Non-Fiction Book Reviews

A Little Bit of Courage

Claire Alexander, pub. Happy Yak

The second in Claire Alexander’s series about the Ploofers, small balloon-shaped creatures who all like to do the same things together. But there’s a problem it seems, because one of them, a very little one, doesn’t want to do the same as the others because s/he’s afraid. If we’ve read Alexander’s first book, A Little Bit Different, we see the Ploofers not understanding why someone might be different, indeed they turn their back on the one who is different, until they understand that it can be good to be different.

 

In A Little Bit of Courage we see a tiny Ploofer who’s actually very, very uncertain about doing what all the others are doing. This tiny Ploofer is reluctant to try shoofing (which will certainly engage young readers, as there’s quite a resemblance to burping and farting!) when all the others ‘shoof’- drift gently upwards on their rainbow coloured ploofs. With sympathetic, understanding and kind encouragement, eventually tiny Ploofer has a try, and readers are comforted by the little bit of courage that a rather curiously shaped Ploofer’s help gives the tiny one. BUT, unless we’ve already read A Little Bit Different we don’t know who this sympathetic, kind and helpful person is. Now this may not worry the youngest readers, although it is frequently they who point out anomalies which adults often overlook, but the more eagle-eyed adults and children will observe that this Good Samaritan is a curious cello shape rather than the rotund outline of the other Ploofers. You won’t find the answer to this, and several other mysteries in the text and illustration (for example, why has one of them got yellow legs, when everyone else is uniformly grey?), unless you have read the first book. While this may be a good wheeze financially for the writer and publisher, it could well be annoying to both adult and child readers who want to know who and why, and have no recourse to the earlier book.

 

Outshining the sparse text, the rainbow-colour illustrations are attractive, simple and amusing, and far more likely to engage many younger children. In addition readers will be drawn to this magical book by the cover with its cut-out holes showing friendly yellow and orange colours, more of which are revealed as the reader turns the pages.

Bridget Carrington

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A Turtle’s View of the Ocean Blue

Catherine Barr, illus. Brendan Kearney, pub. Laurence King

Non fiction books could almost be considered works of art and that is especially true of this book.

 

Visually stunning illustrations immerse the reader in oceans, seas, mangrove forests and seagrass meadows. Journeying between different waterways, the reader meets creatures who make their home there and who we can see in great detail. Many children are familiar with the oceans but perhaps are unfamiliar with kelp forests or estuaries. Reading this, I was fascinated and can only imagine how children will feel while reading this – hopefully the same!

 

Currents, waves and tides are explained clearly and with fantastic and detailed illustrations making it easier to understand. From the environmental perspective, we know how important our waterways are to life and the vitality of all on the planet and it is essential to educate young readers about how they can help. Catherine Barr, a former Greenpeace campaigner, sets out to inspire a new generation of eco-warriors with her wonderful book. Oceans allow imaginations to take flight as much of our waterways are still largely unexplored due to the depths and breadth of them. We can only imagine what might be lurking in the deepest, darkest depths.

 

With fantastic use of technical terms and short bursts of text, children can spend more time delving into the illustrations and bouncing between the words.

Erin Hamilton

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Ancient World Magnified

David Long, illus. Andy Rowland, pub. Wide-Eyed Books

A search and find educational book that explores ancient and vanished civilizations. Using the magnifying glass provided the reader can find out what life was like in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Ancient Egypt, the time of the Olmec in Mexico, Carthage, the Kingdom of Kush, Babylonia, Persia, Ancient Greece, the Qin Dynasty, the Xiongnu Empire, the Parthian Empire, Ancient Rome, the Kingdom of Aksum, the time of the Mayans and Aztecs!

 

Covering a time period from 50,000 BCE to 1206 CE the book travels through time informing and entertaining. Each civilization is given a dedicated two-page spread filled with an incredibly detailed illustration. There’s some basic information about the historical period and a list of ten things to spot with descriptions and explanations about these hidden details but don’t be fooled, there’s a lot more to discover on each page and you could spend hours poring over the pictures.

