Review: How Was That Built? written by Roma Agrawal, illustrated by Katie Hickey

Cover illustration by Katie Hickey, published by Bloomsbury 16 September 2021

Today I bring you a review of a stunning non-fiction title, due to be published on 16th September, and I can already say that this will be one of my top five books of 2021! It continues Bloomsbury Publishing’s recent trend of re-working adult non-fiction into a format suitable for both children and also adults who might not have the time to read the heavier text content of the adult version. The author, Roma Agrawal, is a structural engineer who is well known for her contribution to the promotion of the engineering profession and her communication skills make this book soar as high as the skyscrapers she constructs. Her engaging explanations of engineering and construction techniques are perfectly complemented by Katie Hickey’s beautifully precise illustrations. This allows the text to be formatted into bite sized chunks which are easily digestible for younger readers as they are able to read and easily refer to the relevant diagrams.

The language is technical, Roma never patronises her young readers, but explanations are given relating complex engineering principles to scenarios which are easily understood. For example the stresses on a supporting beam are compared to trying to bend a carrot, just one example of suggested activities that can be carried out at home or in the classroom. The book fully explores the multi-disciplinary nature of engineering and construction, within its covers you will learn about architecture, chemistry, computing, geography, geology, mathematics and physics, and their relationship to engineering.

Structurally, the book demonstrates different engineering techniques in the context of a specific building. The challenges of the construction, the materials and equipment used, the geological or geographical hurdles are all examined and a human face is put on the stories with mini biographies of engineering pioneers. For example, The Shard on which Roma worked is used to talk about the challenges of building very tall buildings. The Thames tunnel demonstrates tunnelling techniques; the Sapporo dome is used to talk about constructions with moving parts and the culturally-sensitive Te Matau Ā Pohe bridge shows how to design in an earthquake zone. I have always been fascinated by arches and domes in ancient buildings that I have visited on city breaks and therefore appreciated the explanation of how to build a dome, as illustrated by The Pantheon, a breathtaking building constructed nearly 2000 years ago.

Additionally, there are fascinating pages about construction materials, their evolution and some of the prominent names in their development. Who could have imagined that cement, glass or bricks could be so interesting? The horizon scanning in the section about future building materials also provides interesting facts about biomimicry and robotics.

Text by Roma Agrawal, illustrations by Katie Hickey, published by Bloomsbury Publishing

The challenges of building on ice or under the sea provide two of my favourite sections in the book. The British Antarctic Survey’s Halley VI research station looks like something my children would have constructed from Lego, but has had to factor in so many different elements to cope with the harsh climate of the ice shelf. The undersea Ithaa Restaurant in the Maldives looks utterly fantastic in Katie Hickey’s artwork. Finally, the book ends with an Engineers’ Gallery in which female engineers and engineers from multi-cultural backgrounds are featured, continuing the author’s mission to promote her discipline more widely.

Roma Agrawal is likely to encourage many more young people to consider a career in engineering through this wonderful book. Additionally, she enlightens many more of us in the complexities behind our built environment. I know that I will look with more educated eyes the next time I find myself sightseeing or in a city surrounded by high rise buildings.

I would urge all schools to get hold of a copy of this book. It answers so many of the questions that curious children ask and I can imagine it being hugely popular with the group of children who prefer non-fiction to fiction. It will be a brilliant resource for DT projects, especially the annual bridge building construction sessions. Although it is primarily aimed at Key Stage 2, I wish it had been available when one of my own children worked on an engineering project in Key Stage 4 as it would have provided excellent background information on which to build! If you want to buy a book as a gift for an inquisitive child, make it this one!

I am very grateful to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me a copy of How Was That Built? in exchange for my honest opinion.

PictureBook Review: The Happy Mask written by Aimee Chan, illustrated by Angela Perrini

Cover art by Angela Perrini, published by Little Steps Publishing

This beautifully written and illustrated book explores the issues caused by mask-wearing for the youngest members of society. It is very hard to imagine the emotional impact that having to wear a mask, or being surrounded by mask-wearing grown-ups has had on children who have spent the majority of their lives living under Covid-19 restrictions. I am sure that many will relate to Maggie, the protagonist of this story. She is bored at home, wishes that she could be at school with her friends instead of being “shushed” by her dad when he is on a business call and most of all, does not want to wear her mask. It makes her face itchy and she thinks that people in masks look mean! Fortunately, Maggie’s dad comes up with a simple solution, he draws a huge smile onto Maggie’s mask and from that moment, Maggie walks around the town spreading happiness.

