Non-Fiction · Young Adult Reviews

Review: Dear Ally, How Do I Write A Book? by Ally Carter

Review: Dear Ally, How Do I Write A Book? by Ally Carter

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Have a novel manuscript? Have a few scraps of writing with no idea where to start? Whether you are a regular writer or someone just setting out, Ally Carter has said it all. 

No theory book will make you a writer, this is true, but everybody needs to learn the craft, and everybody needs to learn from experienced writers. 

Part theory book, part reflective autobiography on the writing life, this is the book which has been missing from the creative writing shelves. I don’t say that lightly. With people who have barely finished their first story penning advice, it might seem like a saturated market. As somebody who has spent the past couple of years working seriously on her writing craft, I can tell you from experience that this book does two or three things which I haven’t found before: 

 

  • It introduces the basic theory in one volume. Certainly, there are books which talk about more than one element of story craft, especially screenwriting books, but they tend to be of more use with a couple of manuscripts completed. Ally Carter’s novel is a lovely refresher for practicing writers, but it is also accessible to the total novice. (For the sake of simplicity I am using the terms ‘novice’ and ‘practicing’ to differentiate between people who have never completed a story and people who are not yet published but have drafted enough to be familiar with the most common theories.) 

 

  • It combines theory with the kind of down to earth, pragmatic advice previously found on YouTube. There are some things only time will teach a writer. Like how a novel takes the best part of a thousand hours. Minimum. Like that the first novel-sized thing you write probably won’t be novel-shaped, the first story you write probably won’t be agented, and the first thing you have agented won’t necessarily be published. Like how one person’s process is entirely different to another person’s. Often novice writers don’t want to hear these things. It breaks every myth they have ever heard (about inspiration, for example, or gifted people) and it can set their goals back by years. However, learning from more experienced writers is liberating. It is quite often the moment where people realise they aren’t doing anything wrong. 

 

  • The voice is pitched at teens – in the most non-patronising, realistic and totally brilliant way. This is the book I needed at 17 when I tried to write but had no idea how to turn my scrappy ideas into novels. As an adult reader, I found the book accessible and handy, but it would have meant the world to me as a teenager to find a book by an author whose name I recognised. 

 

Examples are drawn from Ally Carter’s career, and from the experience of guest writers. While most of these were American YA authors, plenty has been published to huge success in the UK and their names will be familiar to voracious readers. Regardless of this, hearing from multiple authors on the same subject gives a wider lens to each answer. Creative writing books to often claim to have the answer. This book encourages the reader to find a way of working which suits them. 

I would recommend this to any writer starting out, to practicing and emerging writers who need a gentle reminder that it doesn’t all happen at once, and especially to young people who would like to know where to begin. 

All the theory, expertise and gentle encouragement you ever needed to get going. A fantastic book about creative writing from a successful Young Adult author. 

 

Thanks to Orchard Books for my gifted copy of Dear Ally, How Do I Write A Book? Opinions my own.

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Non-Fiction

Review: The True History Of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe.

Review: The True History Of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe.

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With Easter coming up, and religious considerations aside, our minds are turning to one thing. Chocolate. Whether or not you are buying an Easter egg, it is impossible to escape those cravings. But how much do you really know about the origins of chocolate? 

The True History Of Chocolate begins with the fact that most of what we think we know about chocolate is an ‘accepted fiction’ – something which is so widely believed that it is accepted as fact. Added to that, many people’s true knowledge dates back only to Christopher Columbus and his invasion of Mexico. 

Beginning with botany, and the history of the plants from which the cocoa bean is cultivated, the book explains how cacao pods are harvested from the cacao tree before the cocoa butter is extracted. This explanation of the science was useful because we trace the growth of the tree across the centuries and learn how different societies processed the cocoa butter.

Given that knowledge of chocolate in early civilizations is limited, a decent portion of the book covered what is known about its role in societies prior to Columbus’s invasion of America. Every society in the book is introduced and the evidence that chocolate was processed is explored. 

Later sections cover chocolate in recent history, and how it went from being an aristocratic parlour drink to a solid product available to the masses. 

The book manages to be both readable and informative. It covers different periods of history and wide geography with ease, linking them all to a single plant and the way it has been processed into different forms of chocolate. If you are looking to expand your non-fiction intake, this popular subject is a brilliant way to start.

 

Published by Thames and Hudson. Thanks for my gifted copy. All opinions my own. 

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: This Or That? by Pippa Goodhart.

Review: This Or That? by Pippa Goodhart.

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What will you choose at the British Museum? Will it be a red toy car or a hot air balloon? A king with a sword or a lady in a gown? Written in a similar style to Pippa Goodhart’s ever popular ‘You Choose’ books, This Or That allows readers a first look at some of the artefacts held by The British Museum. 

