book sets out in its introduction it is complicated because it means different things to different people and in different circumstances which of course makes it even more important to talk about. That is what this book does. It introduces us to 17 authors of young adult fiction who have each contributed an essay, a personal account of things that have happened to them, they are real people, these are their real experiences, but they are all experiences that involve allies.


I must admit that on looking at the contents page the names were not any that I knew, that however does not matter for these essays are from the heart, they are about things that go wrong, things that get fixed, people who have tried and then tried harder. They are about being there for a friend, for a stranger, featuring racism, disability, about speaking out and finding a voice. I found it gritty, tough, and yet surprisingly freeing and liberating to read. As with any non-fiction it is not a title to sit and enjoy cover to cover in your favourite cosy chair, but it is a book with a. voice, a book to be shared, to be explored.


It is very much a book for older children. Possibly even aged 16+, the top end of our readership but it is also one that could be used to great effect in secondary school PSHE lesson, under the guidance of a teacher or librarian who takes examples form the stories shares them, using them as starting points for discussion. This is an important book with no easy answers, lots of questions, and an important message – we are all in this together.

Louise Ellis-Barrett


Clare Beaton’s Make Your Own Castle

Clare Beaton, pub. b Small Publishing

Clare Beaton has many books to her name, mostly books with which young children can interact in some way or other. Among her many and varied series for KS1 children, the Make Your Own books provide all that any young potential architect, designer and historian could need to learn about history, farming and special buildings. While there is a lot of colouring and cutting involved, which will keep the young audience (and their adults) busy, there’s also quite a few pages of brightly illustrated, and often funny, information about the subject of the book.


In the case of Make Your Own Castle the book’s brightly coloured card covers are designed to be transformed into the body of the castle, while the inner thicker card pages provide additional parts of the castle, and the thinner card pages offer many additional objects which readers would find if they were transported back in time to join in with the life of an active castle. Of course, a castle wouldn’t be much use without people, so we have knights in armour and on horseback, peasants and pigs (27 items in all) to colour and inhabit it! Those parts of the book have to be cut out once they’re coloured, and again, some oversight and assistance is likely to be needed from the older members of the household or class. There are instructions on paper pages at the front of the book to help readers understand what to do (again, these may well need an older helper to explain), and a glossary at the end, to explain all those unfamiliar words. The eight information pages are paper, so they don’t get mixed up with the colouring, cutting out and folding parts of the book. Readers can also design their own coat of arms. When they’ve done all this, they can turn their hand to making their own sword and shield. As well as ordinary and colouring pencils, and scissors for careful cutting, tracing paper is needed for some of the activities.


This series is well thought out, informative and fun. What more could you want?

Bridget Carrington

Clare Beaton.jpeg

The Dinosaur Awards

Barbara Taylor, illus. Steve Collins, pub. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

Are you ready? Take your seat. It is time for the dinosaur awards to begin and you need the best seat in the house to be sure that you will get the best view of the fifty fabulous dinosaurs superbly bought to life by cartoonist Steve Collins who brings these extinct creatures to life in an accessible and friendly style. He uses the text to pick out their important and significant features too. For example, we have the Archeopteryx, winner of the best flight award and we see why – the wings are distinctly prominent in the illustration. Plus, ever dinosaur is given their very own mini comic strip adventure, their own portrait and so much more besides. The illustrations were what caught my eye immediately that I opened the book. Then I thought perhaps I should read the text too. Fascinating.


Each dinosaur comes with a checklist of facts – from how to pronounce the name – some are quite challenging – I am sure Pachycephalosaurs is a tongue twister but apparently it is said PACK-ee-KEF-ah-low—SORE-us. This is a veggie dinosaur, in fact did you know many of them were? We then hear more about each of the dinosaurs, in fact this book is so packed with facts it could take many reading to take them all in which is exactly what I recommend. Read, read and read again, this is a book to be enjoyed over many, many readings, for it is simply packed with detail. Additionally, if you are not sure where to go first try the gallery of winners, pick your dino, turn to their page (double page spread) and enjoy the facts, then go back for more – a great concept for a content page.


In summary a book I love, a book all children will love, a book a great many adults will love too. A book packed with facts. A brilliant, original book.