 

As if that’s not enough, there’s a page with extra 58 items to spot as well. The gallery of famous figures – one from each time period – is interesting and the timeline puts everything into perspective. Most useful is the answers page where a small copy of each illustration has the 10 items ringed.

 

If you love the Where’s Wally type of hidden picture book then you’ll love this – the latest edition in the series, the others being: Pirates Magnified, Egypt Magnified and Castles Magnified.

Barbara Band

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Atlas of Amazing Architecture: The Most Incredible Buildings You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

Peter Allen, pub. Cicada Books

As expected from the title, this book looks at an eclectic mix of structures avoiding the obvious covered by other books; for example, there’s no pyramids at Giza, instead the reader is introduced to the Meroc Pyramids in Sudan, built a thousand years later.

 

The book is arranged in chronological order covering historical and contemporary works from Neolithic monuments in Northern Europe, built in 4000 BCE, to the SGAE headquarters in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, constructed in 2008. The buildings span all continents and each is visually striking and significant for introducing a new technology or defining an architectural movement, with most recognised by UNESCO or another agency. 

 

Each structure is given a double page spread, the illustrations are bright and visually appealing with details that bring the building alive, and there are small paragraphs of text with information about why the building has been included in the book, why it was built and points of particular interest. For example, we learn that legend says that Master Nestor, the lead builder of Kizhi Pogost, a wooden religious structure that stands on an island in the centre of Lake Onega in northern Russia, is said to have used a single axe and thrown it into the lake on completion of the buildings.

 

There are pages devoted to World Fairs, Hideaways and airport architecture. Finally, a glossary of architectural terms and an index complete this fascinating book.

Barbara Band

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Dancing Birds and Singing Apes

Smriti Prasadam-Halls, illus. Florence Weiser, pub. Wren and Rook

What a delightful look at the courting habits of a variety of creatures around the world. From birds of paradise and bowerbirds to koalas and flamingos, we see the many ways that animals try to attract each other and show affection.

 

This is a non fiction book yet it reads like a picture book. It is a book that is packed full of information about the natural world, all of which will fascinate and draw in the young reader. Its format makes it highly readable and very attractive too.

 

The author has chosen a wide range of animals from differing environments all of which will create talking points for the reader. She shows how they adapt to their surroundings, both with their rituals and with the homes they produce, again talking points are created. The illustrations are full of colour and energy and bring character to all of the creatures introduced. The use of double page spreads for many of the subjects really gives an opportunity for the reader to get a sense of the environment and the behaviours of the animals.

 

This will make a great addition to both nursery and KS1 book collections, both as a good read and for topic research at school and home.

Margaret Pemberton

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Danny Dodo’s Detective Diary

Rachel Eliot, animal expert Dr Nick Crumpton, illus. Rob Hodgson, pub. Thames and Hudson

Most of us know all about the extinction of the dodo bird, the dinosaurs and creatures such as the sabre tooth tiger but this book is full of fascinating creatures you maybe haven’t heard (or read) before. Danny Dodo’s Detective Diary highlights the animals that are currently classed as Vulnerable, Endangered or Extinct. It also sets out to provide reasons for these losses to the natural world and allows the reader time to think about how humans have affected the habitats and food chains of these animals over time.

 

Brilliantly illustrated, this book is full of colour and details that show us exactly what the animals look like, their homes and behaviours. With short bursts of important facts and text, readers can immerse themselves in the illustrations to fully understand where and when these animals existed. Written in the first person, like a case file, from the perspective of Danny Dodo, Detective, it feels almost like we are invited to help solve the mystery of each classification from vulnerable to extinct. Each double page spread features one animal or group and Danny shares as much information as he has about these, some of them dating back to 11,000 BCE.

 

On the last few pages, readers are given some ideas of ways they can help.  This is an all-important feature of many non-fiction books now - demonstrating ways readers can get involved to help save the planet. From simple solutions of reduce, reuse and recycle to finding your voice, all children should take away some helpful tips and fascinating facts about creatures from history and today.

Erin Hamilton

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Do Animals Fall in Love?

