Non-Fiction

Review: Odd Science – Brilliant Bodies by James Olstein.

Review: Odd Science – Brilliant Bodies by James Olstein.

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Brains, bones, and bogies. Our bodies are brilliant and there is so much we don’t know about ourselves. 

Did you know that your teeth are as hard as a shark’s? That the muscles in your oesophagus could push food into your stomach even if you were hanging upside down? Did you know that stomach acid is powerful enough to dissolve metal? Between the trivia and the fantastic illustrations, this is the kind of book which hooks the reader and keeps them flicking. 

The genius of this is some of the facts would be covered by a standard biology lesson, while others would probably be classed as trivia. Once hooked, the reader doesn’t care which is which and will absorb information without question. 

The books in this series are a lovely size, perfect for slipping into a backpack or holding with smaller hands. 

I have reviewed a book in this series before and was impressed with the retro-style illustrations and limited colour palette. The energy and humour keep the book right up to date, and the overall effect is striking. This is the sort of book which adults want to buy for children just because of the design. It would also appeal to a broad age-range because it is impossible to resist picking the book up. 

A great addition to a series which makes scientific facts fun. 

 

Thanks to Pavilion Books and Catherine Ward PR for my gifted copy of Odd Science – Brilliant Bodies. Opinions my own. 

Non-Fiction

Review: Rise Up by Amanda Li. Illustrated by Amy Blackwell.

Review: Rise Up by Amanda Li. Illustrated by Amy Blackwell.

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From pilots to musicians. Chess players to campaigners. Read the stories of children and young adults who have risen to the top of their field, and think about ways to learn from their stories. 

Books of inspirational stories have become popular in recent years. At times I wonder if the meaning of the word has been lost. In the media at least, the world inspirational is brought out without thought to what it truly means – that we can learn from these people. That before their names were known, they were ordinary people who put in extraordinary effort and dedication. 

Rise Up acknowledges this. Rather than reading like a list of impossibly heroic figures, it recognises the journeys each of its subjects took and suggests starting points for young readers who want to develop their own understanding of a particular field. 

The book features modern-day heroes like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai alongside historical figures such as Frida Kahlo and Louis Braille. The subjects represent a vast range of talents and areas, and it is lovely to see artists and musicians alongside the usual public speakers and activists. What these subjects have in common is the sheer number of hours they have put into their passion. Recognising the hard work and skill of artists has never been more important because some politicians behave as if arts are only hobbies. 

The stories are told in a narrative, taking a moment in each subject’s life to represent their wider tale. After each story, activities and fact files encourage the reader to explore an area for themselves. This layout encourages dipping in and makes the book perfect to read in little windows of time. It would be perfect for a classroom or library display, as well as for readers who enjoy real-life tales. 

Amy Blackwell’s illustrations bring the tales to life. They are bold and full of energy, and exactly the sort of pictures which make a reader curious.

This book stands out because it is aware of its readers. People who read a book of inspiring stories want to feel they could make an impression too. Rise Up doesn’t pretend that doing so is easy, but it does suggest it is possible. It strikes exactly the right balance and will inspire lots of young people to find their own passions. 

 

Thanks to Buster Books for my gifted copy of Rise Up. Opinions my own.

 

blog tour

Blog Tour: Seeing Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Amber Lee Dodd at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

About The Deathless Girls: 

deathless girlsThey say the thirst of blood is like a madness – they must sate it. Even with their own kin.

On the eve of her divining, the day she’ll discover her fate, seventeen-year-old Lil and her twin sister Kizzy are captured and enslaved by the cruel Boyar Valcar, taken far away from their beloved traveller community.

Forced to work in the harsh and unwelcoming castle kitchens, Lil is comforted when she meets Mira, a fellow slave who she feels drawn to in a way she doesn’t understand. But she also learns about the Dragon, a mysterious and terrifying figure of myth and legend who takes girls as gifts.

They may not have had their divining day, but the girls will still discover their fate…

(Synopsis from Hachette Children’s) 

 

I was honoured to be invited to take part in the blog tour for The Deathless Girls, and I knew instantly what I wanted to write about. Having seen Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Amber Lee Dodd together at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I wanted to share their words with you. 

Although I will write a full review of The Deathless Girls in a seperate post, I thought it would be nice to reflect on how the event informed my reading of the story. 