Louise Ellis-Barrett

Dinosaur Awards.jpeg

How to Be a Vet

Dr Jess French, illus. Sol Linero, pub. Nosy Crow

How to Be a Vet is the type of book that children will love to show their classmates in circle time. Not only does this book outline the various important and different jobs that vets take on across different professions, but even goes into a short history of the veterinary practice that will peak the curiosity of both kids and adults alike. I had no idea how many unique tools vets use within their practice on a daily basis to keep our pets healthy!


The illustration is simple yet captivating; the cartoons are inclusive and include a variety of interesting scenes. Not only will this story have children interested in STEM, but includes a discussion on the emotional aspect of being a vet as well. Through the incorporation of facts and a variety of vet jobs, from physiotherapists and bug wranglers to zoo designers and vets on film sets, this book shows children how to combine their passions to create their dream job of working with animals. Not only does this book show children the possibility of being a vet, but how professional veterinarians have the option of working throughout a variety of different fields.


There is also a great addition at the end including suggestions for volunteering! This is a wonderful way to get children involved right away in community projects. I’ve suggested this book already to my younger cousins-- it is sure to be a hit!

Anne Singer

How to be a vet.jpeg

Little Brown Bear: It’s OK to Make Mistakes

Little Brown Bear: It’s OK to Need a Friend

Georgia AnnelieseDraws, pub. Wide Eyed Editions

The Little Brown Bear is a guide for children, he is a friend who is there to hold their hands, he is a friend who is there to see them through the ups and downs of being a child, to take them on a journey of discovery and learning. Childhood can be a challenging time for some children with so many new experiences to face and understand, charming books and books that form a series, like The Little Brown Bear can give them a familiarity they need to help them navigate the ups and downs that they are certain to face. One of the things I love the most about this series is the comfort it brings.


Mistakes we all make them because we are all human and because we want to try new things – maybe you will try baking cookies and they don’t quite work out? It’s okay, they could well be fine and so we follow Bear as he makes mistakes, learns from them and continues to have support from all his friends.


Friendship helps us, as readers, learn what it means to be a friend. It may be that you lift one another, that you are there to offer help or a hug. There are so many things that a friend is there for, the good times and the bad and with Bear we can explore them, all.


The delightful books are a pair that I hope will be followed by more, more books featuring Bear and his friends, more books to gently assist our young readers to navigate the ups and downs of growing up in an accessible and kind way.

Louise Ellis-Barrett

It's ok to make mistakes.jpeg
It's ok to need a friend.jpeg

Masters of Disguise: Can you Spot the Camouflaged Creature?

Marc Martin, pub. Walker Books

In the twinkling of a chameleon’s eye this book will have you in its clutches. Did you know that chameleons are blessed with 360-degree vision and an ability to see backwards and forwards at the same time? They and others like them can blend into their habitat as masters of disguise, silently watching. The star of the show must be the Mimic Octopus. If bullied by a damselfish she’ll mimic a sea snake, its natural predator! And we humans think we are so clever. All very ‘cloak and dagger’, the book is full of rarely known facts, which my six-year-old granddaughter delights in amazing us with. “Did you know that ...” You laugh, but you will find yourself doing the same!  Do you know where the plumicorns of an owl are situated, or which animal has a tree fridge, or what a Wobbegong really is? Whatever you do don’t step on one. Search and find these masters of disguise that blend into their habitat. There are twelve world location quizzes to choose from. Aged 5 or 75 this is unputdownable.


Marc Martin is an award-winning illustrator, artist and author this, his latest will be an ideal addition to a library, school or home. The black text on a spacious white background is contained within small parcels of detailed information. These snippets are encased in gorgeous graphics starring the candidate in the spot light be it a Three-toed Sloth, a Panther Chameleon, a Gaboon Viper or my favourite the Ornate Wobbegong and eight more. This makes the absorption of facts so much easier.


Whilst you try to find the hidden ones within their native habitat Marc introduces you to more unfamiliar names, including a Helmet Vanga, Schlegel’s Asity, Cotinga and Oropengola for starters. Masters of Disguise is a mine of information. Did you know that there is an insect that squirts a peanut butter, toffee odour in the direction of its enemies? My goodness I would be its friend for life.

Elizabeth Negus

Masters of disguise.jpeg

Myths, Monsters and Mayhem in Ancient Greece

James Davies, pub. Big Picture Press

The story of Ancient Greece and their myths is a core part of every primary school.  Although there are huge numbers of books about the subject, it is always good to find a new, exciting and very readable text for the primary age group.  The book is a balance between history and explanation, interspersed with retellings of some of the major myths that we are all familiar with; these include Pandora’s Box, Theseus and the Minotaur and The Trojan Horse.


