Non-Fiction Book Reviews

A Day in the Life of a Caveman, a Queen and Everything in Between: History as You’ve Never Seen it Before

Mike Barfield, illus. Jess Bradley, pub. Michael O’Mara Books

Not since Winston Churchill produced his History of the English Speaking Peoples has so much history been condensed into so brief a space. Churchill took five volumes whereas Mike Barfield has covered the whole of human experience from the time we learnt to stand on two legs to the present reality of a warming world in 111 pages. It is a tour de force AND it is illustrated.

 

Now, I am not generally a fan of graphic history but I doubt whether so much information could have been delivered in any other format without boring the pants off the reader. Unlike Churchill, Barfield, deigns to cover the history of non-English speakers and we are treated to snippets about a wide variety of countries, people and cultures from Rapa Nui (aka Easter Island) to Norway and from Great Zimbabwe to Japan. I grew up on ‘white man’s’ history and now I long to know more about the Valdivia Culture of Ecuador (1500BCE) or the reign of Wu Zetian, China’s only woman emperor.

 

The authors do not make this history all about war or religion but give plenty of page space to economic and cultural development whether it be in China (210 BCE), 11th century Korea, the Incas in the 1600s or Russia under Peter the Great.  They reflect the histories of different peoples by referring to art, artefacts, writing, drama, science and political thought. The ‘autobiographies’ such as ‘A day in the life of two bronze bowls’ are particularly entertaining. I like this emphasis; it makes the subsequent eradication of many cultures by European colonial powers even more poignant.

 

It is inevitable that I disagree with the authors about some of their omissions. I would like to have seen more about culture in Africa. It is a big continent. There could be a place for the libraries and scholars of Timbuktu for example, or a mention of the Kingdom of Benin (and its looted treasures). The Middle East is short-changed too. But I quibble! I should also say that this book is not just a cultural ramble through the ages, there is plenty about ‘causes and effects’ to add ballast: exploration is twinned with exploitation, inventions have both good and bad consequences.

 

Jess Bradley deserves her own tribute. The illustrations are perfect; they are copious, lighten the load and are genuinely humorous. They are reminiscent of Nick Sharratt’s (the Daisy books) cartoons and are appealing to children of all ages. I heartily recommend this book to all children of age eight and above.

Katherine Wilson

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A History of the World in 25 Cities

Tracey Turner and Andrew Donkin, illus. Libby VanderPloeg, pub. Nosy Crow

A History of the World in 25 Cities is a non-fiction picture book that explores major cities of the world through a series of interesting facts and stunningly illustrated maps. Created in collaboration with the British Museum, the book explores how people have shaped cities, and how those cities have simultaneously shaped societal history throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, and the Americas.

 

Each city is spread across four pages, with two double-page spreads: the first half showing a detailed, illustrated map; and the second half detailing a 'Life in…' factsheet for each city. It is a very colourful, very detailed and informative book, and will likely help children with their homework. The maps help to picture the scene and show the individual layouts of each city at a particular time in their histories.

 

The cities also appear in chronological order: for example, the Ancient Egyptian city of Memphis is illustrated around the year 1200 BCE; and, later in the book, the Italian city of Venice is pictured as it would have been in 1450 AD. The facts about family life and societies in each city are fascinating, although the maps would have been better with a bit less detail, as they could be off-putting to some readers.

 

It is an interesting book and will appeal not just to children, but people of all ages. As well as ancient cities, it also explores the cities of today and tomorrow, and what our lives could be like in the future. In this way, the book feels like it could serve as a fun introduction to further studies, and with Christmas approaching, A History of the World in 25 Cities would make a perfect present.

Chris J Kenworthy

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The Biggest Footprint: Eight Billion Humans.  One Clumsy Giant

Rob and Tom Sears, pub. Canongate

Who, or maybe we should be asking what, has made the biggest footprint on or is that in the world. Questions arise before we even open the book and the subtitle tells us that there have been eight billion (yes that is a very big number) humans and only one clumsy giant. Can we blame a clumsy giant for making the biggest footprint? What is this book about to reveal to us?