 

Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Amber Lee Dodd at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

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Amber Lee Dodd (left) and Kiran Millwood Hargrave at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2019. [Photograph taken from KMH’s Twitter Feed. Thanks to both authors for permission.] 
‘I read books,’ said award-winning author Kiran Millwood Hargrave, speaking on 24.08.2019 at the 2019 Edinburgh Book Festival alongside Amber Lee Dodd, ‘because nothing much happened in suburbia.’

This not only earned an appreciative laugh from the adults in the audience, it was a sentiment I could relate to. Growing up in Outer London, there was a grey age. Younger children had to be looked after, and so got regular visits to Epping Forest and local parks and even into the city. Failing that, there was soft-play. Between twelve and sixteen or so, we were old enough to entertain themselves but not so big to go on real adventures. The creativity which came out of my friendship group at that age was never matched at any other time. Boredom allowed us to retreat into our dreams.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s books conjure dreams of magical places. Of lands covered in snow, and faraway islands with magic volcanoes. Amber Lee Dodd’s stories are set on Scottish Islands, although she referenced her childhood on the South East Cost as an inspiration for some of the details.

Rather than the high fantasy which has become popular in the post Harry Potter generation, Millwood Hargrave’s books centre around folklore and fairy tales. There is something about them which seems to hark back to the very roots of storytelling. It would be as wonderful to share them aloud and listen to the rhythm of her words as to read them from cover to cover. Although I have yet to read Amber Lee Dodd’s story, this seems to be another thing the two writers have in common. I was drawn right in by her introduction, in which a child undergoes a ritual visit to a magic rock which happens to every islander on their 11th birthday.

Neither author writes about magic which can be learned. Rather, there is magic in their worlds, and deep inside their characters.

According to Millwood Hargrave, these are some of the first details she learns about a story. As well as learning enough about a setting for her readers to be able to ‘relate to the world’ she finds ways to ‘let magic in’. It is interesting to relate this to her second novel, The Island At The End Of Everything, which is purely historical. It could be said that the traditions and details which some people experience more richly than others are an everyday sort of beauty, although this is only my own interpretation.

Both authors were aware of their young audience and generous with help and advice on starting stories. Neither plans stories in detail – Amber Lee Dodd spoke of finding her characters’ voices and imagining where they might be by the end. Kiran Millwood Hargrave goes in with no idea where the story will end but spoke of the power of images to generate ideas.

They agreed that good writing comes out of the bad and encouraged aspiring writers not to be afraid.

I was touched when they offered the microphone to children in the audience not only to ask questions but to answer one. Participants had different ideas about what made a great introduction, from taking the time to introduce a character to making a world real with sensory details. Millwood Hargrave likes to jump straight in with as little explanation as possible, while Amber Lee Dodd believed a good first chapter helped the reader to hear a character’s voice.

The two authors were well paired. Their work explores similar themes, but their approach to writing was slightly different. The conversation between them was a reminder that stories are, first and foremost, about people and places, and that time spent understanding character or setting is part of the creative process.

What about The Deathless Girls, the novel due out in September which I have been invited to talk about as part of this blog tour?

My reading of The Deathless Girls is richer for having listened to its creator. Although the event focused on Millwood Hargrave’s middle-grade output, I can see in The Deathless Girls the same respect and love for place and tradition. Her characters come to life through their actions and responses to different situations.

Before the end of the first chapter, I felt as if I had fallen into a new world. This deep immersion in a story, so easy to find as a bored child, is harder to discover as adults, but when we do, it leaves a little part of itself behind with us so that we always remember the story.

That is what makes Kiran Millwood Hargrave a true storyteller.

 

Thanks to edpr for inviting me to write about The Deathless Girls as part of a promotional blog tour, and for my copy of the book. Opinions about the story remain my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Lost Fairytales by Isabel Otter and Ana Sender.

Review: The Lost Fairytales by Isabel Otter and Ana Sender.

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Once upon a time, there was a girl at the centre of the story who didn’t need rescuing … 

If you’ve ever fancied a fairy tale with a strong heroine, look no further. This anthology contains 20. Better than that, these stories haven’t been rewritten to change the roles of the characters. They always featured strong females. 

The range of stories is brilliant, with tales from different cultures around the world. I loved seeing the range of influences, and also similarities between the tales – bold eagles, special presents and magic wells recur in stories from all over the world. 

IMG_E9890It also contains an old favourite of mine. Tam Lin, here known as The Company Of Elves, is about a girl called Janet who rides out at Halloween to prevent her love Tam Lin from being paid as a tithe to hell. She’s up against another strong woman, the Fairy Queen. And we’re not talking innocent fairies here. This Queen turns Tam into a series of animals which turn on Janet, but she holds tight. I’ve heard this in folk music many times, but rarely see it included in fairytale anthologies. 