Katharina von der Gathen, illus. Anke Kuhl, pub. Gecko Press

While we sleep at night frogs come life. To attract a female the male frogs croak with all their might, creating a chorus of different notes. They use their vocal sacs to create the noise, the bigger the sac - the louder the noise, and the more females they are likely to attract. Male Flamingos gather for a group dance when they want to impress the females. To attract a female the male Toadfish is especially vocal. Underwater they are able to buzz the most beautiful love song, they can spend hours underwater droning and humming. This is an especially beautiful sound when a group of males do it at the same time. Then of course there are the animals that will fight for the chance to mate, an example of this would be male Kangaroos. They will box, wrestle and fight for the right to mate.

After all this work comes the actual mating. Stick Insects can mate for as long as 6 weeks at a time whilst the scorpion mates when dancing - they will hold on to each other’s pincers and dance.

These are just some examples of the behaviour exhibited in the animal kingdom, there are plenty more that I haven't included. The book goes into great detail, and the illustrations accompanying the facts are beautifully drawn with amazing detail.

 

I really liked this book and found it to be fascinating reading. Some of the facts I already knew, but much of it was new to me and I am quite certain will be to its intended audience of children too. This will be a delightful addition to my, and I hope your, school library.

Helen Byles

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The Encyclopaedia of Unbelievable Facts

Jane Wilsher, illus. Louise Lockhart, pub. Quarto Kids

The Encyclopaedia of Unbelievable Facts is written using the format of 500 questions and answers covering ten sections including: Human Body; Science and Tech; Animals; Natural World; History; Customs and Cultures; Our World; Arts and Entertainment; and Mindbending Stuff.

 

I must admit I was immediately intrigued and drawn to the latter section … potentially fascinating! With a small glossary for the more unusual words, a useful index, and a very helpful introduction explaining that there’s no right or wrong way to read the book – the book is packed with a range excellent advice before you have reached the facts. I’m not sure I really wanted to learn that my nose makes almost seven teacups of mucus a day, most of which ends up in the stomach, but the world’s favourite colour was rather surprising (it’s bluey-green if you want to know).

 

This is a large format book with clear and accessible font broken up by delightful hand-drawn illustrations. Some of the questions – and answers – are simple and straightforward, such as ‘What is the world’s longest river?’ Others range from being fascinating, odd, bizarre to simply mind-boggling. Regardless, they will entertain and inform. Although aimed at children aged 7 – 9 years old the book could be used, with adult help, with younger children and is likely to even tempt older KS2 students. Perfect for those children who like to dip into books and read aloud the facts they’ve discovered.

Barbara Band

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Imagine You Were There: Walking on the Moon

Caryn Jenner, illus. Marc Pattenden, pub. Kingfisher

One of the greatest accomplishments of the human race, landing on the Moon, is explored wonderfully well in Imagine You Were There: Walking on the Moon. The book carries you on a journey through preparing to land on the Moon to returning to Earth in a step-by-step fashion that makes it easy for any reader to follow.

 

This terrific book is well-presented and informative. It is separated into well thought-out sections, with brilliantly laid out double page spreads that include paragraphs of writing mixed in with diagrams and photos that help capture the excitement from the actual 1969 landings. With subtle references to other events and news of ‘A Changing World’, it will help younger readers to form connections with a part of a timeline that they may less familiar with.

 

What is truly impressive about this book is the way that it acknowledges a variety of the different roles involved with the first Moon landing rather than simply focusing on the astronauts themselves; we find out about the lesser-known heroes of the team, including the likes of Eleanor Foraker, a seamstress who helped to make the spacesuits, and Katherine Johnson, a ‘human computer’ who helped to calculate the speed of the spacecraft and its necessary trajectory amongst other things.

 

Children interested in space will adore this book - with its insights into take-off and the work at Mission Control as well as diagrams of the Apollo 11 vehicles and the different stages of the Moon landing, this really does cover all areas of interest for those who have the desire to know more about what it takes to fly to the Moon!

