Non-fiction review: Shadow Monsters & Courageous Hearts by Hayley Graham, illustrated by Tor Allen

Cover image by Tor Allen, published by Little Steps Publishing

As we see increasing reports in the media about the numbers of children suffering with mental health disorders, I am sure that this accessible text by experienced child psychotherapist, Hayley Graham, will be welcomed by many professionals working with children and young people, as well as parents and carers. This book is aimed at adults to enable them to start conversations with young people about mental health issues and is designed in a way that makes its use straightforward and accessible.

In the preface, the author is candid about experiencing her own mental health issues in her teens, following the loss of her mother, and how this has shaped her desire to help others. The book is in part a distillation of her own experiences combined with her lifelong love of stories. The format is interesting and I think many readers will find it easier to use than ploughing through a jargon-heavy psychotherapy text. Hayley Graham presents five emotionally meaningful short stories, each one carefully constructed to help children and their significant adults make sense of particular aspects of mental health. They are gentle stories, featuring animal protagonists and unpick the triggers to certain behaviours in an easily comprehensible way. The distinctive watercolour illustrations by Tor Allen add greatly to the experience of sharing these stories with a young person. Each story is followed by some suggested questions to encourage an open conversation. Then at the end of the book each story has a corresponding chapter which clearly explains the neuroscience behind each of the featured mental health challenges, providing practical techniques to help manage the issue.

The topics covered by the stories are: trauma, anxiety and OCD, attachment, shame and loss. There are top tips on how to begin talking about difficult topics and each of the stories provides the vocabulary which enables feelings and experiences to be expressed. At a time when mental health services are stretched and school staff are often left to try to deal with issues for which they have little or no training, I think that Shadow Monsters and Courageous Hearts will be a valuable resource.

You can view teachers’ notes for this book on the Little Steps Publishing website here.

I am most grateful to Little Steps for sending me a copy of Shadow Monsters and Courageous Hearts which I am very happy to recommend to teachers, librarians, school nurses and counsellors and anyone working to help children find the language to talk about mental health issues.

Non-fiction from Noodle Juice Books – January 2023

I was super-thrilled to return home from work on my last day before Christmas leave and find a second package of books waiting for me courtesy of the new children’s publisher NoodleJuice Books. The two books within fully captured my attention, and I think that they will make excellent additions to primary school libraries or classroom collections or home book collections when they are published in January.

From the ‘little book Big Idea’ series, What is Money? will provide answers to the most inquisitive child who wants to explore this topic. The format of the two books that I have now had the pleasure to read from this series, makes the information easily accessible for children of 6 years and above. Each double page spread poses a question, exactly the sort of query asked by curious children when perhaps they’ve heard something on the news or overheard an adult conversation and want to know: what are taxes? how does money grow? or is money good? The explanations begin with a very short paragraph written in plain English which is then enhanced by small blocks of text accompanied by eye-catching illustrations. The range of questions on the subject of money is comprehensive, ranging from the purely factual to the more philosophical aspects of the good and bad outcomes that individuals can create depending on the way that they choose to use their money.

This combination of Sarah Walden’s age appropriate, clear explanations and the engaging artwork of Katie Rewse allow children the time and space to explore the topic of money and allow them to take the first steps in understanding this complex and essential factor of human society. I am so impressed at the ambition of this book and can see it being enjoyed by certain children in Key Stage 1 and used extensively in PHSE and citizenship lessons and discussions in Key Stage 2 of primary schools. It will certainly be a valuable addition to any school or home collection.

All the World’s a Stage: A Celebration of the Value of Creativity is a glorious, practical guide to performance and fills a big gap in children’s library bookshelves. When I was a primary school librarian and was trying to build a non-fiction collection which catered to the interests of all the children in school, I longed to find a book such as this which would appeal to the talented and creative individuals who loved performing at talent shows or in assemblies, or attended dance classes or music classes or showed flair for art or creative writing. Despite having a scientific background myself, I have been appalled at the low value which seems to have been placed on arts education in recent times. I believe that the UK has fostered creativity in all the arts for many years which in turn has made huge contributions to the prosperity and culture of our nation. This book does a wonderful job of encouraging children to see the value in creativity; presenting information on all forms of performance, from open mic nights to opera. There are timelines of famous musicals; facts about different stage types and famous theatres; and comprehensive details about the film and television industries.

I was particularly impressed by a section towards the end which zooms in on the many different career options available in both film and TV. Starting with a spread entitled: It’s not all greasepaint and applause there then follow pages which detail career options, explaining what the role involves and outlining the skills required for success in the role. This content is presented in coloured blocks with distinctive illustrations, very attractively and clearly laid out in a way which is guaranteed to engage readers of all ages. Readers can learn about a broad range of roles including: being a director, a writer, a set designer or location scout, a special effects technician or a costume designer amongst others. The book ends with straightforward, practical advice on how to make your own film and suggestions of websites for further reading.