A section at the back contains some thinking points about each story. These are designed to motivate young readers and to encourage readers to think about what makes the heroines so strong. There are also some useful summaries to each story which explain its background and origins. 

The book is illustrated in a way which makes it irresistible. I particularly love how details and colours are used to give an impression of the different landscapes, and how the page colours coordinate with the illustrations. This apparently tiny thing makes each tale feel unique and separate from the others. 

This beautiful anthology stands out for its range of world fiction, and for the heroines who prove that there are different ways to be strong and brave. It would make a lovely addition to any bookshelf and is going on my list of Christmas gift recommendations. 

 

Thanks to Caterpillar Books for my gifted copy of The Lost Fairytales. Opinions my own.

blog tour

Blog Tour: The Boy With The Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson

Blog Tour: The Boy With The Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson

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We Can All Be Butterflies – by author Victoria Williamson 

‘Is it a book for girls?’

This was one of the most annoying, and surprisingly frequently-encountered questions I was asked by parents and teachers when my debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, was published last year. ‘No,’ I’d reply with increasing weariness, ‘The main characters are girls, but it’s a story that boys will be able to relate to just as much.’ After all, how can you gender human experiences such as war, loss, friendship, hope, and redemption?

This time round, with my second novel, The Boy with the Butterfly Mind, there should be no confusion for adults intent on pushing gender stereotypes and so-called ‘gender-appropriate’ products on children. This is definitely a book for boys too. We all know it is, because it’s got the word ‘boy’ in the title. But wait… It’s also got pictures of butterflies on the cover. And aren’t butterflies a bit, well… girly?

The adult obsession, or more specifically, the marketers’ obsession, with categorising everything from clothes and toys, to animals and inanimate objects as either ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’, results in parents unwilling to buy anything for their children from the ‘wrong’ section of the shop in case their child gets bullied about it in school. Girls may seem to get let off lightly in this respect – a girl with an Avengers obsession, even though all but one of the superheroes in the film are men, won’t face the same amount of taunting in school as a boy who loves My Little Pony. But this is due to a deeper bias, one that still insists that girls, and by extension anything aimed at girls, is ‘lesser’. Films, toys and products aimed at boys still have a ‘prestige’ factor that makes it acceptable, and understandable, that girls should take an interest in them too. When it comes to books, while boys are allowed to turn their noses up at stories featuring female characters as ‘girly’, girls are still supposed to empathise with male characters without expecting anything approaching equal representation in return.

According to research by the Observer:

‘Male characters are twice as likely to take leading roles in children’s picture books and are given far more speaking parts than females, according to Observer research that shines a spotlight on the casual sexism apparently inherent in young children’s reading material.

In-depth analysis of the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017, carried out by this paper with market research company Nielsen, reveals the majority are dominated by male characters, often in stereotypically masculine roles, while female characters are missing from a fifth of the books ranked.’

Children in this country learn from a young age that animals and insects in stories have a gender. More often or not, that gender is male, unless of course that character is seen as ‘pretty’, in which case it’s automatically categorised as female. Butterflies, ladybirds, peacocks and tropical birds are often gendered as female, which makes little sense when in the real world it’s usually the male of the species who has the pretty wings or the beautiful feathers.

It was interesting this summer to see children playing who hadn’t been influenced by Western marketing to the same extent. I spent four weeks volunteering as a reading assistant with The Book Bus, visiting schools in Zambia to run story and craft sessions. One of the books that proved very popular was The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and the children enjoyed colouring in butterflies to take home. At the end of the session, most of them, boys and girls, used the pipe cleaner body and tail to attach the butterflies to their hair. The boy at the bottom of this picture was the first of the children to do this, while the boy on the right had just taken his off to adjust his pipe cleaner.

Butterflies - Book Murmuration Blog

No one is suggesting these children aren’t bombarded with gender stereotypes every day of their lives, but with very limited access to electricity, television, films and books, they hadn’t absorbed the marketer’s message that butterflies are considered things that only girls should adorn themselves with. After all, in real life, a butterfly is equally likely to land on the head of a boy or a girl, so why should only girls wear them?

Gendering animals as predominantly male in the stories we tell might not seem like much of a problem, but as Jess Day, who campaigns to end gender stereotyping with the Let Toys Be Toys movement says:

“It is preparing children to see male dominance as normal, so that when women do less than half of the talking, that still feels like too much to some people. And with so few female roles, there’s also not enough space for the female characters to be multi-dimensional. I think the lack of female villains reflects a wider cultural discomfort with women who are not well-behaved and good.”

