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Non-Fiction Book Reviews

A Really Short Journey Through the Body

Bill Bryson, adapted Emma Young, illus. Daniel Long, Dawn Cooper, Jesús Sotés, Katie Ponder, pub. Penguin Books

A Really Short Journey Through the Body is a most attractive, large format book. Bill Bryson is a highly successful author, and he brings his flair to this exciting volume and topic. In his introduction he tells his readers “No doubt about it, the human body is a truly remarkable thing. In this book I hope to tell you a bit more about what makes it so amazing, as we marvel at the wondrous invention that is you.”

 

He then takes us on a top to toe tour of our bodies pointing out fascinating facts along the way. The format is varied and with plenty of illustration to accompany his words: this maintains the reader’s interest. We meet all the body parts, cells, and DNA, and look at today’s enemies, allergies, ageing, and death. The style is engaging and age appropriate with good use of colour and attractive illustration.

 

The book is full of facts. Did you know that your eyes blink 14,000 times a day, which is a total of 23 minutes of the time that you are awake each day? Or that a pair of lungs, smoothed out, would cover a tennis court? Or that it takes 100 muscles to stand up? Or that we swallow about 2,000 times a day? Or that the heart and brain each burn about 400 calories a day? Bryson also includes fascinating stories such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s trick that went wrong, Alexis St Martin’s stomach and Samuel Pepys’ bladder stone.

 

At the end of the book Bryson reminds us of the many aspects of the body that we do not fully comprehend and points us towards further research. Supported by a comprehensive index this is a superb volume for readers aged 9+ – engaging, informative and inspirational. Bravo!

Brenda Marshall

The Code of Life

Carla Häfner, Mieke Scheier, pub. Flying Eye Books

The Code of Life takes us to the beginnings of its story in 1856 where, in an abbey in Austria, a monk called Gregor Mendel worked for years to unlock the secret of genetics. However, it wasn’t until 40 years later that people realized the significance of his experiments and observations. Moving on we explore the works of Flemming and Boveri, both German scientists, as well as US biologist, Morgan, until we reach the discovery of DNA.

 

The Code of Life clearly and succinctly explains the history of genetics, genetic theory, and how this helps to understand what living things are made from. Darwin’s theory of evolution and its role in diversity is described as is the concept of nature verse nurture via environmental influences and there is a fantastic visual explanation of blended families and the genes they all share. The book concludes with a look at the Human Genome Project, genetic engineering, and cloning as well as gene editing, environmental genetics, and stem cell research.

 

The Code of Life, written by Carla Häfner and Mieke Scheier, who are both genetic scientists, provides an extremely thorough journey through the history and present-day science of genetic research and engineering. It is aimed at 11–13-year-olds and has a comprehensive contents page and index. The illustrations are clear, adding to the understanding of the text which is divided into manageable segments. It would make a useful addition to the school library or be of interest to those with a fascination for genetics and heredity.

Barbara Band

Evolution

Sarah Darwin and Eva-Maria Sadowski, illus. Olga Baumert, pub. What On Earth Books

Evolution is a fascinating non-fiction book which takes the reader through the history of natural history. It explores the most significant discoveries made by scientists and how they have helped us to gain an understanding of what has been happening on planet Earth for millions of years.

 

Young readers will gain such a wonderful range of scientific knowledge from reading this book. Sarah Darwin and Eva-Maria Sadowski don’t over-simplify the learning, so it is great for those with some biological knowledge and a lot of interest in natural science as well as those exploring this learning for the first time. For those readers interested in dinosaurs, there are a few double-page spreads which explore the most fearsome and impressive reptiles that lived on this planet before their mass extinction.

 

The pages of the book are engaging; the text is split into paragraphs, often numbered to show the chronology of events, and the illustrations are simply amazing. On each double-page spread there is a box celebrating ‘Pioneering People’ who have made significant contributions to the continuing development of knowledge on the topics that are being explored. A timeline, following through the book on the bottom of the pages, shows the chronology of different periods of history which helps to bring perspective to the length of each period and where they fit in the grand scheme of things. One of my favourite double-pages of the book is the one containing a world map at the end. It is fascinating to see where different famous discoveries were made as well as the route that the HMS Beagle (with Darwin) took on its iconic exploration of the natural world between 1831 and 1836.

 

This really is a wonderful, engaging read which will answer those questions readers have about what evolution is, how it works and why it is so awesome!