The double page spreads are themed by categories familiar to young children including transport, animals, clothes, and toys. These pages are laid out in an attractive format of squares and rectangles, which reminded me of a modern blog layout. 

As well as picking their favourite items, readers can engage in spotting games which are suggested in the text. An index at the back offers readers the names of the objects featured in the book, and a QR code leads to more in-depth information about the artefacts. 

With London an increasingly expensive place to live or visit, it is important that people in all areas have access to information about its museum collections. This early introduction too is inspired. Not only does it allow conversations about what a visit to a museum might involve, but it also allows readers to play their own games of curation. As an additional challenge, it might be nice to challenge readers to come up with a theme and pick objects which would fit that exhibition (ideas for themes include childhood, the great outdoors and entertainment). 

I often say on my blog that reading is about so much more than the words. Or pictures. Time spent feeling rewarded by books, time spent enjoying books as a social activity, only makes us more enthusiastic to engage with reading again. 

The popular format of You Choose is adapted to great effect to introduce a museum collection. Big thumbs-up to this playful approach to non-fiction. 

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Books for my gifted copy of This Or That? Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

5 illustrated books about the great outdoors.

5 illustrated books about the great outdoors.

Outdoor adventures are wonderful at any time of year, but with spring on the way there has never been a better time to put on those wellies or walking boots and embrace the great outdoors.

The books reviewed here are all about nature, but they all focus on a different lens. Which would be of most interest to you? If you were stepping outside today, what would you want to think about or see?

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The Green Giant by Katie Cottle

img_8613Bea is visiting Grandad in the countryside. She loves his wild garden and sitting in the great outdoors. When her dog runs off, Bea discovers a greenhouse full of wild treasures and befriends the Green Giant.

One the Green Giant roamed the city, but it became too grey and difficult to breathe. He gives Bea some seeds in the hope that one day the city will become greener again.

A timely fairytale about the decreasing awareness of nature in urban populations.

img_8614It is not enough to know facts. It takes something more to move humans into action, and that is empathy. Care. As readers empathise with the giant, pushed away from the city by the inaction of humans, they take the first steps into caring about nature.

This is an irresistible book. I adore children’s stories about visitors, particularly ones like the giant whose plight makes us reconsider our own attitudes, but this one stands out with its gentle narrative and a colour-palette of greens and yellows taken straight from the natural world.

Katie Cottle’s publication deal came about after she won a prize, and she is a talent to watch.

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A Walk Through Nature: A Clover Robin peek-through book. Written by Libby Walden. 

Nature is all around us. Over and under and beneath our feet. How often do we take the time to look at the natural world?

img_8596The format of this book allows us to pick a landscape or microhabitat – a beach, the nighttime sky or a single log – and to look closer at the life which might be found in that setting. The second page of every double-page spread has an extra flap. This opens out to reveal a second full-page illustration and a bank of information.

This would make a lovely book for less confident readers. With each fact limited to three or four sentences, it is less daunting than many non-fiction books. That the fact files can be ignored in favour of a rhyming text which runs through the book is another plus. This would make a lovely bedtime book, with the information introduced in little bursts.

I adore the illustrations. A muted background makes them stand out, and I love the visible brushstrokes and different textures. This would be a lovely book to look at ahead of painting, especially studies of leaves and fields.

 

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When The Stars Come Out by Nicola Edwards and Lucy Cartwright.

What is the night? Why does it even happen and how come the moon is there and why do stars appear? 

This book not only answers the questions commonly asked by children about the night, it goes beyond to explore the night time through different lenses. The book is divided into four sections: The Sky At Night, The Earth At Night, Animals At Night and Humans at Night. The chapter divisions work well, allowing the activity in different habits to be explored separately from biological facts about animals. There is also a short introductory section which deals with the physics of sunrise and sunset. 

What strikes me immediately about this volume is that it is visually stunning. Both the illustrations and the design are of the highest quality, and every double-page spread is a feast for the eye. It is the sort of book which you want to open at random and delve into. Leave it in a book corner or face out on a library shelf and it will be snapped up by curious readers. 

It would also be a lovely art prompt, especially because it celebrates the range of colours associated with nighttime. It goes well beyond the midnight black, celebrating lilacs and pale blues and light orange hues. 

There is just enough information on every topic, and what is there is insightful. It never scrimps on depth but challenges the reader with facts which will be new to many adult readers. I also adore the mixture of biology, physics, geography and myth.

A treat for younger and older readers, this will expand the reader’s worldview and encourage them to look harder at the night sky. 

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Beneath The Waves by Helen Ahpornsiri

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Journey through the world’s oceans and take a close up look at their inhabitants.