 

Rob and Tom Sears are bothers, author-illustrator brothers, a great partnership and one that shines through as soon as we open the book. This is a book about people. Humans. Breathing, thinking, eating and of course fidgeting humans. Humans don’t ever sit still … neither do they act along. Rob and Tom Sears have mooshed them together for this book, yes all 8 billion of them into one, that one giant we have already pondered over. Why? Because this one giant represents humanity and it is this giant that is beginning to realise, to recognize what its living, breathing, eating and fidgeting has done to the world it inhabits and how it might go about making some changes, for the better of it and for the better of us all.

 

This is a book that wants to give us information, information that we can use. Stats and facts abound, the illustration helps enormously to place the facts, to picture them , to understand some of them and the text? It is fun, it doesn’t go above the head, it is approachable. The brothers want this book to be understood and enjoyed by all its readers. So let me leave you with some facts that may just tempt you to pick it up for yourself…

 

… Statistics go in one ear and out the other.

 

The titanic was 269m long, a humpback whale 14m long, the average depth of the red sea 450m.

The world has about 25 times more giraffe than tigers …

Louise Ellis-Barrett

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Cats Eyes and Dog Whistles: The Seven Senses of Humans and Other Animals

Cathy Evans, illus. Becky Thorns, pub. Cicada Books

Just a few days ago I was reading a design blog on Haptics in smartphones based on the language, so vital and essential to humans, of touch. Here I am, reading this adorably illustrated book for kids, which teaches them on what goes behind the ability to respond to and communicate with senses in themselves and those present in their furry friends!

 

Author and veterinarian Cathy Evans along with illustrator Becky Thorns has brought out this beautiful book for young readers on the biology of our five senses, with colourful diagrams pointing to the details on how we see, smell, eat, feel, and hear. Full of scientific terms with glossary and fun facts; your inquisitive kiddies will love the combination of colours and information.

 

Here are some myth breaking questions from the book –

Did you know that not all smell comes through the nostrils?

Did you know that you can understand a person by the smell they produce during different emotional states!

Did you know what 'Proprioception' or 'Interoception' or 'Magnetoreception' are?…I certainly didn't until now! Feeling enlightened I continued with the book and well, what can I say? Fascinating, enlightening and now I feel that I would like to know more.

 

This book is a great way to introduce growing kids to the science of the body in living beings. Good for kids aged 9-14, include this mini repository of amazing facts in their library to let them explore and learn in a fun way!

Ishika Tiwari

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Everything Under the Sun: A Curious Question for Every Day of the Year

Molly Oldfied, pub. Ladybird books

Everything under the Sun means a great many things, and when Molly Oldfield asked children to send in their questions for a podcast of the same name – Everything under the Sun – she received questions about a great many things from children everywhere. This book is the result of this podcast, answering children’s questions, with the help of many experts.

 

The book is divided into the twelve months and there is a question every day. At the beginning of the month there is a double page listing the question for each day, allowing readers to read a question and answer every day or selectively read the question that interests them most.  Some questions are perfect for that month: ‘Why do we shiver?’ in December. Sometimes there is a sequence of questions, such as about dinosaurs. Penguins, gorillas and ice-cream are also very popular! Often questions are unconnected, for example, ‘Why does an octopus have three hearts?’, which is also delightful as children so often remember weird facts, but are curious why. Sometimes Molly Oldfield and the experts may not know the answer, however the facts and our knowledge may change, and sometimes the answer is a matter of opinion. ‘How do Mermaids wee?’ is pure speculation based on how fish wee. Moreover, there is lots of additional information that simply begs for a follow up question.

 

The explanations are sapient, providing an accessible answer to some really difficult and complex questions. For example, ‘Where do babies come from?’ or ‘How are identical twins made?’, using scientific terms, in a clear and concise way, but adults might need to help out. While the artwork is colourful and appealing, the illustrations do not help with understanding the question.  In the example of these two questions about babies, the double spread is decorated with children of different ethnicities appearing out of flowers with blue sperm swimming around!