Tom Joy

Forgotten Fairy Tales of Unlikely Heroes

Mary Sebag-Montefiore, pub. Usborne

Forgotten Fairy Tales of Unlikely Heroes is a very different collection of seven fairytales aimed at 7–11-year-olds. The stories have been collected from cultures around the world, including Norway, Estonia, Romania, India and Pakistan. Some of them even date back to the mythology of the Greeks and Romans. How are they different to other fairytales though? Many famous and well-known fairytales feature heroines and heroes who are portrayed as beautiful princesses and handsome princes. But in this collection of tales the heroes are ordinary characters who are often quite insignificant. They are very young, or poor and perhaps unable to speak up for themselves. These heroes show us that simple determination and bravery can often win the day.

 

It is because the characters are different to those we would usually expect to find that makes this selection of tales well worth reading. The mixture of ordinary and magical is fascinating. There is Kate, an ordinary farm girl who manages to outwit an ogre. Then a young boy who is raised by a family of eagles. An old man wins fame for his kindness. A girl discovers that what makes her different also makes her special. There is a princess who rides a goat whilst waving a spoon. Other tales feature a witch and an orphan. Overall, a remarkable collection of characters and adventures.

 

This fascinating and lovely collection of fairytales is beautifully illustrated throughout. It is a fun read for young children alone or with an adult. It is all the more special because the heroes are different and unusual, even if the plots may feel familiar.

Gary Kenworthy

From Cells to Ourselves: The Story of Evolution

Gill Arbuthnott, illus. Christopher Nielsen, pub. Big Picture Press

The title of this book, The Story of Evolution, is slightly misleading because it doesn’t just look at evolution but starts with ‘In the Beginning,’ exploring the Big Bang theory and looking at how old the Earth is and how it was formed and finishes with the ‘Human Age’, where you can find out about our closest relatives and the ascent of early man.

 

Each chapter considers various historical theories and early ideas linked to the topic under investigation showing how scientific concepts impacted on what people thought and believed. Readers can discover how life began, examine the fabulous world of fossils, meet renowned dinosaur detectives and there’s an interesting double-page panorama with a timeline of dinosaurs. The end of the dinosaurs and extinctions are described before we encounter Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle with the theory of evolution, natural selection and variation explained using supporting evidence.

 

The matt pages and muted colours as well as the style of illustrations give the book an almost vintage feel. Information is in manageable portions and there are drawings, diagrams, and maps galore with several sections use a graphic novel format to explain the text. There’s no index but the contents page is detailed enough to find what you’re looking for. Aimed at ages 7–11 years this book will delight any budding palaeontologist as well as being a useful addition to both classroom collections and school libraries.

Barbara Band

Healthy Mind, Happy You: How to Take Care of Your Mental Health

Dr Emily MacDonagh, illus. Josefina Preumayr and Ana Sebastián, pub. Scholastic

Ah! I wish I had this book in my younger years! Healthy Mind, Happy You written by an NHS doctor and Health and parenting columnist, is a wholesome handbook on manoeuvring our emotions through development of emotional intelligence and by becoming aware of the happenings around and within us. It is a life guide written by a professional working in the field of mind, psyche and emotions and talks about hormonal health, self-care, therapy, depression, anxiety, and dealing with difficult feelings. It goes deep enough for one to easily comprehend the importance of a healthy nervous system, gut, and brain. Readers get to learn that they are not alone, and support is readily available.

 

Full of explanatory diagrams, health-oriented questionnaires, resources, tips and tricks to understand the human mind and body better. These exercises in the book are profoundly grounding and help readers manage life well with honest and pertinent information like this one on anger-

 

“Just like when we feel sad or worried, feeling angry can also come with feelings in our body. Here are a few examples: Feeling your muscles tense up. Feeling restless or fidgety or like you can’t stay still. Feeling your breathing or heart rate increase, sometimes you might feel as though you can hear your heart beating in your ears!”

 

As the reader continues, they experience the book as if they are in for a therapeutic session. It can be a great gift for kids aged 11 and above to help them understand and heal well through what life is going to bring in at times. However, it's not limited to that, anyone going through tough times and incorrigible emotional chaos can use this to begin a healing journey before getting into therapy of any kind. Closing this with some wise words by Dr Emily - “There is no right or wrong way to look, think or feel, and the more we understand and accept the differences between us and others, the more our world will be a better and happier place!”

Ishika Tiwari

How To Say No To Your Phone: An Empowering Guide For Young People

Brad Marshall, Lindsay Hassock, illus. Lauriane Bohémier, pub. Magic Cat Publishing

This book feels particularly important for young people in today’s society. Technology has become a huge part of our lives, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a healthy balance between connecting with people face-to-face and enjoying time on your phone. How to Say No to Your Phone provides a brilliant insight into how your phone usage may be impacting your life and prompts you to reflect on how to improve your relationship with your device.