Tom Joy

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Invented by Animals: Meet the Creatures who inspired our Everyday Technology

Christiane Dorion, illus. Gosia Herba, pub. Wide Eyed Editions

Invented by Animals looks at the animal characteristics and behaviours that have inspired humans to solve tricky problems or improve existing inventions. Twenty-eight animals are featured, many of which will be familiar to the reader. These include spiders, penguins, jellyfish and slugs, and there are also pages covering master builders, the art of flying, and robot world – a look at tiny creatures that have inspired robotics.

 

Each of the animals is presented on a double page spread with the colourful and fun illustrations taking centre stage. The text is generally in four clear blocks and is written in the first person, making it more relatable for children. We discover where the animal lives and the property it has that makes it unusual or interesting. This means we learn facts such as a shark’s skin has led to the development of high tech swimsuits and coatings for ships; the earwig’s wings were the inspiration for origami folding wings for satellites; whale flippers have helped create bumpy blades for wind turbines; and porcupine quills resulted in wound-closing staples. Fascinating stuff – all taken from nature!

 

Most children are interested in animals and this book would be great for them to dip in to. It’s fascinating and educational, the animals featured are varied and there are plenty of ‘wow, I didn’t know that’ moments to enjoy!

Barbara Band

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Nano: The Spectacular Science of the Very (Very) Small

Dr. Jess Wade, illus. Melissa Castrillon, pub. Walker Books

This is an exciting science book about materials. It is a non-fiction picture book which introduces young readers to the fascinating science of the very small. The title explains clearly that this is the spectacular science of the very, very small. This is nanotechnology. It is an exciting book which makes a complex subject more easily understandable. It is very informative, leaving young people wanting more and is the perfect book for budding young scientists.

 

It is presented using simple language for young people to grasp and will encourage young readers to be even more curious about science. It makes science exciting and fun to learn. As well as exciting young people, older readers will also learn from it. In fact, it should prove enjoyable and educational for the whole family. It brings some very complex science to life.

 

This book introduces some interesting and unusual stuff. It is about the world of atoms and materials. Everything in your home is made from something. It could be light or heavy, strong or bendy, smooth or rough. A wide range of vocabulary is introduced through these concepts. This vocabulary is explained through simple to understand statements and observations. For example, readers are told that the book is made from paper. Stone would be too heavy, and glass would be too delicate. Imagine a book made from chocolate.

 

The text is written by top scientist Dr. Jess Wade and is brought to life by the brilliant and dynamic illustrations by Melissa Castrillon. At the end there is an exciting glimpse into the future and there are fascinating paragraphs on chemists, physicists, engineers, microscopes and spectroscopy. There is also a concise and useful index. This is a very accessible text complimented by simple and beautifully shaded pictures. This is a perfect science book for inquisitive minds eager to learn about something that they may not yet fully understand.

Gary Kenworthy

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Once Upon a Mermaid’s Tail

Beatrice Blue, pub. Frances Lincoln

Once upon a Mermaid’s Tail is part of what could be described as a non-fiction picture book series (including Once upon a Unicorn Horn and Once upon a Dragon’s Fire) explaining how magical creatures get their distinguishing features and gifts. This is the story of how mermaids got their tails…

 

Theodore loves to go out on the magic lagoon in his boat and collect fish. His whole house is full of fish tanks and wonderful fish of all colours and sizes. But one day he finds the most beautiful creature he’s ever seen. The ocean warns him to leave her where he found her, but Theodore doesn’t listen and can’t resist taking her home. He adds her to his collection and decides to call her Oceanne. But Oceanne is not suited to captivity and becomes dangerously ill. Theodore takes her back to the lagoon, but she doesn’t wake up until all the fish give her some colourful scales to create a tail and she transforms into a beautiful mermaid. Theodore learns that fish (and mermaids) are better off in the ocean where they are free.

 

Beatrice Blue’s vivid and lively illustrations of the ocean are a delight, and the images and text are beautifully integrated. The mermaid, Oceanne, has a slightly Manga/My Little Pony look about her that will definitely have an appeal to younger children, and of course the shiny foil details on the cover add an additional sparkle.