 

Everything under the Sun is a brilliant collaboration, involving all the children submitting questions and those included in the book are credited, Molly Oldfield and a number of named experts as well as the beautiful illustrations by Ladybird books, making such a fascinating and engaging book.

 

This book presents genius answers to genuine questions children ask.

Simon Barrett

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The History of Everywhere: All the Stuff That You Never Knew Happened at the Same Time

Philip Parker, illus. Liz Kay, pub. Walker Books

The History of Everywhere is a fascinating book that covers specific time periods and connections via double-page world maps with illustrations and concise bites of information.

 

Starting in 4000BC and bringing us almost up to date with its end in 2001, the reader is invited to investigate first civilisations, first Empires, the Classical World and new kingdoms, new beginnings, the Age of Enlightenment, the World at War and more. Each time period that is introduced to the reader focuses on more than one specific area and time period of the world, allowing us to compare what was happening at the same time period in different parts of the world. F or example, for 4000 – 1000BC we are introduced to the Norte Chico people in South America, Stonehenge, the pyramids, the Bantu migration from West to Central Africa, the Indus Valley civilisation, the Shang Dynasty and Aborigines. A fascinating set of comparisons result.

 

Each section provides us with an overview and a list of the key events, and each of the following pages are visually attractive and clearly presented. In addition to these vast periods of time we are also given areas of specific focus such as the philosophers of Ancient Greece, the Silk Roads of China, the Samurai of Japan and Mughal art and buildings.

 

This is an excellent book for introducing a wide range of diverse cultures and their role in the history of the world, and it is interesting to see the connections between civilisations as well as who lived, and what events occurred, at the same time. Fascinating for a range of subjects across the curriculum as well as for the home library.

Barbara Band

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How To Be A Global Citizen: Be Informed. Get Involved.

Sreshtha Battacharya, pub. Dorling Kindersley

For readers from 11 years old upwards, DK introduces young people to situations which have taken inspiration from teenagers themselves, such as female education activist Malala Yousafzai, LGBTQ+ rights activist, Jazz Jennings, and environmentalist, Greta Thunberg. Realizing that aspiring activists and young community leaders need information to be responsible citizens and change-makers in their communities, this book offers extensive advice and information in seven easy-on-the-eye chapters.

 

Firstly, it urges readers to examine their own feelings, relationships, values and well-being, encouraging them to know themselves thoroughly before they can usefully help others, and become global citizens. The book moves on to show us how to tackle big issues and find our own place in society, and demonstrating a multitude of opinions which can lead to prejudice. There are careful explanations of the sources of prejudice, such as culture, equality, inclusion, discrimination, ableism, women’s rights, beliefs and faiths, racism, and sexual and gender identity, and readers are encouraged to celebrate difference, and rebel against marginalisation.

 

Young readers will certainly be aware of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and they are urged to become of allies and empathise with those who are marginalised. There is a chapter looking at politics, and encouragement for readers to examine the different kinds of government, and then to discuss and debate different viewpoints. Each of the political systems - democracy, monarchy, oligarchy and dictatorship – is explained, as are voting, law, and particularly taxes and what they are used for. This chapter goes on to look at all kinds of injustice, and the lengths some ethnic groups are forced to go to in order to escape injustice and cruelty. Readers will be aware of environmental and climate issues, and also the necessity for safety when using the internet, and these are two excellent chapters, while the penultimate one suggests the causes in which readers might consider becoming involved.

 

Finally, we have a short chapter specifically on the UK, and pivotal moments in social history. A glossary, a list of organisations who can provide support, and an excellent index complete a fascinating and important resource for middle grade and older readers.

