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!

Non-Fiction Review: Breaking News by Nick Sheridan

To be published by Simon & Schuster on 23rd December 2021

This super-readable exploration of the “News” will appeal to all aspiring journalists and young consumers of information alike. Although humorously written, Nick Sheridan’s guide to the world of journalism covers a range of important topics such as how to check the veracity of facts, the ethics of posting consumer generated news content and how to determine whether a story is newsworthy.

The book is divided into short chapters, each wittily illustrated and utilising a range of fonts and shout-outs to highlight key points. As you would expect from a successful journalist, Nick Sheridan’s writing is thoroughly engaging, he presents information concisely and in language that KS2 and KS3 readers will relate to and be entertained by. In fact, I can envisage so many ways in which this book could be used in schools. From History lessons, to Careers Guidance by way of Literacy ( journalistic writing) and Digital Literacy; there is content here that teachers could very easily incorporate into lessons and that children could read to expand their knowledge.

I really liked the author’s use of practical examples which encourage his audience to interact with the book rather than just being a passive consumer of the information he presents. Hopefully they will then put these skills into use when reading “news” items, especially on social media but even within the mainstream media to check for bias and misinformation or fake news. If this generation of children and young people can be educated to see through media manipulation and bias, hopefully they can make decisions based on facts rather than falsehoods. 

If you want to know the difference between top lines and headlines, the meaning of MoJo and UCG, how to write a news item using the inverted pyramid or some sensible advice about how to deal with online trolls, you will find the answers in Breaking News. There is a useful glossary at the end of the book and web addresses for a list of excellent fact – checking sites. I would recommend that all primary and secondary schools purchase this useful and engaging book for their libraries and classrooms.

I am grateful to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for early access to an electronic copy prior to publication on 23rd December 2021.

Non-Fiction November Review: My Period. Find your flow and feel proud of your period! by Milli Hill

Illustrations by Sarah Eichert, published by Wren & Rook

One of the things that I have learnt since becoming a health librarian is the importance of presenting health information in a way that can be easily understood by the target audience and can thus enable individuals to play an active role in maintaining their own own health.

This book, written by Milli Hill and illustrated by Sarah Eichert, is designed to give girls reaching puberty all the information required to ensure that they are well prepared for the start of their period and to dispel the fear, embarrassment and anxiety that is often associated with a perfectly normal aspect of human biology. In the opening chapter, author Milli Hill, clearly outlines the book’s remit to highlight the positive, overcome embarrassment and instil a sense of pride, by presenting facts and advice in an open and honest manner. Her journalistic talents are put to good use, the text is written in a chatty, engaging manner with fonts that have been carefully chosen to appeal to the target audience.

Chapters include coverage of the changes which the body experiences during puberty, period products, what to expect from one’s first period, the menstrual cycle and how to chart the changes in one’s body as well as how to look after one’s body and hygiene. Everything is explained in a straightforward and friendly manner, with a dash of humour and loads of practical advice. The illustrations are clear and aid comprehension; alongside the organisation of the chapters into chunks of information in answer to questions, information messages are easy to understand and internalise. There is a constant refrain to talk to your grown up which I think is great advice and I would actually recommend that the significant adult reads this book first before handing it over to a child, so that they can answer any questions or talk about any issues that crop up.

Another aspect of the book that I really liked is the feature called “Cycle Superstars” which occurs at regular intervals. Each panel provides a brief biography of an individual who has made a positive contribution to the menstrual experience, for example Ella Dash who launched the campaign #EndPeriodPlastic which has already persuaded some manufacturers in the UK to stop producing plastic tampon applicators. On the final page, there is a list of further resources, both websites and books, which supply reliable further advice.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to families, school nurses, and school as well as public libraries, with the proviso that I’ve already mentioned, of encouraging the significant adult to read either before or with their child. This book provides a great service by dispelling the shame that some girls have been made to feel about menstruation, replacing it with positive feelings about the human body and trying to help remove the taboo around speaking openly about periods.

You can also find a downloadable resources suitable for KS2 and KS3 children to accompany the book here.

I am grateful to Toppsta and Wren & Rook for supplying me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Adventures in Time Alexander the Great by Dominic Sandbrook

Published by Particular Books an imprint of Penguin Random House
on 4th November 2021

This superb work of non-fiction aimed at an MG or early teen audience is written with so much verve and flair that I found myself racing through as if it were a fictional adventure story. From the opening scene of the 20 year-old, newly appointed King Alexander, hurling his spear into Persian territory as a symbolic act of intent, I was utterly hooked. The author, Dominic Sandbrook, presents his learning and research with a lightness of touch that is sure to engage his target audience and will likely be enjoyed by many adults too.

Alexander the Great is one of those historical names that many of us are familiar with but, unless we have studied classics, probably have a sketchy knowledge of his life and achievements. As someone who dropped history before O level in order to study sciences, I learnt so much from this book. Firstly, the realisation that “Ancient Greece” was not just one country but a collection of rival cities and kingdoms fighting for supremacy over centuries. The book makes clear that the mythical twelve Olympians of Mount Olympus were woven into the everyday fabric of life for everyone within the Greek world. Thus, although Alexander was the product of the marriage between King Philip of Macedonia and one of his wives, Olympias, he believed his mother’s story that he was actually the son of Zeus. 

