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Non-Fiction Book Reviews

A Field Guide to Spring

Gabby Dawnay, illus. Dorien Bouwers, pub. Thames & Hudson

A Field Guide to Spring is a beautiful guide designed to be taken into the wild to encourage curiosity, creativity, and connection with nature. It is inspired by the Forest School movement and is the first in a new series teaching children how to engage with nature season by season. It features a blend of hands-on activities, fascinating facts and charming poetry that encourages children’s natural curiosity about the world. Louise Black, Deputy Headteacher at Griffin Primary School in London consulted on the book. She was responsible for creating a large, on-site Forest School space for their students to have access to nature.

 

The activities are clearly described and easy to achieve by young children. They include making seed balls to grow your own meadow, pond dipping, building your own bird’s nest and making a rain gauge. Identification pages are scattered throughout the book and will help children to spot different animals and plants. Budding scientists will enjoy learning facts about the weather, how plants grow or the metamorphosis of tadpoles into frogs.

 

There is really something for everyone packed into this handy-sized volume. The whimsical poems are a delight, as are the beautiful colour illustrations by award-winning illustrator, Dorien Brouwers. Come rain or shine, or whatever form the child’s access to nature takes, this book will provide entertainment, interest and joy. The textured cover and high-quality paper are not just practical, but also give the book a quality feel making it an excellent gift and a book to treasure as a child grows up.

 

Author, Gabby Dawnay clearly has a passion for and in-depth knowledge of nature which shines through in this gorgeous publication. I can’t wait to see what the next volumes in the series bring.

Janet Ling

Big Ideas from Literature: How Books Can Change Your World

The School of Life, illus. Anna Doherty, pub. The School of Life

This is the third book in the Big Ideas series, the other two being Big Ideas for Curious Minds and Big Ideas from History all published by The School of Life. The concept of this title is that stories can communicate a key idea as well as teach us, help us to grow, offer inspiration and wisdom, introduce us to different perspectives, and help us develop empathy and resilience.

 

It is a fascinating read and although aimed at 10 – 12 year olds, it would also appeal to older children and anyone with an interest in books and reading, including adults, and would make a wonderful gift for a child who is a bookworm. There are several sections. The first, The Story of Stories, details the development of stories from clay tablets and papyruses through to 19th century publishing houses and why books were written for children. Each point made is demonstrated by a story or extract from literature and these include classics as well as modern tales from a wide cultural mix and across timelines. The Literature and Feelings section encourages the reader to consider how books can evoke different emotions such as reflection, happy crying and a new perspective. When it comes to The Future of Books the authors consider how technology could change stories with books written from a personal aspect or to meet individual needs.

 

There are plenty of questions to get you thinking about the type of reader you are and why you like certain genres and the conclusion gives you prompts and note pages to write down your own ideas. The text is broken up into well-spaced paragraphs and interspersed amusing illustrations. I would have liked an index of the stories used in the book but that’s the librarian in me talking!

Barbara Band

Inside In: X-Rays of Nature’s Hidden World

Jan Paul Schutten, illus. Arie van ’t Riet, trans. Laura Watkinson pub. Greystone Kids

An exceptional book that uses stunning x-rays of a wide range of creatures in their natural habitat and explains what we are seeing.

 

Creatures are arranged by type - arthropods and molluscs, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The images are fascinating and are accompanied by text that is there to “make you look more closely at the photographs.” There is plenty of information to be gleaned from the whole package. We learn, for example, that a bee has “wasp waist;” that a dragonfly is a miracle of technology and the species has been around for 300 million years; that a butterfly’s wings act as solar panels and that the John Dory is an underwater vacuum cleaner!

 

Did you know that the seahorse has no stomach; or that the tree frog eats with its eyes; or that pheasants are like mini-ostriches? Maybe you knew that some birds sleep on one leg, and that ducks are both land-air-and water birds? Blackbirds, starlings, and song thrushes are completely different from the outside but are “pretty much the same” on the inside. Hedgehogs have a long-rounded muscle like the elastic of a shower cap. If threatened they tighten that muscle. When it pulls together their prickly skin moves to cover their body. I did not know that foxes use their tails for balance, communication and for warmth. The style and tone of the text are appealing, with jokes, wordplay and questions that engage the reader.

 

The introduction that explains how the book came about and that all the x-rays were taken from dead animals. We also learn just what x-ray photographs are. There is a useful table of contents, an index, and information about Wilhelm Röntgen who invented the x-ray.

 

An awe-inspiring introduction to the natural world for children aged 8+.

