Review: Trailblazers Stephen Hawking written by Alex Woolf

Cover image by Lisa Uribe, published by Little Tiger UK

This is the second biography from the Trailblazers series that I have been fortunate to read and once again it delivers on the series’ goal to inspire middle-grade readers with a story of a remarkable individual. Stephen Hawking’s life story is recounted by Alex Woolf in clear language, filled with everyday analogies which enable young readers to understand his revolutionary theories.

There is sufficient detail in this book to arm young scientists with an overall understanding of some of the key questions that cosmologists have tried to answer, and inspire them to formulate new questions of their own. If you will forgive the pun, the book starts with a brief history of the theory of black holes, presenting the key breakthroughs in understanding and naming the physicists and mathematicians involved. Alongside the chronological story of Stephen Hawking’s life this book is filled with information about new theories and discoveries in the fields of cosmology and theoretical physics. For example, the reader will learn that the term “black holes” was popularized in 1967 as the young Stephen Hawking was working as a post-doctoral researcher at Cambridge University.

Many fascinating details of Stephen Hawking’s life are included, I can imagine a multitude of young readers will identify with his childhood fascination with model trains and exploring The Science Museum in London. I was very surprised to read that he had not worked particularly hard for his undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences at Oxford, putting more emphasis on his rowing activities and socialising than on studying Physics! However, his diagnosis with the incurable disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) propelled him to focus his intelligence in a way that is inspiring to any reader.

The author Alex Woolf has addressed Stephen Hawking’s life challenges and scientific discoveries in language that confident readers at the upper end of primary school can understand, assisted by excellent diagrams and illustrations created by David Shepard. I would also recommend this book to any secondary school children studying GCSE Physics as excellent background reading to their syllabus. The use of panels throughout the narrative, summarising theories or describing key contributors to the understanding of the universe, certainly aide the comprehension of some complex scientific concepts.

Aside from its value as an educational science book, this biography presents Professor Hawking as an incredibly inspiring individual who refused to let his illness define him or hold him back from pursuing his intellectual dreams. The subtitle “A life beyond limits” encompasses his phenomenal cerebral achievements despite his physical restrictions and his 1983 theory of a “no-boundary” universe. His compulsion to ask questions, propose new theories and not be afraid of making mistakes is a great example to all of us. The fact that he became a best-selling author and cultural icon, even featuring in “The Simpsons” provides empowering knowledge for any young person who might be suffering with an illness or disability. At the end of the book one of his most famous quotes is printed, finishing with the words:

Be curious.

If all readers are inspired to follow this advice then who knows what new theories could emerge to solve the many unanswered questions that still exist about our universe.

I am most grateful to Little Tiger Publishing for my copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Trailblazers Simone Biles Golden Girl of Gymnastics by Sally J Morgan

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The  2016  Rio de Janeiro Olympics was the time that those of us not engrossed in the world of gymnastics probably first heard of Simone Biles, as we watched her incredible performance, triumphing by a huge margin in the women’s gymnastics event.

This detailed biography charts her journey from a childhood of 32 hours per week of gym training to the top of the Olympic podium. Her ascent from a poverty-stricken childhood, when there was often insufficient money for food due to her mother’s problems with addiction, through foster care and eventual adoption by her grandfather eventually led her to Bannon’s Gymnastix in Houston. The book makes clear the combination of natural talent and energy, input from top class coaches and hours of dedication that contributed to Simone’s rise to the top of her sport. It also explains her diagnosis with ADHD, as well as pointing out other top sports stars who have been diagnosed with this condition.

Great care has been taken with the design and layout, making it most attractive for an MG readership. The biographical narrative is punctuated with illustrated panels explaining technical details of the sport. There is a concise history of gymnastics as a competitive sport, detailing its arrival at the Olympics and the way that the women’s competition has changed since women’s artistic gymnastics was introduced at the 1928 Games in the city of Amsterdam. I particularly liked the feature named “All around the Apparatus” dotted at appropriate points throughout the text, with its descriptions and diagrams showing the routines that Simone has pioneered and perfected.

Importantly, the book also covered the setbacks that Simone has faced, including injuries, struggling with some of the gymnastic disciplines, racism and even sexual abuse by a USA Gymnastics doctor. I applaud the author for showing young gymnasts that even those at the top of the sport have had to overcome difficult times, and presenting a clear message that they must not be afraid to speak up about any wrongful adult behaviour. In celebrating the achievements of the most decorated gymnast of all time Sally J Morgan has provided readers with many examples of what makes Simone Biles such a great role model for young people involved in any competitive sport. The illustrations by Luisa Uribe and Emma Trithart show not only the technical aspects of gymnastics, but also the obvious enjoyment that Simone Biles gains from her sport.

Overall I would say that this is a fantastic addition to the Trailblazers series and a fascinating book for anyone of 10+.

Review: Fantastically Feminist Non-fiction by Anna Doherty

Ada Lovelace by Anna Doherty

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This is the second utterly fantastic non-fiction publication that I have read by Anna Doherty. This time her subject is the fantastically feminist and totally true story of the mathematician extraordinaire Ada Lovelace.

Firstly, the book is a beautifully produced hardcover. The colour palette of lime green, black, white and grey looks stunning and as you open the book the endpapers are decorated with all the tools of a mathematician’s trade. Next you encounter an illustrated family tree of Ada Lovelace’s family alongside the two people who probably had the greatest influence on her life; Mary Somerville the Scottish mathematician and astronomer who acted as Ada’s maths tutor and Charles Babbage the foremost mathematician and inventor of the time.