The art in this book is made from pressed seaweeds, coastal flowers and a smaller number of garden plants. The beauty of it struck me before I had turned a single page. The plants are brought to life, their colours and shapes working together to show animals from under the water and around the seashore.

img_8630The information in this book is divided into four sections: Coast, Open Ocean, Tropics and Polar Waters. These four chapters help readers to understand that, like the land, the waters have different climates depending on where they are in the world. 

Each animal or subject is given two or three paragraphs. Identifying features, diets, habitats and breeding are all introduced.

With STEM subjects sometimes receiving more attention than the arts, I am always delighted to find books which promote the two together. After all, where would science be if people hadn’t once spent time observing and drawing what they saw? Where would technology be if mankind hadn’t learned to imagine?

The illustrations in this book push the bounds of what has been done in children’s literature before. They are extraordinary and worthy of celebration.

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The Lost Book Of Adventure by Unknown Adventurer.

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Imagine getting out into the wilderness. Really getting out, beyond the bounds of the known, and living outdoors.

img_8522This is the ultimate compendium of outdoor survival knowledge, taken from the notebooks of an unknown adventurer. Starting with the basics, form how to pack for camp, this incredible volume offers insights on everything from first aid to rafting to panning for gold.

It is also a love letter. A nostalgia for adventures of the past and a reminder of the skills and knowledge which was once common-place.

Advice and diagrams are alternated with insights into outdoor adventures. This makes the volume friendly and accessible to dreamers as well as to serious explorers. Beautiful colour pictures allow the reader a snapshot of the world which awaits us if only we set foot out of the door.

I am shamelessly in love with this book, which offers me plenty of material and information as an aspiring writer. This would be a priceless resource for starting off adventure stories, and I love the tone of the book which claims to speak from direct experience.

If we as a society are to embrace nature and get back out into the wild, we need to remember the old skills which allowed expeditions in the past. The Lost Book Of Adventure will open new eyes to the outdoors.

 

Many thanks to Little Tiger Press, Quarto Books, Big Picture Press, Pavillion Children’s Books, Catherine Ward PR and Antonia Wilkinson PR for gifting the books reviewed in this feature. Opinions remain my own.

 

 

 

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Titles for International Women’s Day – Brilliant Ideas From Wonderful Women And Born To Ride.

Titles for International Women’s Day – Brilliant Ideas From Wonderful Women And Born To Ride.

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Brilliant Ideas From Wonderful Women by Aitziber Lopez and Luciano Lozano.

Submarine telescopes, Monopoly and Lifeboats. Did you know they were all invented by women? 

Take a look at some inventions, discoveries and innovations which all began in a woman’s mind. This compendium of ideas also celebrates the achievements of women whose names have not always been forefront in design and technology. 

A couple of years ago, there were very few books which celebrated female achievement. Now there is such a wide choice that it can be difficult to know where to begin. This volume is special in that it is also a celebration of creativity and knowledge. It is specifically about women who pursued a solution to an existing problem. From car heaters to a prototype e-reader, the stories behind things we take for granted reveal some fascinating characters. 

img_8409I was particularly interested in the invention of the medical syringe. It is something we have all encountered without giving a second thought. In fact, I prefer not to think about injections, except it turns out that once upon a time they required two hands, meaning an assistant was often required to administer them. Imagine how much worse it would be if the nurse was not able to steady your arm.

The illustrations are expressive and either show the inventions in action or illustrate what life was like without them. Without windscreen wipers, for example, drivers had to stop and wipe the windscreen themselves. The illustration shows a vexed crowd looking on as a bus driver wipes the front down. These humorous pictures will draw readers in and encourage them to question what they might change in the world. 

With a historical bias towards recognising the achievements of men, it is important that we keep showing that everybody is capable of bigger things. A wonderful volume which will open discussion about other people who have created great things or solved everyday problems. 

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Born To Ride by Larissa Theule and Kelsey Garrity-Riley

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What does it take for a girl to do anything? A set of wheels is a good start. 

Louisa Belinda Bellflower lives at a time when the social expectations of girls restrict their activities. Voting is totally out, and riding a bicycle is frowned upon. However, as Louisa has a mind to cycle and she’s not going to let anything get in her way. Not the skirts which can be exchanged for trousers, and certainly not the rumours about ‘bicycle face’. 

Meanwhile, the grown-ups in Louisa’s life are involved in subversive activities of their own. 

A look into the late 1800s and the rise of women’s suffrage movements in America. The most wonderful thing about the book is how the pictures tell a different story to the text. Louisa is certain her cycling will be frowned upon and goes out of her way to hide it, but the pictures show a different story. Louisa is not the only one who wants life to change for women. 