Aimee Chan has a wonderful talent for capturing a child’s perspective and pinning it to the page in carefully chosen description and dialogue. Her simple but impactful text is brilliantly accompanied by Angela Perrini’s glorious artwork. The full-page spreads in this book depict a multi-ethnic and multi-age cast of characters going about their daily tasks wearing the ubiquitous medical masks. I love the blend of facial close-ups, bird’s-eye-view and semi-deserted streetscapes in her illustrations.

This is another essential book for school and nursery classrooms, one in which children can identify their own experiences and begin to discuss and make sense of them.

If you enjoy The Happy Mask, do look out for My Grandma is 100, by the same author-illustrator partnership, which cleverly shows up in an advertisement in one of the illustrations and is an equally lovely story to share with pre-school and early years children.

My thanks to Little Steps Publishing for sending me a copy of The Happy Mask to review.

Review: Harriet’s Expanding Heart written by Rachel Brace, illustrated by Angela Perrini

Cover art by Angela Perrini, published by Little Steps Publishing

The importance of giving children the vocabulary they need to express their feelings has been recognised in this wonderful book authored by Rachel Brace. As a psychologist, Rachel works with families experiencing the pain of divorce and she has brought her expertise to this story. It tells the tale of Harriet, who has “two homes, two parents, two different bedrooms, one school and a pet cat named Ginger.”

Although her parents have split up, Harriet leads a contented and calm life, understanding the different routines in her two different homes but equally comfortable in both. However, when her Dad sits down to tell her that his special friend Emily and her son Cooper will be moving into his house Harriet sees her orderly life being turned upside-down. Suddenly the words that describe her become negative: “worried, uncertain, apprehensive and anxious.” The accompanying illustration on this page starkly emphasises the sudden change in Harriet’s outlook; the change from a palette of warm colours to an entire page which looks as if it has been scribbled all over with a black pencil, with Harriet huddled in a defensive and miserable pose in one corner leaves the reader in no doubt about the impact this news has on the young protagonist.

Angela Perrini’s ability to portray Harriet’s emotions through her artwork is breath-taking. The other image in the book which will stick in my mind is one of Harriet, again huddled in the lower left of the frame, as she sits inside her Dad’s house, towered over by her step-mum’s possessions.

In gentle, clear language the story proceeds to acknowledge that these feelings are perfectly natural in this situation and offers reassurance that Harriet’s parents still love her as much as ever and that she can take her time to adjust to being part of a step-family. This is a great resource for step-families with young children and even has a selection of clear and practical tips for parents at the end of the book. I highly recommend this book as a useful addition to school and nursery well-being collections for children of 4-7 years old.

I am grateful to Little Steps Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: The Rainbow Connection written by Vanessa Parsons, illustrated by Angela Perrini

Cover illustration by Angela Perrini, published by Little Steps Publishing

This beautiful picture book looks at the creativity displayed by so many people throughout 2020 and the first half of 2021 as we were forced to find novel ways to connect with each other.

Focussing on an ordinary family in an ordinary suburban street, the story is told through the eyes of the middle child in a family as “ life as we knew it suddenly stopped.” Each page contains minimal text through which Vanessa Parsons gently unrolls the story of lockdown, which will be utterly familiar to young readers. From the initial weeks of acclimatising to no school and family movies in the evening, to boredom, the home-schooling/parental home-working balancing act and the evening walks, each stage brings back the memories of the first period of lockdown. Overarching these recollections is the theme of the rainbow and the way that its colourful symbol was used to create a feeling of positivity around the world.

The glorious illustrations by Angela Perrini complement the tone of the text perfectly as they are rendered in a slightly muted rainbow palette, perfectly in keeping with the reflective nature of the story. The looks of delight on the children’s faces when they discover the rainbow trail that the neighbours have drawn on the footpath are infectious and young James grinning and waving in the background of his Dad’s video conference made me snort with laughter!