Brenda Marshall

Nature’s Fascinating Friendships

Mike Hills, illus. Kerry Hyndman, pub. Faber & Faber

Delightful, and exactly what you’d expect from the title. A survey of the mutually-beneficial relationships that species develop.

 

Substantial at 94 large pages and information-dense, zooming around the world from the deep seas to the high sky, discussing animals, plants and fungi you definitely have not heard of (Clark’s Nutcracker) as well as familiar favourites (hippos) at a BBC flagship nature programme level of accessibility, detail and curiosity, the star of the book is its illustrations. I adore the marsh frogs clambering over the water buffalo. The weight of the buffalo, the delicacy of the frogs. Lovely.

 

The art is going to keep readers coming back to the book. The extreme close-ups (yucca moths), the interesting angles and composition (Galapagos tortoise from beneath), the taking of opportunities to be atmospheric (as in lanternfish in the gloom, coyotes and badgers at sunset). Colourful, dynamic and engrossing.

 

The youngest readers will need to grow into appreciating everything the book has to tell them; older readers will remind themselves fondly of ideas they’ve learned when they need to, for the writer does accommodate Key Stage 3 ideas in a book Year 2 could use. Consequently, the tone struggles in places to keep all the breadth of its potential readership engaged, and certainly younger readers will need support, but this is quality work with a tricky brief. I’d expect Years 4 and 5 to still be asking questions about what they’re reading and need direction on technical terms they’ve not seen before.

 

It’s a wide-ranging book that encourages thought and wonder and is equally a great dipping-in or all-in-one read with a high level of repeat-readability. I’d be surprised if it didn’t win prize nominations and would myself have been over-joyed to have it as a child.

Dmytro Bojaniwskyj

Outdoor Science: 30 Awesome Experiments to try at Home

Laura Minter and Tia Williams, pub. Button Books

This is a bright, vibrant book that contains thirty experiments, each based on STEM principles, that you can try at home using everyday materials, most of which you are likely to already have in the cupboard.

 

Each experiment has a list of items and/or ingredients you will need, together with clear, concise and easy to follow step-by-step instructions, illustrated with photographs of children undertaking the activities. At the end of each experiment is a “Science Made Simple” paragraph that explains the science in action. At the beginning of the book is a “getting started” section that contains lists of materials used throughout including craft essentials, food items and objects usually found in the recycling bin. There is also a glossary explaining various scientific terms used throughout the book. I loved the visual element of this book which is sure to attract the intended audience of 7 – 11 year olds. The majority of the experiments can be undertaken with minimal supervision and, whilst they are designed to be undertaken outdoors, some could be adapted for indoor use albeit with some mess!

 

This is a great fun way to introduce children to science theories but also to encourage outdoor play without the need to purchase expensive equipment. I am definitely going to have a go at making a pizza box oven to cook smores using thermal energy.

Barbara Band

Rebel Girls Money Matters: A Guide to Saving, Spending, and Everything in Between!

Alexa Von Tobel, illus. Morgan Goble, pub. Rebel Girls

Instilling confidence in a generation of girls around the world is the mission of Rebel Girls, a global, multi-platform entertainment brand. Based on a 2016 international bestselling children's book, Rebel Girls highlights real-life, extraordinary women throughout history, geography, and fields of excellence, focusing on creators, innovators, leaders, and champions. Giving young and teenage girls role models as well as excellent life skills.

 

This book explains the process of earning money, budgeting and its many facets, and how to manage your money. Its author is a financial planner so we know we are in good, safe and reliable hands with the advice shared. It is intended for audiences that are aged 8 or older, and it conveys financial literacy in a straightforward and engaging manner that appeals to even the most jaded of financial audiences, even though it is primarily aimed at American audiences. It combines quizzes, tips from experts, and stories from girls around the world to offer readers a better understanding of financial literacy. Readers will both learn about their finances and engage with how to control and manage them. This is what gives it such a strong appeal, it is immersive but not heavy going.

 

Readers will learn: How to create a budget; How a credit card works; What investing is and how to start; When to spend and when to save; The truth about pay gaps between men and women; How to create a business plan (excellent for those with ambition to start their own businesses and there is so much more too, this is just a flavour of the content!

 

This super fun and informative guidebook from the Growing Up Powerful series can be used to teach your child the building blocks of personal finance.