 

The book explains ten manageable steps which you can take to control your screen time. The steps include useful ways to approach the time you spend on your phone such as building new habits and making space for other hobbies. They also include some very reflective steps that can be taken which can help you reassess your relationship with your phone, how you manage your online and offline relationships and whether you are stuck in a cycle of doom! With a clear purpose of improving your phone usage and ensuring that your mental health is not impacted negatively by the relationship you have with your phone (and other devices for that matter), this book feels important for all members of the family and will open up some really beneficial discussions around the dinner table.

 

Written by psychologists who are clearly very passionate and knowledgeable about the subject, this book is informative and backed up with science. The tips and key messages are delivered in a very clear way and the illustrations and mindfulness messages are superb.

Tom Joy

Inside Story: How the News Works

Jane Marlow, illus. Terri Po, pub. Templar Books

How The News Works is a jam-packed information book covering all aspects of creating and presenting the news. Readers can find out what is meant by news and how to identify news you can trust and fake news (both important topics in today’s environment); the history of the news and how it reached the public in past times; and important news items that shaped the world.

 

There are sections on who’s who in the news process, a glimpse into the newsroom and “a day in the life of a reporter” with expert tips from Charlene Walker of ITV News – great for those interested in reporting or journalism. Different types of news are covered such as sports news, entertainment news, foreign news, and investigative journalism. There’s also a section covering online news looking at digital platforms and social media plus discussion of citizen journalism, something that is on the rise and available to everyone with a Smart phone.

 

Although aimed at ages 8 – 12 years (KS2), older students (KS3) would also find the book interesting. The format is very visual with lots of cartoon-style illustrations. The matt pages are quite full and busy but information in accessible chunks. With practical tips, quizzes, activities, and a glossary this book would be an excellent addition to the school library, lending itself to browsing as well as appealing to those with career aspirations in the media.

Barbara Band

Little Dinosaurs, Big Feelings

Swapna Haddow, Dr Diplo, illus. Yiting Lee, pub. Magic Cat Publishing

Little Dinosaurs, Big Feelings is a delightful book written by a certain Doctor Diplo with a little help from Swapma Haddow.

 

Dr Diplo was a much-loved therapist in the Jurassic age, but that is as an adult, when he was young he worried about lots of things. He found that he could cope with all the worries which sometimes tried to overwhelm him by doing activities such as yoga, mindfulness, exercise and talking about his feelings. Finding that all these things worked for him he decided to open his cave to all the dinosaurs in his neighbourhood and share what he had learnt. Now it is time for him to introduce us to his Jurassic friends - Steggie the Angry Dinosaur; Rex the Scared Dinosaur; Bruno the Sad Dinosaur; Minka the Happy Dinosaur; Poppy the Lonely Dinosaur; Percy the Shy Dinosaur; Terrie the Excited Dinosaur; Trev the Overwhelmed Dinosaur; Iggy the Bored Dinosaur; Nino the Content Dinosaur. See how they have all been given, rather cleverly, names linked to emotions, helping children relate to them.

 

The dinosaurs share their stories, and we learn how Dr Diplo can help them with their “tricky emotions.” The book is presented in cartoon format and the appealing illustrations have been given charming touches such as Doctor Diplo’s glasses. The stories are perfect for reading and offer opportunities for children to open up about their feelings and problems. Doctor Diplo is approachable, gentle, and wise. Each chapter ends with a summary about the key emotion, advice, psychological strategies, breathing exercises, mindfulness and positive visualisation. I particularly like the idea of the ‘Friend in the Mirror’ and Doctor Diplo’s Golden Link Recap which I reproduce in full because it encapsulates the tone and appropriate language that is a key to the book’s success –

 

1 Take a deep breath in and out.

2. Focus on your heart.

3. Imagine a golden string linking you to those who you love.

4. The string helps you close even when you are apart.

5. Breathe in and out again.

6. Remember you are always connected to the ones you love.

 

At the end of the book there is a ‘Dino-Sized Note to Carers’ in which the author explains that he envisaged the book as “a toolkit for children to grow into emotionally resilient individuals to reinforce the importance of help-seeking behaviours and normalise talking therapy – and hugs!” Highly recommended for children aged 5+ and their adults.

Brenda Marshall

Roman Soldiers: Discover the world of the ancient Roman army

Tegen Evans, illus. Tom Froese, pub. Nosy Crow

Roman Soldiers is a beautiful book published by Nosy Crow in collaboration with the British Museum, their latest collaboration, and is a brilliant exploration of the life of a Roman soldier. The book is only twenty-five pages long, excluding the glossary, organized in double spreads, each focusing on a particular topic, and offers an accessible and engaging overview.