I think that this will be a lovely book for parents and school staff to share with preschool and early years children, to help them reflect and make sense of the strange start that they have had to their lives and education. The final message of making the most of all the small pleasures in life is an important one for us all. If you need any further incentives to purchase a copy: 10% of author royalties are being donated to NHS Charities together AND there is a recipe for rainbow cake at the end of the story!

I am very grateful to Little Steps Publishing for sending me a copy of The Rainbow Connection in exchange for my honest review.

Review: Everybody Has Feelings by Jon Burgerman

Cover art by Jon Burgerman, published by Oxford Children’s Books

This larger-than-life, vibrant picture book, illustrated in the cartoonish style pioneered by Jon Burgerman is a wonderful resource for helping young children identify and talk about their feelings.

Starting with the premise that ‘Everybody has feelings. That’s okay.’ the book continues with each page naming a feeling and providing an example to which a child would easily relate. To aid comprehension every page contains full colour illustrations, with the cartoon characters displaying the facial characteristics which demonstrate their feelings, alongside lots of extra details that will absorb the attention of young children. What’s more, there is a bouncy rhythm to the rhyming text which is likely to encourage young listeners to join in with repeated readings of this enjoyable book. I’m sure my own children would have spent hours looking at the double-page spread of a playground where there is a wealth of activity portrayed, accompanied by the text:

‘I feel EXCITED. There’s so much to do.

I feel FRUSTRATED. I can’t tie my shoe.’

At a time when it is being recognised that children are feeling anxious at increasingly younger ages, this is an excellent book for helping pre-school and early years children to start conversations about the way that they are feeling by giving them the language to express themselves. The cartoon-style illustrations not only make the book fun, they also deliver the message with great clarity to the intended audience.

Everybody Worries by Jon Burgerman

Cover art by Jon Burgerman, published by Oxford Children’s Books

In a very similar format and for the same audience, Jon Burgerman has also written Everybody Worries. This book points out that no matter how tough, smart or brave an individual might be, we all have worries and everybody worries about different things and that it is important to talk about whatever is worrying you. It helps youngsters identify what worrying feels like:

‘Your head might ache and your heart beat quickly, as worries rise like a wave…

…and make you feel sickly.’

As well as identifying worries, practical tips such as drawing your worries, taking deep breaths and sharing your worries with someone are also provided.

I would highly recommend Everybody Has Feelings and Everybody Worries to homes, nurseries, pre-schools and Reception classes to be shared with children aged 3-5. I am most grateful to Oxford Children’s Books for sending me a review copies in exchange for my honest opinion.

Blog Tour: Bears Don’t Wear Shoes written and illustrated by Sharon Davey

Today I am delighted to join the blog tour for Bears Don’t Wear Shoes and welcome a guest post from author and illustrator Sharon Davey describing her creative process.

How to write character led stories by Sharon Davey.

Character led stories are at the heart of picture book making and perfect for young readers who like to know whose point of view they are following from the very first page.

For me, most stories start with a character sketch that makes me laugh. It could be a penguin stuck in a teapot or a leopard sunbathing. Now to write the rest of the story.

I use the who, what, where and want approach.

Who – Suzy – the only child in a family of parents and grandparents. Also affectionately known as Dearie and Little Lady. She’s bubbly and playful with the confidence that only another pre-schooler would understand.

What – she’s a natural negotiator and creative organiser. She likes biscuits, painting and colouring and dressing up. She doesn’t like waiting.

Where – she’s between houses and feeling pretty worried about that.

And then we give her a problem.

Want – she wants a friend. Someone to play with and to persuade into doing her favourite activities.

A popular picture book sequence is to create a character, give them a problem, make it worse, resolve and end with a twist.

When you start with a character rather than a theme or story idea your biggest challenge is often how to end the story.

I find it useful to work your way through the problem.

Problem-Suzy wants a friend,

Worse -Suzy’s new friend is not as cooperative as she would like, and they disagree.

Resolve -Suzy learns to compromise, she loves Mr. Bear (Even without the shoes)

Twist – Suzy now wants to find a friend for her friend, for when she’s at school so he doesn’t get lonely.

If you create a super appealing character and are looking for a story to write around them try keeping it simple and following the problem all the way to the end.