As you might expect from a non-fiction book where the subject is one of our foremost mathematicians, the story is told in a strictly logical chronological order starting with Ada‘s mother taking the very brave step of leaving Ada’s unfaithful father,  the famous poet Lord Byron, and setting off with baby Ava to start a new life together. You learn that the mother Annabella doesn’t want Ada to grow up poetic and eccentric like her father and therefore decides to educate her in mathematics and science. This was extremely unusual for the nineteenth century, where if girls received any education it would be in the arts not the sciences.

I think that Anna Doherty‘s drawing style, with its almost collage style, does an amazing job of bringing to life the ideas fizzing through Ada’s imagination and really portraying so clearly her love of learning. It fully illustrates the way that she explored everything that she was learning about and tried to make practical applications out of her mathematical and scientific knowledge. The other great thing about this book is that the author puts into context how unusual Ada and her upbringing were for the time period of the 19th century. It’s made very clear that young ladies were not supposed to be educated in science or mathematics and that the society ladies amongst whom Ada and her mother socialised were quite scandalised at the unladylike behaviour of Ada. We learn that Ada was taken by her maths tutor Mary Somerville  to a party hosted by a very famous engineer of the time, Charles Babbage. He had invented a calculating machine which was known as the analytical engine. When Ada was asked to translate a paper written about the analytical engine by an Italian engineer she added her own notes showing that she realised that this analytical engine could be used for things other than just mathematical calculation. As she described in theory what could be done with a machine like this she was in fact describing the invention of the computer. Hence she is now regarded as the prophet of the computing age.

I think that this incredible book should be sitting in every school classroom and school library. I hope it will inspire all children to realise that they should not  be defined by their circumstances or their surroundings. The power of the imagination is clearly shown to have immense power, and when coupled with an interest in STEM subjects can lead to major breakthroughs in technology.

Ada Lovelace day is celebrated on the second Tuesday in October each year, to honour Ada and all the women who work in science technology engineering and maths careers and to inspire the next generation of young scientists and mathematicians. This book will be an invaluable resource for that occasion as well as a general reminder of the importance of determination and lifelong learning.

I borrowed this book from my local public library, but will be adding it to my school library shopping list immediately!

 

The Brontës by Anna Doherty

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Here is another wonderful work of non-fiction written and illustrated by Anna Doherty, to tell the story of the Bronte sisters and their extended family.

It follows a straightforward timeline of their lives; each page contains just a few paragraphs of text alongside brilliantly quirky illustrations in muted shades of green, brown and black. The book begins by highlighting the unusual decision of their father, the Rev Patrick Bronte, to spend money educating his daughters. Fans of English Literature owe him an enormous debt! We learn of the tragic deaths of the two eldest Bronte sisters, following severe illnesses caught at their dreadful school, and how their subsequent home education fired the imaginations of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. I am sure it will come as a surprise for children to learn how difficult it was for females to publish books and that the sisters had to use pseudonyms initially. The summaries of their published work at the end are likely to pique the curiosity of future readers of these novels.  

 

A highly informative and enjoyable book to grace the non-fiction shelves of any library, likely to be appreciated by anyone over the age of 10. 

Review: Little Leaders Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison

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This book is a collection of short biographies of 40 inspiring women which the author began as a project during Black History Month. It celebrates the incredible achievements of a diversely talented group of women who had to overcome the dual disadvantages of being both female and black in order to fulfil their dreams. Vashti Harrison states in the introduction that she hopes “readers from every background find these stories compelling and inspiring” whilst recognising from her own childhood experience how important it is for children to see that people who look like them can be role models in any profession.

Each profile is a single page in length and written for a Key Stage 2 audience, with an accompanying full-page illustration exhibiting Vashti Harrison’s artistic talent. They are arranged in chronological order, starting with Mary Prince the author and abolitionist, born circa 1788, and finishing with Lorna Simpson, American photographer born in 1960. Readers will probably be familiar with some of the women featured in these profiles: Oprah Winfrey, Katherine Johnson, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks and Ella Fitzgerald for example. Others will be entirely new discoveries for many readers, but all share the ability to inspire and amaze with their achievements. I was particularly astonished by the story of Mary Bowser, a spy for the North during the American Civil War, who worked undercover as a slave in the home of the Confederate President.

At the end of the book there are short paragraphs about a further twelve women, with the challenge to link their stories to the women who paved the way for them in the previous profiles.

Overall, this is a wonderfully inspiring collection of stories of brave and talented women who would not be defined by convention, but act as role models for future generations. An essential addition to any classroom or school library to be enjoyed by all.

Review: Lightning Mary by Anthea Simmons

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This new biography of Mary Anning is perfectly pitched for the Middle Grade market, a dramatic retelling of the life story of an extraordinary girl fighting to become a scientist in an age where the social mores were against her.

The opening line of the prologue sets the tone:

“Tisn’t everybody gets struck by lightning and lives to tell the tale.”

From this moment the reader is enraptured by the engaging narrator (the story is written as a first person narrative) and her tale of battling against her poverty stricken, lower class background to prove her sparky intelligence.

This version of Mary Anning’s life gives young readers an excellent insight into the life of a poor, female member of the lower classes and the way in which she contributed a great deal to science but received no acknowledgment for her discoveries during her lifetime. The author captures the disappointment and frustration that her place in society denies Mary the chance to join the new scientific societies that were being established. It also touches on the friction between the scientific discoveries and the religious authorities, as evidence emerged that living creatures had evolved rather than been created in their current forms. The pencil illustrations by James Weston Lewis fit perfectly with the description of the drawings made of Mary’s “curiosities” by her friend Henry De la Beche.

A great book to inspire children aged 9+ to be determined in the face of difficulties and to understand the scientific upheavals taking place during the nineteenth century.