 

The organization of the legions, the requirements to become part of the formidable machine that was the Roman army, the training given to the soldiers, the weapons they used and the tactics they devised which made them so successful, are all explained in clear paragraphs and accompanied by illustrations full of fun and character. Life in the army camp and on the move is described and is able to provide some of the smaller details about being a Roman soldier that bring readers closer the reality of that military life. The formidable level of discipline that ensured the effectiveness of the operations, for example, is detailed in the list of punishments soldiers faced if they did not discharge their duties as expected. I don’t think it is a life many of us would have wanted!

 

This book appears on the market just as an excellent exhibition at the British Museum focuses on the life of the Roman legionaries. This book would be a great preparation tool for those lucky enough to be planning to visit the exhibition, or a follow-up for those lucky younger visitors doing project work at school or home. Equally, it is an excellent source of information to support the history syllabus at primary level, and a resource that will be in great demand in any children’s library.

Laura Brill

STEMville: The Bee Connection

Ben Newman, pub. Flying Eye Books

Mason B Chandler is a street-savvy solitary bee and proprietor of Mason B Chandler Private Detective Agency, the newest business in Stemville Town. When a golden, oozy substance brings Bug Borough to a sticky standstill Mason B proves to be just the bee for the case, picking up clues and piecing together information from the wider Bee community. The reader follows her investigation closely, learning all about the different types of bees, where they live, how they communicate and just why we need them in our world.

 

The Bee Connection is an inventive, intriguing, and ingenious combination of fact and fiction which is hugely good fun. From the detailed endpapers and first introduction to Stemville, the reader is encouraged to look closely for details and build up their bee knowledge as Mason B collects up clues to solve her case. As you’d expect from Flying Eye Books, the production is exceptional, and this feels like a very special book. The illustrations are bright and bold, stylish, and ever so slightly retro. The information is superbly presented; uncluttered, clearly captioned, with diagrams and explanatory panels, making it easily digestible and never overwhelming or dumbed down. This is a book children will come back to again and again, drawn in by the illustrations, fascinated by the facts, and always finding some new learning. It would make the perfect present for nature lovers as well as for fans of the brilliant Professor Astro Cat series (also by Ben Newman).

 

The Bee Connection is a must for every primary school library and KS2 classroom bookshelf.  Teachers will find it an engaging and effective resource for supporting science topics as well as literacy and art. It is a book which will more than earn its place on any good school reading spine. The final spread of ‘how to bee friendly’ tips is inspiring, and the projects would work equally well at school or at home. The Bee Connection is the first in a brand new, narrative nonfiction STEM series, STEMville. The next, focusing on forces, is due in 2025.  Hopefully, it will be followed by many others too!

Eileen Armstrong

The Universal Guide to the Night Sky

Lisa Harvey-Smith, illus. Sophie Beers, pub. Thames & Hudson

Lisa Harvey-Smith’s The Universal Guide to the Night Sky is a practical guide to exploring the night sky. She orientates the reader first through the constellations; the planets; the Earth’s only natural satellite: the moon; and finally, our own star, the Sun. In addition, The Universal Guide advises, in simple steps, how to make use of all this information to begin stargazing.

 

Lisa Harvey-Smith is a skilful communicator, a regular contributor to popular space programmes and author of numerous books, including children’s books on space. She writes in an accessible, personable tone, making good use of witty sub-headings to engage readers of The Universal Guide. Fun facts pepper the pages, creating layers of information, engaging readers with different interests and reading levels. Moreover, at the back of the book, there are additional notes for curious readers who would like to do some extra research. The format of the book means sections of text are short, decorated by Sophie Beer’s illustrations. Whilst there is a glossary defining some technical terms, most words are explained simply and succinctly in the text, making it much easier to understand.

 

In addition, The Universal Guide is a handy size, relatively compact - one hundred and forty-four numbered pages – and available in a softcover, making it more durable than a typical paperback. It is ideal for carrying around in a backpack and thumbing through whilst stargazing, double checking observations and re-reading instructions. Moreover, the chapter headings and sub-headings means it is straight forward to find information quickly without needing to use the index.

 

Inevitably there is a chapter on skygazing equipment – but not until chapter four - and we should take inspiration from the author’s own childhood story of using a second-hand pair of binoculars. Binoculars have the advantage of not being too expensive, being portable and easy to store, making them ideal for beginners. There is advice on how to use smartphones to take photographs and suggestions for different applications to download and use to explore the stars. Lisa Harvey-Smith even gives us a top tip - the best telescope to buy is the one you will use the most!

 

Lisa Harvey-Smith’s The Universal Guide to the Night Sky will enthuse every reader to take up stargazing and encourages all of us to make it a daily habit.

Simon Barrett

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