I not only applaud Sarah Walden’s ambition in writing this book which is beautifully illustrated by Hannah Li, I give it a standing ovation! I would suggest that it is an essential addition to primary school libraries, Year 6 classroom libraries and Key Stage 3 libraries and drama departments in secondary schools. It would also make a beautiful gift if you happen to know a child who enjoys any kind of performance or creativity.

Both What is Money? and All the World’s a Stage: A Celebration of the Value of Creativity will be published by Noodle Juice Books on 12th January 2023 and I am most grateful to the publishers for my review copies in exchange for an honest review.

2022 Reading Highlights

So here it is; I offer you my highlights from newly published books that I’ve read this year. It is always so difficult to pick out just a few, but these are the books that have stayed in my head and my heart long after I finished reading them. I offer them to you, in case you are looking for a bookish gift and are still wondering what to choose from the huge and tempting selections on the bookshop shelves. From the sixty or so books that I’ve read this year, here are my favourites by age category.

Picture Books: For the youngest readers, this selection provides gentle stories combined with gloriously vibrant illustrations to enjoy every time the covers are opened. Read my reviews for the two Tatty Mouse stories and The Marvellous Doctors for Magical Creatures.

Illustrated Chapter Books: For any young readers who are just gaining their confidence in reading independently, the books in this selection offer entertainment presented in short chapters with the text broken up by illustrations. You can read full reviews of each story by clicking on the links: Wildsmith, The Little Match Girl Strikes Back, Rainbow Grey Eye of the Storm, Edie and the Flits in Paris and Breakfast Club Adventures The Beast Beyond the Fence.

MG Highlights: Three of my favourite MG stories were sequels and so well written that I thoroughly enjoyed them, despite not having read the first in each series: The Unexpected Tale of the Bad Brothers, The Butterfly Club: The Mummy’s Curse and Amari and the Great Game. I hope that Seed might have a sequel, the story certainly ended on a note that cries out for a follow up. Wished by Lissa Evans is absolute perfection, she is one of my favourite authors of both adult and children’s books and I love this story.

Young Teen Highlights: I highly recommend these outstandingly well-crafted novels to readers just moving on from primary to secondary school, looking for immersive and enjoyable reads with rich underlying themes. Reviews are available by clicking the links: War of the Wind, The Raven’s Song, Ghostlight and The Haunted Hills.

The YA books that I have read this year indicate to me that there has been a huge improvement in the scope and quality of books for this readership. These three are superb; a story full of righteous anger told in free verse, a reimagining of Greek myth and a deeply moving reflection on grief. Read my full reviews by clicking on the links: Activist, Her Dark Wings and Aftershocks.

Adult Books: The majority of books that I read in my bookclubs this year were not newly published, Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr I think was published just at the end of 2021, so I am perhaps cheating a little by including it here, but it held me enthralled throughout and I loved the way that the multiple narratives were pulled together at the end. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus was a birthday present and dredged up some long forgotten knowledge from undergraduate studies, made me laugh, made me cry and was the perfect summer holiday read and I can’t even begin to describe the work of genius that is Super-Infinite.

I shall end by thanking the wonderful blogging community that I am a part of, for constant inspiration and encouragement. Thank you to the authors, illustrators and publishers who constantly strive to create books that appeal to all tastes, and grateful thanks to the book PRs who send me review copies. I hope that you’ve enjoyed some of my reading highlights from this year, let me know if you have read any of these in the comments. Wishing all my readers a very happy and peaceful Christmas, however you choose to celebrate during this festive season.

New children’s book publisher – Noodle Juice

What is Philosophy and Elephant Makes a Smell, December 2022 publications from Noodle Juice

It is always good to see new publishers innovating to switch children on to reading, thus I was delighted to receive this dazzling package from new children’s publisher, Noodle Juice Books. The brains behind this operation are husband and wife team, Mark and Sarah Walden, who between them have many years experience in the children’s publishing industry. These first two publications certainly set a high standard and make me very excited about a new stream of fantastic book choices for young readers.

Firstly we have Elephant Makes a Smell, a vibrant, witty, rhyming board book on the subject of manners! The fabulous illustrations by Mr Griff portray the humour in the many malodorous situations created by elephant’s antics. The choice of an elephant to depict the smelly conditions caused by some thoughtless behaviours is sure to make little children smile, and elephant’s cute animal friends with their nose pegs and breathe-holding expressions will be very appealing. The humorous rhymes bear repeated reading, which I suspect will be demanded by youngsters who will be awaiting the final line with glee!

