Non-Fiction Book Reviews
Ben Rothery’s Weird and Wonderful Animals
Ben Rothery, pub. Penguin Random House Children’s Books
Ben Rothery is known for his stunningly detailed illustrations of wildlife, his large-format book Hidden Planet won the 2021 Silver Pencil Award. Weird and Wonderful Animals is no exception. It is a curated collection of some of the more incredible creatures found in the animal kingdom from firm favourites, such as sloths and octopuses, through to the more unusual, such as the binturong and paradise flying snake.
The book is presented in three sections: Air; Earth and Water with an illustrated contents page making for easy navigation. The illustrations span full pages, and many are accompanied by smaller drawings showing the detail of the different animals’ feathers, claws, eyes, and suchlike. My favourite is the elephant, a wonderful close-up drawing showing marvellously wrinkled skin and long eyelashes. The majority of the pages have been given muted backgrounds, a perfect foil for the clear text that is presented in short segments. An additional plus is that the book’s pages have been printed with a matt finish making them accessible to dyslexic readers as well as those with visual impairment.
For each entry there is basic information about the animal in focus, listing its geographical location, weight, and size. That and the addition of lots of interesting facts will be certain to engage children. A good book is one where you always discover something new and reading Ben Rothery’s Weird and Wonderful Animals I learnt that tardigrades, which are miniscule albeit fearsome looking aquatic animals, are virtually indestructible! A perfect book for ages 6 - 8 years although older children would also enjoy reading it.
Books and the People Who Make Them
Stéphanie Vernet, trans. Paul Kelly, illus. Camille de Cussac, pub. Prestel
This one is difficult to assess. Stylistically, it’s unlike the books we’re used to; subject-wise, it’s very niche. I suspect most readers will pass by ungrabbed while some will absolutely love it, and why not? All books should be as confident and sincere as this one, and not worry about being vaguely interesting to as many people as possible.
It’s a picture book which presents all the steps, both creative and commercial, taken in the process of creating a book, from the mind of the author to the reader turning its pages. It’s thorough and insightful, and is appealingly technical, which will I think narrow its potential audience, but will give them a deeper, more satisfying read. Certainly, I would have been happy using this as a primer back when I was training new editors. It uses itself as part of the process, which is charming, but I hope that won’t cause problems with booksellers. It has, for example, an exposed spine that, because the book’s design is so under-stated, might lead some to conclude they’ve received broken goods.
The design generally is muted and chic, elegant even, but I feel too unassuming for the visual vernacular of a UK audience. The typography is a little dwarfed by the graphics. It doesn’t scream in the way knowledge books often seem to think they need to. The language has that kind of awkwardness too. I think the translation from the French is probably spot on in capturing the author’s voice and it freights a conspiratorial and formal intimacy that feels exotic in a learning-book environment. When I hear the words I’m reading in my head, they’re full of inflection and character.
Is this review helping? I think I could triple my word-count and keep going, it’s that sort of book. Hard to categorise. I think it’s a gem that does an unexpected job admirably well, but in a manner that sets it apart from the books we’re used to, thereby making it hard to suggest exactly who it will please. There’s a sophistication in the text that will defeat the younger reader; a chilled-out simplicity to the illustration that will fall short of the packed, exaggerated, and frantic young adult visual style.
I feel the sweet spot will be the book-loving Years 6 to 8 who may be coming into a sense of where they want their lives to go and discovering their passion could also be their living. Those apart, it’s a good start for the book-production-curious of all ages, and an accessible introductory reference for an under-represented industry.
Dear Rebel: 125+ Women Share Their Secrets to Taking on the World
Revel Girls Inc, pub. DK
Many readers may be familiar with the Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls series. A series of books filled with tales of extraordinary women. This latest volume from Rebel Girls and DK, Dear Rebel, is a great addition to the collection. Published to celebrate International Day of the Girl, it contains the stories of over one hundred and twenty-five teens and women spanning in age from 13 to 68 years. They originate from thirty-seven countries across the globe and represent an impressive eighty-two professions. These are not your typical inspirational stories from familiar historical figures. Instead, they shine a spotlight on contemporary women who share their passions and recount their journeys of how they overcame obstacles and adversity to achieve their dreams. Although some of the names were known to me, for example Drew Barrymore and Melinda Gates, most were not.