If girls and boys are to take equal roles in society – in politics, science, management, and in the home – then they have to see all of these roles as open to them from a young age. Gendering books, films, toys, clothes, and even butterflies as ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ limits the choices that children have open to them, and in turn, limits the career paths and opportunities they believe are open to them when they’re older. As adults, we can make all the difference in helping children overcome the pink and blue ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ market that surrounds them, by offering them alternatives to these limited choices.

And next time you see a see a book with ‘girl’ in the title or butterflies on the front cover, just ask ‘Is it for children?’ instead.

 

Thanks to Victoria Williamson for your beautiful article.

Non-Fiction

Review: Out And About – Night Explorer.

Review: Out And About – Night Explorer.

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There’s plenty of fun to be had when the sun’s gone down. Outside our windows, when the night sky is shining, a whole host of animals and plants are raising their heads. Grab a torch, a grown-up, and a jacket and explore the nighttime with this handy, pocket-sized book. 

With ideas about ways to have fun out in the garden and further beyond, this is a wonderful guide which encourages safety, respect for nature and a bucket load of curiosity. 

From traditional skills like identifying animal tracks and following scent trails, to instant fun like glow in the dark paint, there is bound to be a suitable suggestion for every occasion. 

As regular readers know, I am all for books which put us back in touch with nature. Over recent generations, we have lost touch with the natural world to the extent that knowledge is being forgotten and empathy for other species is at a low. My Granddad, for example, recognised bird songs by ear, a skill which few people today have. The great news is that between the young people who are fighting for our planet, and the wave of books which has come in the past year, there has never been a better time to discover the wildlife on our doorstep. 

This would be a lovely book to slip into a satchel, and it would also make a great stocking-filler for anyone who is getting ahead on the Christmas planning. A guide book, a torch and a compass and you’re all set to go (even if it isn’t beyond the front gate). 

The design is neat and attractive. The illustrations manage to be cute while not being sentimental, and examples are clear enough for the reader to follow. I love the rounded corners and elastic band, which make this feel like a journal or an adventurer’s log-book. 

With a focus on nighttime wildlife, this offers something different to other nature books I have seen, and it is clearly designed to encourage young people to get outdoors. 

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Ltd for my gifted copy of Out And About – Night Explorer. Opinions my own.

Non-Fiction

Review: The Language Of The Universe by Colin Stuart and Ximo Abadía.

Review: The Language Of The Universe by Colin Stuart and Ximo Abadía.

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Maths can feel confusing. At times in my childhood, it felt like nothing more than memorising a string of processes, the use of each was more obscure than the last. Yet maths is the language of the universe. It is written into nature, into the laws of physics and into modern-day technology. 

This beautiful book introduces the places where maths can be found. It reminds us that maths is about more than examinations. It is a magical, complex language. One waiting to be explored. 

Four sections divide the book into topics: 

  • Maths In The Natural World
  • Physics, Chemistry and Engineering. 
  • Space. 
  • Technology. 

Within each section, different concepts are explored through beautiful double-page spreads. 

There are gems of information inside this book which will make you look at the world in a whole new way. Did you know that female pufferfish examine the patterns a male makes in the sand on the ocean floor? The female looks for the most geometrically perfect patterns when selecting a partner. And did you know that you could lift the Earth up and turn it (if only you were positioned with a lever billions of light-years long)? Fascinating facts like this make it impossible to not want to know the principles. 

The illustration and design is undoubtedly part of the attraction of this book. Pages are cleverly divided into different sections with shapes and colours which attract the eye. The retro-style pictures are attractive and fun and make spreads which deal with complex ideas feel more welcoming to novices. 

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What also makes the book fantastic is that is doesn’t once water down its subject matter. The book is certainly aimed at a younger audience, but it doesn’t ever give the impression that children might be reluctant to learn. Sections of text are kept short – one or two paragraphs at a time – but the principles are explained and illustrated in sensible and engaging language. The book takes its readers seriously, unlike so many books on complex subjects which resort to heavy-handed humour to engage readers. If information is presented in an engaging way, people are often eager to know more. 

A stunning introduction to the way mathematics underpins our world. Numbers are part of our history, of our make-up and of our communication. Books like this remind us that to study them is a great adventure. 

 

Thanks to Big Picture Press for my gifted copy of The Language Of The Universe. Opinions my own.