Bridget Carrington

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How Was That Built? The Stories Behind Awesome Structures

Roma Agrawal, illus. Katie Hickey, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

This book comes from such a credible source of expertise that even before opening the covers I was pretty sure that any library should have a copy and any budding architect or engineer would appreciate it. The author is an internationally renowned award-winning structural engineer who also works to promote engineering to under-represented groups, was awarded an MBE for services to engineering, has a best-selling adult title - Built: The Hidden Stories behind our Structures and worked as an engineer on The Shard building which just happens to be one of the featured buildings in this richly detailed and intriguing book.  On opening the book and delving into each of these buildings I was not disappointed.

 

Over fifteen chapters, most are three double page spreads long, a different building from around the world is explored in detail as an example of how engineers and architects have worked to solve the problems of how to build flat, tall, long, a dome, clean, strong, across, stable, watertight, underground, moving things, on ice, in the sea, in outer space, and into the future.

 

There is such a wealth of themes and ideas explored across the chapters. From how the problems have been dealt with historically such as how the ancient Persians engineered water in their desert climate to the history of the brick.  From focusing on key people such as Ada Lovelace or Joseph Bazalgette to looking at friction, gravity, and forces of nature.  From different types of bridges to the development of lifts.  With a glossary, detailed illustrations of buildings (which are more painterly and naiver in style than architectural), lovely descriptive explanations, and plenty of experiments and activities to try at home this is a wonderful book for both those interested in the subjects and those trying to understand them.

Natalie J. McChrystal Plimmer

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I Am An Artist

Kertu Sillaste, trans. Adam Cullen, pub. Graffeg Books

John is an artist; he thinks and draws and paints and sculpts. Sometimes for him art is a game, sometimes it’s a puzzle and sometimes it’s a surprise. Art is not always easy, but John is brave and always tries again when things don’t work out as planned. What a great premise for a book and a wonderful inspiration for children – budding artists, bussing anything in fact!

 

Originally published in Estonian and translated by Adam Cullen, I Am An Artist is a beautiful non-fiction picture book that considers all things art, where the good ideas come from, and what it means to be creative. It helps us understand that art is open to interpretation. Inspiration can come from anywhere, but that art comes from within. It helps us to understand that we can all be creative and that creativity, just as art, comes in many forms, shapes and sizes. That is, as us, is unique and different for us all. Nothing is lost in translation in this book.

 

I enjoyed the way Sillaste captures the vulnerability an artist feels when sharing work that is personal to them. For this reason, and because it is simply a wonderful book this story would be a great platform to talk to your young artist about how they connect with their own creations.

 

Sillaste’s use of illustrations and collage, feels fun and fresh. Perfectly capturing the creative process, the images jump off the page in a riot of colour and movement. It’s just joyful. This is a book that will appeal to adults and children, inspiring us all to be artists.

Abby Mellor

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If I Ran the Country: An Introduction to Politics where YOU make the Decisions

Rich Knight, illus. Allan Sanders, pub. Wren & Rook

An introduction to politics with the premise of the reader becoming the leader of a country and having to make decisions regarding running it this is a clever book perfect for curious children who might wonder what politics is and what a politician does. They may even be considering being one themselves, this book provides some great discussion points around the concept of that most fantastic of questions: “What would I do if I ran the county.” Maybe some adults should read it too?

 

Beginning with what type of government to have if you were to run the country, the book takes you through selecting your team and working with other countries, what kind of country you want, what things you are going to stand for, how to be fair to everyone and the big issues you will need to deal with. Although this book deals with, what could be considered, large and complicated concepts, it does it in such a way as to make them interesting, informative, and accessible to its intended, younger audience.

 

There is good use made of sub-headings and varied fonts, and the activities and questions prompt further exploration of the topics. Numerous black and white illustrations add a touch of humour. This is a clever way of providing an overview of what could be a rather dry subject. A glossary and index would have been useful although the chapter headings give some detail about content. Aimed at 9 – 12 year olds, many older readers (including adults) would find this book instructive.

 

A perfect addition for the school library but also to engage with young people interested in politics.