Katy Ralph

Shells and What They Hide Inside

Helen Scales, illus. Sonia Pulido, pub. Phaidon

As we approach the warmer season and time spent in the garden and on the beach becomes a more appealing prospect, this book will be an excellent tool to explore shells further. Focusing mainly on marine specimens, but with a glance at what hides among pots and borders in every garden, Helen Scales invites her young readers to examine each shell posing carefully aimed questions. The answers are hidden under the many flaps included in the pages, which make the book a very interactive and enriching one. As the flaps are not always obvious, discovering them becomes a tactile experience too – especially in the garden page.

 

The author does not shy away from using specific terminology, like mollusc, gastropod, bivalve and so on, which she explains with accessible and engaging language, directly addressing her young readers, encouraging them to explore and discover various aspects of a shell’s purpose. Sonia Pulido provides the illustrations using colours suggestively as atmospheric background, but also to define shapes and to provide striking details for each specimen.

 

One can imagine this being a lovely book to have close at hand while visiting the seaside, and also one which will inspire young minds to know more about the natural world that surrounds them, sparking a deep interest in this particular branch of earth science. Its format and the wealth of information ensures that its young readers will return to this book again and again.

Laura Brill

We, the Curious Ones

Marion Dane Bauer, illus. Hari & Deepti, pub. Walker Books

Throughout time humans have told stories to make sense of the world around us. As we learn more about science and the universe the stories change to reflect our understanding. This large format book celebrates this journey in verse. The text shows how our beliefs are expanded when there are new discoveries such as the Earth not being flat but being round and the Earth not being the centre of the universe. The language is evocative and the text reads well aloud. Hari & Deepti’s artwork is exceptional. The intricate cut-paper illustrations are awe-inspiring and create a feel of the cosmos. The endpapers are beautiful and each double page has impact and takes us beyond ourselves to wider horizons. I adore the picture that accompanies the Milky Way and the infinity pictures with beautiful colours and swirls. The artists seem to capture the concepts of infinity and mystery.

 

The Afterword tells how the author was inspired by a book about quantum gravity. "As a lifelong storyteller I was fascinated by his discussion of the complex and sometimes fraught relationship between science and story." She outlines key stages where scientists and philosophers have proposed ideas and theories that help us understand our world.  “Every day brings more discovery.”

 

“[O]ur universe is active, vital, changing and growing.

That we are active, vital, changing and growing, too.

That every grain of dust in this universe is amazing.

As we are amazing.

We, the storytellers.

We, the curious ones.”

Where will the journey take us next?

 

A remarkable book that deals with a complex subject - man's evolving relationship to the cosmos - in a way that is accessible and thought-provoking.

Brenda Marshall

What a Rock Can Reveal

Maya Wei-Haas, illus. Sonia Pulido, pub. Phaidon

What a Rock Can Reveal belongs to the group of information books which combines effectively written information with impressive creative work in a child-friendly and visually attractive style. It offers a clear, but not simplistic, introduction to geology through the description of rocks, the processes that lead to their formation and an overview of what rocks can tell us about our planet. The language includes specific terminology but is not overwhelming.

 

By the author’s own admission, the content of the book can only offer an introduction to the discipline but hopes to spark the same curiosity and interest that led her to nurture her own love for rocks and fossil into earning a PhD in Earth Science and to forge a career as a writer and explorer. Her enthusiasm and passion for the topic are obvious.

 

This is the first book for Wei-Haas which is aimed at children in Primary education and invites them to take a look at simple stones and rocks to imagine the journey each of them has completed or is completing, mapping journeys that include the core of the planet and the highest mountains. A variety of minerals are mentioned as well as the processes that led them to become stones; fossils and tectonic plates feature too, with strikingly illustrated double spread pages showing volcanic activity. My favourite is the one depicting the impact of a meteorite on Earth, but all of them complement and enhance the information effectively. Other planets are considered, as they are a source of further information about the history of our own, while career paths in geology which may appeal to keen young readers are mentioned too.

Laura Brill

Wilding: How to Bring Wildlife Back, An Illustrated Guide

Isabella Tree, illus. Angela Harding, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

Damage to nature hits the news headlines almost daily and is a local as well as global problem. In her heartfelt introduction, Tree explains that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. “Never has there been a more important time to engage in nature and its recovery” she notes - nor a more important book to help achieve this than Wilding: how to bring wildlife back, an illustrated guide.

 

Wilding was previously published as an award-winning non-fiction book for adults and, although this new, fully illustrated, stunningly produced version is aimed at children, adults will very definitely love it too! It charts the story of the experimental rewilding project at Knepp in West Sussex, showing what happens when you take an exhausted, over farmed piece of land and allow - and encourage - nature to take over.