The contributors to this volume encompass a diverse and inclusive spectrum of backgrounds, each sharing advice; words of wisdom; encouragement; and personal anecdotes through first-person short texts; letters; poems; and essays. The book is a visual delight, adorned with an abundance of photographs, its pages are filled with vibrant colours and captivating illustrations that make it both appealing and exciting. As part of the Dear Rebel campaign, the book incorporates QR codes throughout its pages allowing readers to access companion audio content via podcasts and interviews.
Although aimed at readers in the 8 – 12 years age bracket, its content would resonate with older readers. Dear Rebel is a treasure trove for anyone seeking inspiration and motivation, making it an invaluable addition to school libraries and a perfect gift for those looking to empower and uplift others.
Drawn to Change the World
Emma Reynolds et al, pub. HarperCollins Children’s Books
This beautiful graphic novel collection includes the stories and campaigns of sixteen young climate activists, each one illustrated by a different artist.
Celebrating the work of these young champions, each of whom are achieving incredible things, this book encourages those who are reading to do something, to take action; and reminds you that no matter your age, you CAN make a difference. The editor, Emma Reynolds, founded the KidLit4Climate campaign and has brought these stories together to give young climate campaigners a voice. Published at a time when government policies are ever changing, vulnerable communities are being exploited, and the earth is changing faster than ever before it is important to use our voices and to join together to demand changes. The stories are uplifting and each one shines a light on the different campaigns taking place around our world. As well as the graphic stories there are also interviews with the activists and written articles containing lots of background information.
Reading this book, we learn more about the fight to protect the planet, reading the stories such as those of Melati and Isabel Wijsen in Indonesia who in 2013 were inspired by a talk on sustainability at their school and set up a campaign to create a plastic free Bali. They were successful and in 2019 single use plastics were banned. The girls won an award and Bye Bye Plastic Bags is now an international movement. This is a book that we should all be talking about.
John Haig and Joan Lennon, illus. André Ducci, pub. Templar Books
Great Minds, sub-titled 2500 years of thinkers and philosophy, introduces twenty such individuals from around the world, the ancient, the medieval and the modern as well as from the Eastern and the Western traditions, disturbing this simple dichotomy by including African and Māori philosophy.
It is an interesting and original selection of thinkers and philosophers. Whilst most chapters focus on one person, the authors cleverly open up space to introduce new philosophers by grouping Socrates, Plato and Aristotle together in a chapter about ‘The Socratics’ and Descartes, Bentham and Wollstonecraft in the chapter on the ‘The Age of Reason’. For the first time I am reading about the Kenyan philosopher, Henry Odera Oruka and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, an American philosopher, forming part of a group developing critical race theory in the twentieth century. It also creates space to be more inclusive, notably with more female philosophers. Philippa Foot is a personal hero, but again, for the first time I am reading about Susanne Langer, one of the first American women philosophers, exploring the importance of art and aesthetics.
Each chapter is between two or three double spreads in length, beginning with a title page, richly illustrated by André Ducci. The graphic novel format allows the authors to cram in a lot of information! They set the historical context and include a short biography of each thinker, before discussing the philosophical questions and concepts that preoccupied them as well as their legacy of thought through time and into the modern age. The illustration and colour scheme continues to unify each chapter, perfectly balancing out the text and creating a visually appealing reading experience. Industry, for example, dominants the illustration about Karl Marx as we follow his ideas and legacy along a production line. The timeline, drawn as a denotating cord, of revolution, war and Darwinism however is particularly powerful.
The content is most suitable for Key Stage Three. It will also serve me well in my classroom, brilliantly summarising individual’s lives and important events as well as posing philosophical conundrums in an accessible way that I can post on my classroom door to puzzle pupils passing-by.
Great Minds is simply a breath of fresh air, opening new windows on the subject of philosophy.