Barbara Band

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Ready, Steady, School

Marianne Dubuc, trans. Sarah Ardizzone, pub. Book Island

Montreal based, award winning illustrator, Marianne Dubuc has created the perfect book for young readers heading back to school or indeed to school for the first time. Universal in its appeal, this book could be read in any country by any age or gender of student.

 

It is a story and a fact book. It is a book with a main character who is delightfully gender-neutral in their red hat, and simple outfit. Pom is the name of this character and Pom has a bag packed and is ready to check out what school looks like for the animals, which will provide vital clues as to what school might be like for Pom. Turtles, sloths, bears and hedgehogs are on their way, bags packed, excitement and nerves jangling together.

 

This detailed and delightfully illustrated book has so much to read and enjoy with glimpses into classrooms of all shapes and sizes. You can’t help but turn each page with anticipation to see where Pom will visit next and what it will look, sound like. The attention to detail is exquisite and I feel a parent will get as much from reading this and pointing out those small details to their child, as the child will.

 

I can imagine this book being pulled off the shelf, time and time again as school approaches, and then again once school has started to make comparisons. Book Island books never disappoint in highlighting the immeasurable talent of creatives living around the world.

Erin Hamilton

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Sex Ed: An Inclusive Teenage Guide to Sex and Relationships

School of Sexuality Education, illus. Evie Karkera, pub. Walker Books

Informative and inclusive, this book is the ultimate guide to sex and relationships for teenagers.

 

Covering a variety of topics from consent to gender and sexuality, relationships to reproductive and sexual health, this book really does cover everything. It attempts to answer all the questions that a teenager may have, Essential chapters about online life and body image include information which is incredibly relevant and helpful to supporting young people as they navigate their way through the challenges of modern-day perceptions which can be damaging without prior knowledge and context.

 

This book is fantastic if you are a parent or an educator and will help you get up to speed with all of the correct terminology needed to guide young people with sex and relationships.  The layout of this book is well thought-out, it has the reader in mind and is filled with ‘Useful term bubbles’ sharing key vocabulary, ‘Myth versus reality’ boxes sharing key truths, ‘Did you know?’ boxes giving interesting facts, ‘Consider’ boxes providing conversation points for discussions or reflections, ‘Tips and tricks’ sharing activities to try in real life, and ‘Unembarrassable moments’ where the contributors have revealed some personal experiences.

 

All of this, and they style of text, in addition to the age appropriate, subject appropriate illustrations, ensures the book is easy to follow and moves quickly which makes it useful to dip in and out of and refer to when needed.

 

The interior illustrations by Evie Karkera help with the understanding of the information written about, especially with the detailed labelled illustrations of the male and female genitalia. A timely, useful and intelligent approach to the subject of sex and relationships for teens and adults alike.

Tom Joy

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The Sky

Creator Hélène Druvert, auth. Juliette Einhorn, pub. Thames & Hudson

This is a large format book packed with eclectic facts about the sky. The first double page spread is about the sky in ancient times. Other topics include Earth’s atmosphere, pollination, life in the air, the wind, clouds, the weather, flying machines, space travel, the moon, eclipses. Information is presented clearly and succinctly. Typically definitions and explanations are two or three sentences long, with each topic covered in a separate space, but a number of subjects are explored in whole pages of uninterrupted text.

 

Numerous intriguing flaps reveal interesting details. There is lots to appeal to a curious child, such as the first parachute drop and why the hottest days of the year are referred to as the dog days of summer. Some of the text is contemplative and almost poetic: ‘What is the sky? It is everything we can see above our head when we lift up our eyes. It’s the roof of the heavens, infinite and untouchable, and humans have gazed upon it, studied it and longed to explore it since history began.’ (The text is well translated from French but the translator is not named in the credits.) The stand-out feature of the book is its illustrations: a mix of stylised drawings, for instance of insects and birds, simple diagrams and beautiful, intricate laser cuts. Production values are very high, though it should be noted that the pages with laser cuts are fragile.