This is a delightful book; the chapters alternate between the facts and the stories and there is a slightly different format for each element.  James Davies, who both wrote and illustrated the book, used digital techniques to create the images.   The story elements of the myths are in a comic/graphic format, with a mixture of speech bubbles and narration boxes, whilst the factual sections are large blocks of text and illustration, each dealing with an aspect of the theme.  There is a subtle humour in much of the narration and the illustrations also allow us to smile at the antics of the gods and heroes.  This was a joy to read.

Margaret Pemberton

Myths, monsters and mayhem.jpeg

Out of the Blue: How Animals Evolved from Prehistoric Seas

Elizabeth Shreeve, illus. Frann Preston-Gannon, pub. Walker Books

The first impression as soon as you see this book is definitely; BLUE. Which is probably good as the title is Out of the Blue and the subject is prehistoric seas. It isn’t something that I would pick up unless I was searching that subject specifically, yet it was a great pleasure and will appeal to children, a nice, big book for holding and reading, it is exceptionally high quality. The art dominates this book and features beautiful, if haunting, illustrations of sea creatures in a watercolour style. There is an unusual mix of painted creatures and simple outlines which works very well. Every animal has a dark, black hole as an eye which gives them a cold and distant expression, although this may be done on purpose to enhance the feeling of being deep under the sea. Frann Preston-Gannon has managed to bring colour, detail and life to every page and I enjoyed spending time just looking at all of the different creatures. My favourite illustration is the complex yet charming parade of creatures sprouting from the sea. Utterly beautiful.


The story is a journey through life on Earth told by the seas, starting with of microbes and ending with humans. The book is easy to understand, written in a fun and simple style that children will be able to follow with ease. Each period is clearly noted and dated, and alongside the fantastic illustrations are fun, surprising comparisons with modern-day humans. Its jam packed with facts, appealing for repeated reading. With lots of big words (names in particular, like Tetropods, Nautilloids, cartilaginous, etc.) it is probably a book to share with an adult.


A superb book with that magic combination of good writing, good illustrations, and good quality. Even if you aren’t looking for factual or educational books, I’d recommend this one.

Izzy Bean

Out of the blue.jpeg

The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art

Cynthia Levinson, illus. Evan Turk, pub. Abrams and Chronicle Books

This biographical book celebrates the life of Lithuanian/American artist Ben Shahn telling the story of his life from his childhood in 1900’s Lithuania through to his death in America in 1969, where he had become known as ‘the people’s painter’. Levinson adeptly narrates Shahn’s life in an engaging and informative way, allowing the reader to relate to this artist and understand why he devoted his life to telling people’s stories, especially those of unfairness and injustice, despite his teachers telling him to stick to producing beautiful landscapes.


The experience of having his father banished to Siberia when he was four determined that he would use his talent for painting and photography to depict those people overlooked and fight for justice for them.  His work was so powerful that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government employed him to show how those in need, the outsiders of main society – the refugees, working poor, prisoners, etc lived in the Great Depression. His work was so successful that it brought about both legal and societal changes. Ironically, just two decades later another US government also considered Shahn’s work to be powerful but this time he was investigated for being un-American because he ‘disloyally’ showed people the shadowy outskirts of US society and not “America the Beautiful”.


Despite, or maybe because of this reaction to his work, Shahn continued to portray civil rights protestors, political prisoners, and the working communities of America – he becomes one of America’s artist activists.

Natalie J. McChrystal Plimmer

People's painter.jpeg

The Perfect Shelter

Clare Helen Welsh, illus. Åsa Gilland, pub. Little Tiger Press

A heart-warming picture book about the love between two sisters. Together they build a shelter in the woods, but the younger sister soon realises something is wrong, her elder sister is unwell. We see the young girls’ confusion and sadness paralleled by the deterioration of the shelter they built as her sister’s condition becomes worse and she is taken to hospital for an operation. We see the patient begin to rebuild her life as her health improves symbolised by the building of another shelter in her hospital room with the help of a nurse. Throughout the book the word cancer is not mentioned. The reader can see the clues in the headwear that appears in the illustrations, of the nature of the illness. This ‘show not tell’ technique highlights how the young sibling does not understand what is wrong with her sister.