Mission: Arctic A Scientific Adventure to a Changing North Pole
Katharina Weiss-Tuider, illus. Christian Schneider, pub. Greystone Kids
This is a serious book on an important topic. The Arctic is an area of concern because it is melting, and this is having an impact all around the world - “what happens in the Arctic never stays in the Arctic.” But despite its importance, we know very little about the area. Mission: Arctic takes us on the largest expedition to the Arctic ever undertaken. We join over five hundred scientists from all over the world who study how the Arctic is changing and how this will impact on our world. The Polarstern is a powerful ice-breaker research vessel which freezes in the sea ice and drifts towards the North Pole. Throughout their time in this inhospitable dangerous world of ice, extreme cold and darkness scientists collect data and explore the eco-systems.
The book is an attractive large format hardback and is well designed. There are photographs, notes, illustrations, diagrams, facts and pages from journals and logbooks. The balance between text and illustration is excellent. I particularly enjoyed the pages on Nasen’s Daring Trip Towards the North Pole where each of his dogs is illustrated and listed, and the comparison between Nansen’s Fur Coats and “Today’s High Tech” clothing. The comprehensive contents page demonstrates the wide range of topics covered – Part One -The Biggest Arctic Expedition of All Time, Part Two - Climate Research on the Ice with Team Ice, Team Atmosphere, Team Ocean, Team Ecosystem and Team Biochemistry, and Part 3 – Our Arctic, Our Future. The book is packed with information presented in an accessible manner. Did you know that, under their white fur, a polar bear’s skin is almost black? Strictly speaking its hair is not white but transparent.
The book concludes with a powerful environmental message: “Wouldn’t the biggest danger be if we all counted on someone else to save the Arctic?” We are given advice on how we can rescue the climate every day. “The future of the Arctic depends on whether humanity lowers its greenhouse gas emission.”
Anyone aged 8+ will learn from this excellent informative and inspirational book. Bravo!
My Emotions and Me
Armella Leung, pub. Summersdale Publishers
Emotions are complex, we all have them, but we don’t all understand them, what they do to us, how they appear and importantly what to do when we see them in others too. Maybe you are curious about why we have emotions, how we can process them, if this comes naturally or has to be learnt. Perhaps you would like to know more about the way in which emotions can create moods and feelings and moreover how our brains work to sort all this out for us, almost without us realising. If you have any questions about emotions Art-mella’s graphic novel, non-fiction title is the perfect book to pick up and read. It will take you on a journey of discovery and make you smile quite a lot – is that an emotion poking through?
Art-mella is not alone in her journey of exploration, her sidekick Rattie is there with her every step of the way proving that we never need to deal with our emotions alone or feel alone. There is always someone we can share with even when we might feel incredibly conflicted. Now, rather than using chapters or sections, I should tell you that this book uses headings, you will find them in the top lefthand corner of a page, when the topic is changing. Even better is that this book comes from personal experience, Art-mella tells us that she wrote it after deciding she needed to investigate her ever-fluctuating emotions. She takes it a step at a time. Asking if there is a need driving the emotion, coaching readers in techniques that will help cancel out thoughts that cause suffering she makes it feel managing our emotions achievable.
I loved this book. I enjoyed learning more about my own body and the way my brain works, why I sometimes feel emotions I wasn’t expecting and how I can manage them. Drawing, doodling in the printed stars so I could put my thoughts on paper, learning to use my senses and describe them, finding mindfulness techniques and even some yoga poses, this book has it all and I am quite certain children are going to love the interactions between Art-mella and Rattie too!
My First Space Atlas
Jane Wilsher, illus. Paul Daviz, pub. Weldon Owen
A most attractive book that takes the reader into space to “explore the SOLAR SYSTEM and BEYOND.” On our journey we look at the night sky, blast off into space, join the International Space Station, go on a space walk and a trip to the moon, visit our very own star, meet other planets, think about Mars, consider space junk, go to the Milky Way, think about the universe, and look up at space. The content is wide ranging and appealing. Each page repays close scrutiny. Information is detailed, clear and pitched at right level in appropriate language. Indeed, the facts have been checked by Space Consultant Professor Ben Maughan of the University of Bristol. I particularly enjoyed the section on Living in the International Space Station, and the pages on a Spacewalk and Space Junk.