The second title is What is Philosophy? which is the first in a series called Little Book Big Idea. This is written by the Noodle Juice team and illustrated by Katie Rewse, in a format suitable for children aged from 5 upwards. Each double-page spread poses one question with multiple answers expressed in just a few words adjacent to a clear illustration. The artwork depicts settings that will be familiar to a young readership such as classrooms and playgrounds, helping to contextualise the information. I love the effort that has been put into ensuring that all children will be able to recognise themselves in this book, and the range of questions and answers are likely to satisfy the most curious young reader. My particular favourite page poses the question, “what should I say?” and is filled with answers which encourage kindness and thoughtfulness when choosing which words to use. With a clear and comprehensive glossary at the back, this is a beautifully produced non-fiction book which I would highly recommend to any primary school library, Key Stage One classroom or home containing inquisitive children.

I am most grateful to Noodle Juice Books and Antonia Wilkinson PR for my gifted copies of these books in exchange for an honest review.

Non-fiction Review: The Invisible World of Germs by Isabel Thomas

Cover image by Geraldine Sy and Ana Seixas, published by OUP, May 2022

The latest in the Very Short Introductions series provides answers to many questions that children and adults might have after the past two years sitting through news briefings about viruses, vaccines and R numbers. Isabel Thomas is a first class science communicator, never talking down to her readership, but presenting scientific information and vocabulary with absolute clarity, leaving readers enlightened and satisfied. This book has been intelligently designed with photos; illustrated diagrams and cartoon strip inserts by Geraldine Sy and Ana Seixas; and shout-outs to introduce new vocabulary and concepts. Information is broken into bite-sized chunks with clever use of colour and layout, so that complex ideas can be understood. The overall package delivers a comprehensive education of the microbial world in under 100 small format pages.

It is split into eight chapters which provide a history of the scientific research that led to our present day understanding of microbes, the effect of different microbes on the human body, immunology, medicines and the positive uses of microbes in our world. I particularly liked the use of regular features throughout the book such as Germ Hero, which provided single sentence biographies of scientists who had made breakthrough discoveries; and Speak Like a Scientist where key scientific terms were explained. As you would expect from a great non-fiction book, there is a glossary at the end.

As a librarian working in the health sector, I am always delighted to find books which provide evidence-based information that is accessible and informative for a wide readership. An informed population is likely to be one that is better able to contribute to the management of their own health and less likely to fall for misinformation. The Invisible World of Germs … and its impact on our lives would be suitable for upper Key Stage 2 classrooms, as well as secondary school settings, and also provides useful information for adult readers; I highly recommend that you read it.

I am most grateful to OUP for sending me a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Science Week Review: Beetles for Breakfast by Madeleine Finlay and Jisu Choi

Cover art by Jisu Choi, published by Flying Eye Books 2021

To mark this year’s #ScienceWeek I thought I would write a long-overdue review of this feast for the brain: Beetles for Breakfast, written by Madeleine Finlay, illustrated by Jisu Choi and published at the end of 2021 by Flying Eye Books. This exploration of the application of biological technology to our planet’s future was first brought to my attention in a review written by Anne Thompson, published on her blog A Library Lady which prompted me to order a copy.

This fabulous book is packed with facts and possibilities, encouraging young readers to consider everyday situations and the application of biological sciences to make life on earth sustainable in the future. The science is so compelling that although the book has been written at a level accessible to primary school children, it has engaged a teen studying biology at A level and this health librarian who studied biological sciences many years previously! The short panels of text explain the scientific principles in clear, straightforward language and specific scientific vocabulary is presented in bold font and defined in a glossary. Thus children gain valuable knowledge without being bamboozled by jargon.

I really enjoyed the structure of this book, each chapter takes on a familiar location, for example: At School, At the Beach, On the Farm and has an explainer spread, followed by spreads which delve into the future technologies which could be applied to each topic in increasing depth. The ecological problems that we currently face are explained with great clarity, and creative solutions that have been investigated or postulated by scientists are explored. Every page is fully illustrated in the quirky, retro style of Jisu Choi and there are so many details on every spread that children are likely to return to this book very often to spot new details in every chapter. I would like to congratulate the designer because the text is absolutely readable on every panel of every page, which I have not always found to be the case in highly-coloured non-fiction books.

The opening chapter which discusses the “beetles for breakfast” concept is absolutely fascinating in its examination of future sustainable food sources. I can imagine this topic along with many others (including the many prospective uses of poo) proving to be utterly compelling for curious young minds. Hopefully some young readers will contribute their energies and skills to making the ideas in the “future thinking” chapter at the end of the book become a reality.

Beetles for Breakfast definitely needs to be in every primary school library and Key Stage 2 classroom and not just for Science Week!