Åsa Gilland’s illustrations also successfully portray the passing of time as we are taken through the seasons with autumnal colours, seeds and berries and the arrival of the wind and rain to the deep winter hues when her sister begins to get stronger in the hospital after her operation.


This book would be perfect for PSHE sessions for instigating discussions on family illness and the complicated emotions felt by the family. There is an overall feeling of hope and expectation that the elder sister will beat her illness.

Anita Loughrey

Reviewer’s Website:

Anita Loughrey’s next books are the last two books of A Year in Nature series Squirrel’s Autumn Puzzle and Fox’s Winter Discovery to be released Sept 21st 2021

Perfect shelter.jpeg

That's Life!: Looking for the Living Things all around you

Mike Barfield, illus. Lauren Humphrey, pub. Laurence King Publishing

Join Sherlock Ohms on his fascinating search for the range of amazing organisms present on our planet. This book is the ideal addition to any KS2 classroom as a valuable resource to teach about plants, animals including humans, living things and their habitats, as well as evolution and inheritance. There is so much detail and interesting snippets of information about the diversity of life. I feel it would also be a great addition to a KS3 pupil’s bookshelf.


Mike Barfield starts at the very beginning by outlining the seven signs of life and how the perfect conditions helped form the first cell over 4 billion years ago. He explains how this cell evolved and developed in complexity to become prokaryotic (of a bacterium) or eukaryotic (of an animal). He goes on to describe how the human body is formed of 37 billion cells, distinguishes between the different classification of life from archaea to animalia and outlines evolution to extinction. Throughout the book there are graphic novel style life stories to help explain our origins and the philosophy of life.


The illustrations by Lauren Humphreys are very distinctive and portray the characters in a charming yet eye-catching simplistic way. They complement and enhance the text perfectly helping eager young minds assimilate the multitude of insightful information. This book highlights he incredible variety of life on our planet in a fun and motivational way. It would be the ideal gift for a child interested in biological science.

Anita Loughrey

Reviewer’s Website:

Anita Loughrey’s next books are the last two books of A Year in Nature series Squirrel’s Autumn Puzzle and Fox’s Winter Discovery to be released Sept 21st 2021

That's life.jpeg

This Book Is Cruelty Free: Animals and Us

Linda Newbery, pub. Pavilion

Linda Newbery is already a writer with a reputation for novels such as the series beginning with Some Other War. This however is her first foray into non-fiction. The book is best described as a guide for people who are interested in and perturbed by the way human actions and negligence are affecting our planet and its non-human inhabitants. The book also explores just what any one individual can do to help remedy our current situation.


For this reviewer, the most significant advantage the author has when she turns to this task is her capability to undertake research and interpret the results of that research, as demonstrated in her celebrated historical novels. This book is meticulously researched, covering the question whether animals are entitled to have rights, the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries and their dependency on animal testing, the meat industry including questions of transportation, slaughtering norms and factory farming, the manufacture of apparel, the treatment of domestic pets, the exploitation of exotic animals including marine life, how to build an eco-friendly garden, the role of zoos in conservation, how sympathisers should protest issues and the coordination of international welfare standards. Newbery explores all these questions with her customary lucidity. No reader should feel reluctant to read this book on account of a lack of prior familiarity with the issues it raises.


A word of warning: some of the practices described in this book are brutal and will give qualms to any sensitive reader.

Rebecca Butler

This book is cruelty tree.jpeg

The Travelling Camera: Lewis Hine and the Fight to End Child Labor

Alexandra S.D. Hinrichs, illus. Michael Garland, pub. Getty

Quite simply: stunning.


Stunning in so many ways. The production quality of the book itself, the narrative, the pictures, the photos, and the information provided, but in many ways, most importantly, the way in which it opens the eyes of most UK readers to the subject of child labour. As the spelling of this excellent book indicates, it is an American publication, and the subtitle ‘Lewis Hine and the Fight to End Child Labor’ refers to conditions of children in the United States. Nevertheless, it could as easily be illustrating the work that children as young as six were undertaking in the UK at the turn of the twentieth century, exactly the age of the middle grade readers for whom the book is intended. Not until 1933 in the UK, and 1938 in the US were laws introduced to prevent children under fourteen being full-time employed.