The visual impact of the book is powerful, and the design is clever and varied with a good balance of information and illustration. Some pages are portrait and some landscape. Colourful pictures, captions, diagrams are used to enhance the text. My favourite is the Mars rover where a clear diagram with captions is set against orange and yellow background. Strap line question to answer encourage the reader to engage with text with questions like, “What does an astronaut do on the ISS?” and “What happens after lift off?” Each double page spread has an inter-active Spot It! Circle that asks a couple of questions that encourage reader reflect on and perhaps revisit the page, such as “Can you find the footprints in the dust?” and “How many wheels does the lunar rover have?”
This is a high-quality information book with a detailed contents page, an index and a useful glossary of space words. Highly recommended. Age 4+.
Roots of Happiness
Susie Dent, illus. Harriet Hobday, pub. Puffin
This is an odd book to review, because it’s broad in its potential readership yet niche in its subject matter; unlikely to be bought by younger readers for themselves, but possibly a popular pick from the library shelf.
This is a well-being book. It uses unfamiliar and forgotten words as a means to naming and expressing positive feelings, thereby enabling progress to a happier mental and emotional space. It’s like the old maxim: what gets measured gets valued. Here it’s: what gets named gets felt. Does it work on me? I think so.
It’s refreshing to take a break to roll many of the 100 words contained herein around my mouth, like cake mix in a bowl or water in a stream. They verbalise beautifully. It’s interesting to read the erudite and welcoming accompanying texts on each word’s roots and purposes. The illustrations in which each word is nested are generally generically accomplished, but sometimes leap into inspired and gorgeous. Some of them I could look at every day; some I’d live in. The pronunciation guide is a thoughtful touch. What would it be useful for you to know? I’d buy this book and keep it. I would dip into it from time to time, perhaps when I needed cheering up. I would learn interesting things about words I know but don’t use, and words I’ve never heard of. It wouldn’t be my favourite book, but I wouldn’t be parted from it.
For competent readers who struggle to give voice to their feelings. For word-loving readers who want to stretch their knowledge a little further. For the habitually curious.
Size Wise: A Fact-Filled Look at Life-Size Wonders
Camilla de la Bedoyere, Vasilisa Romanenko, pub. Buster Books
A stunning book that introduces us to some of the biggest and smallest wonders of nature. The close-up of a giraffe’s head on the cover attracts attention. The contents page is equally appealing with a bewitching half owl, a bat upside-down and a wide-ranging list of over 30 topics. Throughout the book almost all the illustrations are life-size so the reader “will get a real sense of the amazing size and scale of the natural world.” Symbols indicate where the focus has zoomed in or out. Pages are well designed with a good balance of text and illustrations.
I was mesmerised by the squid’s eye which is about 27cm across! The figures are made accessible by saying it is the size of a football pitch and comparing with the size of human eye which is 2.2cm. The impact of the stunning illustrations is supported by interesting text, such as “Why So Huge?” which explains why the squid needs such large eyes. The rainforest Rafflesia bloom is stunning. It can weigh up to 7kg and grow to widths of up to 1m.
I loved the picture of a gorilla’s hand with flat nails.
Small animals are also featured such as the Dwarf Blue Butterfly which weighs 10 milligrams and has a wingspan of just 1omm and the Pygmy Jerboa with huge legs compared to its body length. The Mini Mariners found in the oceans are fascinating as are the Eggstremely Small eggs. I also enjoyed the world of Rainbow Diatoms, magnified grains of sand, and Sparkling Crystals of snowflakes, salt, and sugar. The Glossary is excellent, and the tables of units of measurement and Imperial Measurements are useful.
The book is a brilliant way to learn about and appreciate the natural world. There is plenty to capture the imagination, inspire awe and wonder and lead on to further research. Highly recommended.