 

Once upon a Mermaid’s Tail is a gentle fable about respecting wildlife and protecting our oceans and inspires a sense of wonder at the magic of the natural world. And who can resist a mermaid?

Rebecca Rouillard

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Once Upon a Rhythm

James Carter, illus. Valerio Vidali, pub. Little Tiger

Once Upon a Rhythm starts as it means to go on, with a great big boom! This most delightful ode to music takes us on a journey from the very beginnings of musical traditions – did you know that this was 40,000 years ago - right up to modern day jangles and twangs. It beautifully conveys how music is within all of us, and that it is an innately human thing. It teaches us, through the use of pleasing rhymes, how music has developed over all these many years. We learn about instruments, songs, musical notation, and all sorts of different styles of music from around the globe. Fascinating and a very clever approach.

 

This book provides the reader with a clever overview of music history which would serve well as in introduction for older children. It offers us poetry rather than detailed facts, but it provides useful inspiration for jumping off into deeper exploration of different musical topics. The language is simple, with some lovely sounds and onomatopoeia to illuminate the facts. The illustrations all help in building to a climax, and the most important message of all - that we are all musicians.

 

This is a real celebration of music that begs to be read aloud.

Lucy Hollins

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Protest!

Alice and Emily Howarth-Booth, illus. Emily Howarth-Booth, pub. Pavillion Children’s Books

Ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. That is the message at the heart of this brilliant book, which takes us on a grand exploration of people who have united for the greater good throughout human history.

 

It starts with the first ever workers strike in ancient Egypt. This strike, we learn, took place in 1170 BCE when medieval peasants revolted against an unpopular Countess. We are then taken on a journey through history that bring us right up to the present day, and school children striking to bring attention to the climate crisis. On the way we learn about all sorts of innovative and creative ways of protesting: theatrical interventions, playing bad music, and taking your TV for a walk, to name but a few. We learn how these acts have shaken society, forged friendships, and created communities.

 

Jam-packed full of information and inspiration, no stone is left unturned. The book covers all the events one might expect to read about in a historical work, and takes us into many other, wonderful but less familiar worlds too. Beautifully designed, with wonderful illustrations to bring each topic to life, this book is pitched perfectly. It is eminently accessible and will be interesting and thought-provoking for adults as well as younger readers. It is a positive and uplifting celebration of people who have worked together to make the world a better place.

Lucy Hollins

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Think About It! Philosophy for Kids: Key Ideas Clearly Explained

Alex Woolf, illus. Jack Oliver Coles, pub. Arcturus Publishing

Alex Woolf’s Philosophy for Kids is a great introduction to philosophy, supporting learning and an interest in philosophy at both KS2 and KS3.

 

The book is logically structured. The introduction considers what is philosophy, linguistically rooting it in its meaning ‘the love of wisdom.’ The opening chapter then examines epistemology, what is knowledge and how can we know anything, before investigating existence itself: does the universe and other things in it, like you and I, exist. The book continues to look at the fundamentals of time and space, before exploring in the following chapters more human-centred questions, beginning with the philosophy of mind and central questions of mind and body, thinking and identity. There is a chapter on morality, what is wrong and right and finally, and more unusually a chapter about power: the relationship between rulers, citizens and justice. There are questions therefore for everyone to explore, and perhaps this is the best way to read the book by simply picking a topic of interest.

 

One of the strengths of Philosophy for Kids, as it is subtitled, is the clarity of the explanation of key ideas. There is a clearly explained progression of thought, even in the more abstract and difficult philosophical concepts. This is exemplified in the section on identity using the same thought experiment of teleporting Oliver to Mars and back, effectively creating a duplicate of Oliver and discarding the original body, to reflect on who we really are. It continues with Oliver becoming a giant fly on Mars, but with Oliver’s mind and finally Oliver’s body, but without any of his memories. This highlights how Alex Woolf has also selected a number of examples to explain philosophical concepts that children can relate to and will engage with. In addition, the text is supported by Jack Oliver Coles’ illustrations, showing key concepts and possible scenarios of philosophical interest.

Simon Barrett

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