Thank you so much Sharon for the insight into your writing process and for the use of your beautiful illustrations. I absolutely adored this book with its vibrant colours, lively protagonist and message of acceptance. It recognises a situation which raises anxieties in many children; will they find a friend as they start or change nursery, pre-school or school and resolves the problem with humour and empathy. Suzy is a delightfully appealing character and her interactions with Mr Bear reveal so much about their personalities. I particularly love the scene above where she is interviewing him for the position of best friend with all the confidence of a pre-schooler who has got their hands on a clip-board!

For me, this book had echoes of two classic picture books, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Not Now Bernard; I heartily recommend that you add this to your picture book collection where I am sure it will be much loved by children from 3-6 and any adults with whom they share it!

I am grateful to New Frontier Publishing UK for inviting me to join this blog tour and for providing me with a review copy of Bears Don’t Wear Shoes, and to Sharon Davey for the guest post and artwork. Do read the other posts by a wonderful selection of book review bloggers on the tour throughout this week.

Picture Book Review: Into the Wild written by Robert Vescio, illustrated by Mel Armstrong

Illustrated by Mel Armstrong, Published by New Frontier Publishing UK

Into the Wild written by Robert Vescio and illustrated by Mel Armstrong is an absolutely joyful book to share with young children as it follows the adventurous wanderings of a young boy named Roman. It celebrates the wonder of nature and the comfort of finding someone special to share your precious moments with.

The illustrations by Mel Armstrong are beautifully rendered in all the vibrant colours of nature. The expressions on the young protagonist’s face completely capture the absorption displayed by children as they witness the marvels of the natural world.

This book is beautifully designed, with some pages having multiple illustrated panels, encouraging your eyes to naturally follow Roman on his expeditions through the woods, fields and shoreline surrounding his house. The minimal text by Robert Vescio is very simple, often just a few words per double page spread and in my opinion they are in poetic harmony with the pictures, projecting the story whilst leaving plenty of space for discussion between adult and child readers.

As we progress through Roman’s journey of discovery, we glimpse the tantalising fluttering colours of something just to the edge of his vision and when Roman finally discovers the owner of the coloured scarf we share his joy at finding a soulmate with whom he can share nature’s treasures.

This is an utterly beautiful book which I would highly recommend for sharing with any child from the age of 2 to 6. Not only are the text and illustrations completely absorbing, it is one of those picture books which will stimulate hours and hours of conversation and inspiration to get outside and investigate the plants, insects, birds and animals to be found wherever you live. It is so important for younger children to have access to books which will help them build the hinterland of vocabulary and knowledge needed for learning and I strongly encourage you to add Into the Wild to your bookshelf or library collection.

You can find teaching notes and activity sheets linked to Into the Wild here.

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

If you wish to explore other books by this author and illustrator you can read my reviews of Under the Same Sky by Robert Vescio here and A Home for Luna illustrated by Mel Armstrong here.

Numeric Non-fiction: Counting on Katherine and The Language of the Universe

I realise that I don’t review enough non-fiction titles on my blog, so this is something I aim to remedy during 2021. I am starting with two very different but exceptionally enjoyable books which bring the beauty of maths to the attention of primary school-aged children.

Counting on Katherine written by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Cover image by Dow Phumiruk, published by Macmillan Children’s Books

This inspiring, authorised biography is perfectly suited to a primary school readership as it recounts the story of Katherine Johnson; a pioneer in mathematics, in the space program and in showing that women and black women deserved to be treated equally to men.

It starts with Katherine’s childhood, where her burning desire for knowledge was matched by her outstanding intellect. The support of her family is made clear as her father worked night and day to be able to afford to move his family to a town which had a high school for black students. It is so important for children today to understand the struggles for racial equality that previous generations had to face to ensure that everyone is given a fair chance in society.

As Katherine’s career progressed from maths teacher, to “human computer” at NASA, to being the mathematician who precisely calculated the trajectories of space-ship flight paths, this book highlights her constant refrain of “Count on me!”

I love that the author chooses to highlight Katherine Johnson’s diligence, determination and the satisfaction she found in complex mathematics. Her contributions to the space programme were so incredibly inspirational but the author points out that Katherine herself always insisted that she did not deserve attention as it was always a team effort. The text throughout the book is always easy to understand and is wonderfully illustrated on every page by Dow Phumiruk; the artwork really does bring the mathematics to life and wonderfully highlights Katherine Johnson’s commitment to her work.