The illustrations continually work in purple. white and a goldish-yellow, which were the colours of the women’s suffrage movements in the USA. I also loved the landscapes. Their winding paths seem to lead off in any possible direction, and they encourage the reader to dream of adventure. 

A book about women’s rights which comes through a specific historical lens. This won my heart with its tenacious heroine and beautiful illustrations. 

 

Thanks to Quarto Publishing PLC for my gifted copy of Brilliant Ideas From Wonderful Women, and to Abrams and Chronicle UK for my copy of Born To Ride. Opinions remain my own.

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Flights Of Fancy – stories, pictures and inspiration from ten Children’s Laureates. (Many authors and illustrators).

Review: Flights Of Fancy – stories, pictures and inspiration from ten Children’s Laureates. (Many authors and illustrators).

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We are all creators. Every one of us has the skill of observation. Of thought. Every one of us is capable of putting something down on paper. 

When we come to do that, it can seem more difficult. 

Flights Of Fancy is packed with stories and poems, plays and pictures from the ten children’s laureates who have inspired children across the UK. As well as being a compendium of creativity full of original work from some of the most beloved creators at work today, the book gets behind the role of Children’s Laureate and looks at the amazing work of laureates past and present. 

The laureateship is awarded every two years to an author or illustrator who has done outstanding work in their field. This person then has the opportunity to promote specific issues or skills related to children’s literature. The position is currently held by Lauren Child, author and illustrator of Charlie And Lola, Clarice Bean and numerous other titles. 

Flights Of Fancy has a profile for every past laureate which details their work and their response to the post. I was particularly interested to read about Anne Fine’s initiative to create beautiful and freely-available bookplates for children to stick in second-hand books. Not every child has access to new books and encouraging children to take ownership of the books which are available to them is a wonderful idea. The bookplates are still available to print at My Home Library

There is also new work from all of the authors and illustrators, including Quentin Blake’s fantastic drawings of flying machines and Jacquline Wilson’s story which is told in the form of a diary. 

The book is also full of tips, games and inspiration to challenge readers to engage with their creativity. From Anthony Browne’s shape game, Julia Donaldson’s word wheel and Malorie Blackman’s ideas about taking a word for a walk, there are plenty of starting points to new creative projects. What I loved most about this book was its emphasis on the similarities between creativity and play. We hear big words like imagination and gifted and creative and think that art is limited to the chosen ones who have been blessed with special powers when actually these people have played and enjoyed their hobbies and engaged with them for great lengths of time. While there is no doubt that professional-level skills take many hours to master, we can all play. We can all communicate. We can all make marks on a page. Some of those works will even be worth sharing with the people around us. 

Flights Of Fancy is an exceptional book which celebrates our creators and encourages everyone to keep in touch with their imaginative side. I would recommend this to children and ‘big children’. This would make a beautiful gift, especially if it was given alongside a sketchbook and a notebook and some pencils. 

 

Many thanks to Walker Books UK for my gifted copy of Flights Of Fancy. Opinions my own.

 

 

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Meet The Pirates by James Davies.

Review: Meet The Pirates by James Davies.

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Yarr! Prepare for a voyage of discovery on the seven seas. Everybody has an image of pirates from films and stories, but who were the real-life pirates across history? What does piracy involve? Meet The Pirates is an accessible and humorous introduction to a favourite topic. 

From the Vikings to the modern day pirates with GPS systems, the book is like  a time-line of piracy. 

img_8171This book continues an already popular series which looks at the periods of history covered by the KS2 curriculum. It is easy to see why the series has taken off. The books are highly visual and the information is broken up by the illustrations. Each page contains a short amount of text. It is easy to make the mistake of looking for non-fiction books which match a child’s fictional reading skills, but readers have limited patience when they are learning new facts. The information needs to be broken up, and what is there needs to be written in such a way that it is engaging and memorable, without skimping on the content. 

The limited colour-palette of the illustrations makes the book look trendy and modern. They still manage to incorporate a lot of information, from the kind of pistol Blackbeard carried to the sails on different ships. The illustrations are as informative as the text. 

I love the features of the book. The title of each topic is written down both sides of every spread, so readers can flick through and find the relevant information with ease. As well as informative illustrations, such as a map of trading routes and an image gallery of different types of ship, there are cartoons and humorous illustrations. The importance of comedy in children’s books can’t be stressed enough. For many readers, these cartoons are the reward for taking in new information.

This will doubtless be a hit with teachers and librarians, but it would also make a lovely introduction to the topic for children who have shown an interest in pirates fictional or otherwise. I am hugely impressed with these books and look forward to sharing my review of Meet The Ancient Greeks. 

 

Thanks to Big Picture Press for my copy of Meet The Pirates.