 

It is a shame that this very attractive book is somewhat let down by design issues that reduce its functionality and its accessibility. The absence of an index, page numbers and a contents page mean that facts can only be happened upon, not looked up. On several pages the text is overlaid on dark coloured backgrounds, making it hard to read for some children with vision or reading problems. It is however a fascinating, fact-filled book.

Anne Harding

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The Ultimate Art Museum

Ferren Gipson, pub. Phaidon

The Ultimate Art Museum is a museum-in-a-book, presenting young readers with a ticket bringing together a collection of the most amazing art from across time and around the world.

 

Organised as a museum, the book is made up of three wings, eighteen galleries, one hundred and twenty-eight rooms, and a number of specially themed areas: a café, garden and hall of selfies. The first wing exhibits ancient art, beginning with the cave paintings and figurines of the Stone Age over 40,000 years ago, Tutankhamun’s burial mask and mosaics from Pompei. The second wing examines art from circa 1200s onwards from around the world: Africa, Asia, Europe and the Pacific. It includes miniature paintings illustrating the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, Donatello’s David, and a Chief’s Chair made by the Hehe people of Tanzania. The third wing is modern and contemporary art including Hokusai’s The Great Wave of Kanagawa, Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph of a migrant mother as well as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Coast, covering one million square feet of the Australian coastline in canvas cloth.

 

Curated by Ferren Gipson, an art historian, writer and presenter, the text is accessible and engaging, inviting young readers to imagine and appreciate the significance of the art and its cultural importance without avoiding controversial issues. There is further detail about specific pieces of art, reproduced in extraordinary high quality. In some examples, there are also close-ups of finer detail. Gipson also encourages young readers to become art detectives with additional inserts providing further information and an eye symbol, asking interactive questions, engaging readers about individual artwork as well as finding connections between them.

 

The Ultimate Art Museum demonstrates how art is much more than canvas paintings.  It is architecture, carvings, fabrics, furnishings, pottery and precious metals working and a part of cultural life, not kept apart in art institutions. There is also an especially interesting and rich exploration of modern and contemporary art, again, including examples of art using many different mediums, often challenging social norms and expectations, prejudice and stereotypes.

 

Ultimate is an astonishing claim, but the book is astounding and a strong contender for such a title.

Simon Barrett

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The World Book: Explore the Facts, Stats and Flags of Every Country

Joe Fullman and Rose Blake, pub. Welbeck Publishing

Who better to write this book than Joe Fullman with his wealth of travel and general knowledge. Not a person you would wish to invite to your local quiz night if you have a competitive streak! Suitable for 8 -12+ year olds, the appeal is not age limited.

 

This book is the perfect taster, an introduction to the 199 countries of the world, from the largest, Russia to the smallest, Vatican City. Of course, it depends on your analysis of what a country is. The United Nations only recognises 193. Then there are the somewhat murky areas of land referred to as dependencies or oversees territories, along with an area of the Antarctica that doesn’t belong to anyone. What is more 34 new countries have emerged since 1990. Best to consider this book the worldwide state of play for 2021.

 

Despite not trying to be an encyclopaedia it teams with tantalizing titbits of information which entice you into its pages plus a mine of educational facts. It’s actually fun to read, helping to make it all easier to remember. Small snippets of information with helpful headings encased in plenty of colourful illustrations make tempting page turning.

 

Where are the Federated states of Micronesia, what is the world’s heaviest currency called, which country has a celebrated football team called “Les Elephants” and the largest basilica in the world? And don’t say Italy. And to cap it all, which country has an underwater post office that receives and delivers waterproof postcards? Flags, capitols, currency, official language, population and land areas are all in there along with a location map.

 

It’s a geographically fun book. It will make an impressive Christmas present for any young person interested in the world and an entertaining reference book for a school or home library. It beats computer searching. This book surprises you as you turn the pages and goads you into telling others what you have found out. “Did you know”…?

Elizabeth Negus

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