Where she can, Alexandra S.D. Hinrich’s narrative includes the actual words written by Hines about his crusade to reveal the conditions in which children were being employed:

                                               minute upon minute

                                               hour upon hour

                                               day upon day

                                               month after month.

Where she needs to, she adds her own brief text, based on Hines’ general observations, description of the conditions in which children were working. Through Michael Garland’s powerfully simple, muted illustrations we see children working in factories, in mines, in fields, and selling various things on the streets. The illustrations are almost like sepia photographs with a light amount of colouring – a common photographic technique at the time he is portraying. Hines often had difficulty trying to gain entry to the workplaces, as many employers were perfectly aware that conditions for the children were unpleasant and dangerous, and he developed a variety of personas whereby he could observe and photograph them.


These photographic images are quite grim, as the final ten ‘Notes to the Reader’ show, so in Garland’s depiction of children, whilst never flinching from the dreadful conditions, he softens the images of the children to suit his young readers. Text and illustration meld wonderfully, offering an essential book for schools everywhere.

Bridget Carrington

Travelling camera.jpeg

When Plants Took Over the Planet: The Amazing Story of Plant Evolution

Dr Chris Thorogood, illus. Amy Grimes, pub. QED Publishing

When Plants Took Over the Planet documents a concise history of plants from the first water plants that have been estimated to have appeared around 500 million years ago, through their amazing journey onto land. There is also an excellent timeline of their evolution from the Palaeozoic era to the Cenozoic era.


Dr Chris Thorogood has put his reputation as a botanic field guide writer to good use to create a visually dynamic non-fiction picture book for young people that can be used as a means for identifying different plants and guide young readers through the key aspects of the life of plants, from early ferns which were most certainly munched on by dinosaurs, to carnivorous plants that snap and ‘attack’ their prey, or powerful medicinal plants that can heal ailments and boost health. It even includes how to pronounce the difficult looking Latin words. The snippets of bite-sized narrative weaves its way through how the multitude of magnificent and mysterious variations evolved into the vast array of adaptations that populate our planet today. It provides examples of how they can be used in medicines, the animals, including humans that need them to survive and touches on the damage humans are doing to this fascinating resource.


Amy Grimes’ illustrations are bright and bold vinaigrettes inspired by the colours of nature and the natural world. Any child will want to spend hours just pouring over the illustrations to determine the plants similarities and differences.


This large-format, highly illustrated book could be used to support topics taught at the top end of primary school in particular, living things and their habitats and evolution and inheritance. It will inspire budding young gardeners and botanists to discover more about the world of plants and maybe even go on to grow some truly bizarre and extraordinary plants for themselves.

Anita Loughrey

Reviewer’s Website:

Anita Loughrey’s next books are the last two books of A Year in Nature series Squirrel’s Autumn Puzzle and Fox’s Winter Discovery to be released Sept 21st 2021

When plants took over the planet.jpeg

The World’s Most Pointless* Wonderful Animals. *Or Are They?

Philip Bunting, pub. Happy Yak

With 80 brightly and boldly illustrated pages, this is a very nice sized book for young animal enthusiasts who want to discover and learn about some of the more unusual creatures that inhabit our planet. There are plenty of familiar animals, birds and insect too … like the Daddy longlegs (or crane fly), the Pigeon and the Goldfish etc. but the accompanying facts make even these seem more interesting and unusual. Reassuringly for anyone that doesn’t know, Daddy longlegs ‘are not venomous, nor can they suck your blood.’ The reader will also discover just what is they are good for. But in my mind it’s the more unusual creatures that will grab the attention of young readers. The Aye-aye with its long finger, the Giraffe Weevil, or the Pink fairy armadillo etc.


Each of the creatures in the book is given a page, or double spread, of its own. As you’d expect, each page has a short informative paragraph giving some straightforward, yet interesting, factual details. Scattered around each picture are more, lighter and often humorous (though still factual) nuggets of information written in a more casual, handwritten style font, many of which are sure to make the readers smile.


I like the inclusion of each creature’s Latin name which has been crossed out and humorously replaced. For example - Mayfly. Ephemeroptera. Hereus todayus gonus tomorrus. Or the Elephant shrew whose Latin name has been substituted with Leapus trunkface elonmuskybutt (and whilst being funny, still has factual links).


The combination of bold illustrations, and the mixture of facts and humour make this a very attractive book and one that will certainly be of interest to boys or girls.

Damian Harvey

World's most pointless.jpeg