 

This illustrated reimagining of the adult original explains clearly, and beautifully, how rewilding can work to reverse decline and shows the close connections between habitat and species. Each double page spread follows a different plant, bird or animal which has returned to, or been reintroduced, and thrived at Knepp: everything from bats, bees and beavers to Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs, previously extinct large tortoiseshell butterflies and even white storks. The rewilding project is recorded here, not just in Tree’s highly readable, factual account with her own personal anecdotes, but through Angela Harding’s stunning mix of striking linocuts, watercolours and sketches. Maps, a timeline and photographs show the scale - and the rapid success - of the project, which isn’t over yet. Tree’s hope is that there will be “many more Knepps” and this timely, rallying cry of a book concludes with lots of easily-do-able ways for the reader to rewild their own outdoor spaces as well as a glossary and comprehensive resource list for further research and action.

 

Wilding is narrative non-fiction at its finest, perfect to read as a story or to dip in and out of. It’s a real treat of a book which deserves to be written into every primary reading curriculum, and should be in every KS2 primary classroom, science topic box and school library. Secondary school libraries need to stock this too, science and art departments will make brilliant use of it. Wilding will also make the perfect gift book for nature lovers and would-be rewilders. It is an exciting and powerful read, infinitely inspiring and bursting with hope that we can all make a difference and the conviction that real change is possible.

Eileen Armstrong

Wildlife Crossings: Protecting Animal Pathways Around the World

Catherine Barr, illus. Christiane Engel, pub. Otter-Barry Books

Catherine Barr has written 35 books, studied ecology and worked for Greenpeace. She lives near the Welsh Hills where she writes books to spark questions, inspire curiosity and provoke action to protect the natural world. She is fascinated by nature and particularly the power of words. Christiane Engel supplies captivating graphics that portray the sad stories of species under threat and conversely the happy solutions to these problems, all in the turn of a page.

 

The world is criss-crossed by ancient paths where endless journeys have been made by 8.7 million species searching for food, water, mates and safe places to breed. Humans are breaking up this natural world into inaccessible pieces with busy highways, cities, farms and fences. Ancient natural habitats are becoming isolated patches of land. Rivers that have been dammed remain inaccessible. How to resolve this catastrophic creep of destruction with wildlife pathways, is a heartening story. Young readers just might be goaded into taking up the cudgels on behalf of wildlife conservation.

 

Small vividly recounted snippets of text speckle the pictures, making the illustrations doubly memorable; for example, “Elephants can smell water over ten miles away”, “Within weeks of hatching in the Arctic, spoonies fly south for 50 hours without stopping”, “In just 50 years, freshwater migratory fish populations have fallen by 93%”. The demise of elephants, hedgehogs, spoonies, gibbons, freshwater salmon, bears and cougars is related.  Enquiring minds will have a field day and the uninterested just might become interested. This book can be a textbook or just a superb story. A bedtime read or a reference book for 6–12-year-olds.

Elizabeth Negus

Your Sense-ational Human Body

Emma Young, illus. John Devolle, pub. Bloomsbury

You’ve probably always been taught that you have five senses: hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch. Well, that isn’t quite right! You actually have more than five senses - there are in fact thirty-two senses that the human body relies on to function! This book explores them all and explains why they are all essential to us being able to function correctly.

 

In your eyes, rod cells and cone cells have different jobs in terms of what they sense and how they control light and colour whereas taste is not just down to one simple element which decides whether we like brussels sprouts with our Christmas dinners or not, but more detailed elements such as tasting saltiness or sourness – did you know that we don’t just taste with our tongues? We can even taste on the insides of our bodies with our brains, guts and pancreas!

 

Your Sense-ational Human Body is a fascinating read for any budding young scientist who is interested in how the wonderful human body works. Whilst the book shares fantastic information, it does it in a light-hearted way which is easy to relate to. It is accessible for younger readers due to the level of content and Emma Young being aware of the depth of knowledge her target readers will be able to understand. There are brilliant touches such as explanations for how to pronounce trickier words and a glossary at the end of the book so that readers can understand key terms.

 

This book is cleverly thought out with double-page spreads that explore different groups of senses that relate to each other. The illustrations complement the text boxes that contain information and show the different parts of the body which are affected by certain senses that are being described. There are also plenty of fun illustrations depicting how the senses work. Each and every page is colourful and engaging; there is just the right amount of information to digest!

 

This is an engaging read which will extend any child’s understanding of the senses.

Tom Joy

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