This is a wonderful addition to any school’s library collection, providing inspiration for young mathematicians and scientists as well as representing the role of black women in the space program, which until recently had not been given the acknowledgement that these incredible STEM pioneers deserved.

The Language of the Universe written by Colin Stuart, illustrated by Ximo Abadia

Cover image by Ximo Abadia, published by Big Picture Press

This big format book sets out to highlight the beauty of mathematics and its universal nature, from being the language that everyone can understand no matter what their nationality, to its application to everything we know on our planet and beyond. It is divided into four sections: maths in the natural world; physics, chemistry and engineering; space and technology. The text is presented in short blocks, making use of different fonts and sizes to emphasise key words and always written in language that is easy to understand. The illustrations on brightly coloured backgrounds do a brilliant job of aiding the understanding of the mathematical concepts being described.

I highly recommend this book to all home, classroom and school libraries to help children understand the practical applications of maths and the examples of its manifestations in the natural world. For example, I love the way that the usefulness of prime numbers is explained in relation to their occurrence in the life-cycle of cicadas and their use in cryptography for online security.

As well as describing mathematical phenomena, this book also highlights some of the outstanding mathematicians who have made observations and constructed formulae and mathematical laws throughout history. It ends with pointing out the current and future developments in which maths will play a crucial role, thus inspiring a future generation of mathematical thinkers. It truly is an engrossing, enjoyable and informative volume which will reward readers with an enhanced understanding of the elegance and application of maths. I spent an afternoon studying it and could easily have spend much longer if I’d had time, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone of age 8+.

Advent Review: A Thing Called Snow written and illustrated by Yuval Zommer

Cover image by Yuval Zommer, published by OUP Children’s Books

This spellbinding book is absolutely perfect for sharing with young children at this time of year and will give hours of pleasure to both children and adults as they experience the joy of first snowfall through the characters of arctic fox and hare.

These two animals have developed a friendship since their birth in the spring and now as they face their first winter in a frozen landscape they are intrigued by the idea of snow. As they walk through their forest habitat they question the animals they meet, slowly building up a vocabulary to describe snow. Their joy when they finally experience the white, cold, fluffy, sparkly miracle absolutely leaps off the page and reflects that of all children of my acquaintance.

Yuval Zommer’s love of the natural world is present in every one of his books. In this one I love the way that the colour palette changes to reflect the atmospheric conditions, starting with warm oranges and browns which are gradually replaced by cold blues, greys and white. Children will learn so much from observing the details of the plants and animals depicted in the amazing artwork contained within this book. It again demonstrates the immense value in beautifully crafted picture books which can be read or looked at for pure pleasure and which educate by stealth.

An absolute delight, I recommend it to everyone – teachers, librarians and families.

I am most grateful to OUP Children’s Books for sending me a review copy. I have already purchased a second copy to gift to a young relative.

If you love A Thing Called Snow, then I highly recommend The Tree That’s Meant To Be by Yuval Zommer which has been published in paperback this autumn.

Advent Review: The Snow Dragon written by Abi Elphinstone, illustrated by Fiona Woodcock

Cover image by Fiona Woodcock, published by Simon & Schuster UK

Regular readers of my blog will know that I am an enormous fan of anything written by Abi Elphinstone, so it should come as no surprise that this is a story I love to read as we approach Christmas! I first read a version of it in an anthology of Christmas stories owned by my daughter entitled Winter Magic, and last Christmas a hardback edition of this picture book was published. This year the paperback has been released which has prompted me to write a long overdue review.

Phoebe lives in Griselda Bone’s Home for Strays which is the very epitome of a miserable orphanage. Daydreaming, skipping and hide-and-seek are forbidden as Griselda wages her private war on childishness. As the last unclaimed child left at the orphanage it appears that Phoebe faces a bleak future of grammar and punishment with only her dancing dog Herb for company…until her snow dragon magically appears.

Urging her to “never keep an adventure waiting” he transports Phoebe on an enchanted journey during which the combination of Abi’s glorious writing and the beautifully delicate artwork by Fiona Woodcock remind us all to look at the world around us in awe and wonder. This wonderful story about hope, believing in the miraculous and never losing a sense of playfulness and joy is a perfect story to share at bedtime or with a class of primary school children. A highly recommended Advent book which you will enjoy year after year.