The Story of Pasta and How to Cook It!
Steven Guarnaccia, recipes Heather Thomas, pub. Phaidon
Have you ever wondered what pasta is, where it comes from and if there are any new recipes for cooking it to try? I know I have, after all there is something so very appealing about it and it is incredibly versatile. Author Steven Guarnaccia is fascinated by pasta, and it is one of his favourite foods. In fact, he tells us that if he had to eat only one food, every day, for the rest of his life, it would be pasta. Why? “Because there are so many great shapes that if I got bored with one, I could just choose another, and not have to repeat any for at least a year!”
There are 365 days in a year which goes someway to revealing how many pasta shapes there are and 35 of them are shared in this book. We get a history for each of them followed by recipes contributed by Heather Thomas. All the recipes are suitable for children to cook (with adult supervision). There is a brilliant set of illustrations at the start of the book showing us what no Italian kitchen would be without (and of course this means they are all helpful for the recipes in this book and for cooking pasta)! The recipes are given with tips, many have alternative options and every single one is mouth-wateringly illustrated.
You can truly improve your cooking skills with this book but also learn some ‘wow’ factor facts. For example, did you know that pasta carbonara is the most commonly cooked pasta dish on the planet? Here are some more facts: around the globe approximately 14 billion plates of pasta are consumed every year; Fusilli pasta was originally made, in Southern Italy by rolling a strand of spaghetti around a knitting needle! While many pastas have been around for decades cavatappi or corkscrew pasta was only created in the 1970s; mezze maniche was once used as shirt sleeves so people could have a nibble if they got hungry.
No doubt reading this is making you hungry and rightly so. The recipes are delicious, look tasty, are straightforward enough for children to have a go at and for everyone to enjoy. So, the next time you, any children you may know or in fact anyone you may know, wants to have some pasta think of The Story of Pasta and How to Cook It! find yourself a copy, create a wonderful meal and share some amazing facts. History, cooking and design, this book has it all and more – enjoy!
Soledad Romero Mariño, illus. Sonia Pulido, pub. Phaidon
Superpowered Animals profiles 22 of the world’s strongest, smartest, and swiftest creatures, possessing 19 amazing superpowers and extraordinary survival skills. They are the animal kingdom world record holders of incredible abilities.
Listing the biological classification of each animal and their superpowers, rated and ranked out of five, Soledad Romero Mariño describes each of the superpower in more detail and explains how it helps these animals to survive. Meticulously researched, these superpowers include astonishing senses, such as the Grass Snakes’ super smell detecting chemical substances in the air using its tongue, unbelievable physical abilities – the Crocodile has super regeneration, re-growing up to 3,000 teeth in its lifetime – and remarkable communication and collaboration, indicative of intelligence, for example, Exploding Ants, possessing super teamwork, living and literally dying to keep its colony safe.
Further scientific information on each animal describes the size, colour, special features, lifespan, habitat, diet, reproduction and predators. Additional information explains how these animals contribute to the health of the planet and their unique special ability or skill, such as cats jump the human equivalent of 3 storeys. The Polar Bear certainly earns its moniker ‘The Arctic powerhouse’ with the greatest number of superpowers, seven.
On the opposite page of the spread is a tarot card inspired illustration by Sonia Pulido, an international award-winning Barcelona-based artist and author of What a Shell Can Tell. The illustrations clearly show the animal’s superpowers and a full colour portrait of the animal, adding extra details, such as the animal’s habitat. The iconic picture of the Common Octopus, chosen to be also the front cover.
The graphics for each superpower are self-explanatory, but occasionally seem strange when attributed to a particular animal. The symbol of super legs is a paw such as a wolf’s paw, attributed to a Iberian Ibex that has hooves and the talons of a True Owl. Super bite is an apple with two bites taken out of it and Great White Sharks, whose bit is 300 times stronger than a human’s, eat fish and sea mammals. I suspect the publishing team spent a lot of time wrestling with which symbols to use!
Superpowered Animals is a factual feast about record breaking beasts in Animalia.