It appears that this belief in his immortality drove him to follow his dreams and ruthlessly pursue the conquest of the Persian empire. The compelling narrative explains how the vast wealth of Persia under the reign of King Darius III paid for a fearsome military strength, and how Alexander’s small but highly disciplined army fought their way from the Mediterranean to eventually gain control of the entire empire over the span of a decade. In between the descriptions of battles and military tactics there is a wealth of knowledge imparted about the structure of society, the architecture and the bureaucracy of the greatest single empire in history. 

I like the way that throughout the book the historical facts are presented in the context of modern comparisons, making it relatable for its proposed readership. Many youngsters are likely to be surprised by the discovery that the greatest city of the time was Babylon as they have probably been exposed to a mostly euro-centric view of history and civilisation. The scale of Alexander the Great’s achievements, in leading his conquering army on horseback and on foot across Asia is brought starkly to life when the modern day names of the lands that he amassed are mentioned. We learn that Greek coins have been found in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India! Of course as a librarian, my favourite part of the book was the brief mention of Alexander’s loyal commander Ptolemy’s eventual reign over Egypt where he laid the plans for the Great Library of Alexandria. 

This book will appeal to confident readers of 10+ who have enjoyed the fictional portrayal of the ancient world in books such as Who Let the Gods Out by Maz Evans, The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence or the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Dominic Sandbrook lists his sources in an Author’s Note so that readers can pursue further research if their appetites for classical history have been whetted. I would highly recommend this book for non-fiction collections in Key Stage 2 or Secondary School libraries. 

I am grateful to Penguin Random House and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic version of Time Travellers Alexander the Great before publication on 4th November 2021 in exchange for an honest review.

Lego Life Hacks by Julia March and Rosie Peet, models by Barney Main and Nate Dias

Published by DK Books, models by Barney Main and Nate Dias

Two of my great loves come together in this book: Lego and the publisher DK Books! I have bought many Lego DK books for my own children over the years and also have a large Lego collection built up over their childhoods, so when I saw this title available on NetGalley I immediately requested it.

I can confirm that it is marvellous, containing detailed written and photographic instructions for innovative Lego builds suitable for amateur to expert builders alike. There are 50 projects in total, but obviously you can then adapt these as far as your imagination will allow. Some examples include: a fun speaker to amplify your phone, a Lego houseplant, photo-frame or pen holder to decorate your desk, or a catapult to fling paper into the recycling bin! As a quick test I attempted a couple of the easier builds and you can see my efforts below. When I have more time I definitely want to try building the catapult which I think would provide some fun the next time the family are all gathered together!

My first builds: phone stand, cable holder and earphone cable tidy

It is always lovely to see children innovating with their Lego builds but sometimes imaginations need a little stimulation. The beauty of having this book in your home, classroom or library is that it provides that nudge to encourage readers to use their bricks in different ways and develop their creativity. This would make an excellent gift for keen young builders, or even those of us who might want to experiment with our children’s collections! In fact, there are many situations in which I could see this book being used including teambuilding or wellbeing sessions for adults and collaborative skills sessions for children. I loved the “Meet the Builders” touch at the end with profiles of the two talented individuals, Nate and Barney, who supplied the models for this book. The brick gallery is also incredibly useful for those of us who sometimes need to replace a missing brick from a model kit and have no idea where to begin the search; this could have saved me many hours in the past! In summary, I highly recommend this fabulous book as an addition to your non-fiction collections.

I am grateful to DK Books and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic version of Lego Life Hacks in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Secrets and Spies written by Anita Ganeri and illustrated by Luke Brookes

Cover art by Luke Brookes, published by Little Tiger Press

This colourful exploration of the undercover world of espionage is an exciting non-fiction book aimed at middle grade readers, published today by Little Tiger Press.

The artwork by Luke Brooks perfectly complements the subject, with its cinematic, comic book style. The cover image absolutely encapsulates the spy’s life in the shadows! The text by Anita Ganeri, a well-known author of children’s non-fiction is presented in small block paragraphs on the full colour pages in a very clear font, perfect for children’s to read and comprehend in small chunks.

The book begins with the early chapters covering the history of spying, dating right back to the ancient civilizations of China, Egypt and India. Prominent personalities in the history of spying are discussed. Some widely read children might have already heard of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s famous spymaster and will be interested to find out about the coding genius behind much of his success, a brilliant linguist called Thomas Phelippes. As the chronology progresses to World War II you will learn about prominent female spies such as Noor Inayat Khan (code-named Madeleine) the first female radio operator sent into occupied France and Violette Szabo who also carried out secret and dangerous missions in France. I think that children will appreciate the mixtures of styles, with purely factual pages sometimes giving way to imaginary newspaper stories reporting a case of the spy’s dark arts or the graphic novel-like biography of Harriet Tubman. I was particularly enthralled by the descriptions of different codes and ciphers as well as the modern cryptography on which we increasingly rely.

This comprehensive book will delight the most inquisitive child (as well as teens and adults) and could be used in so many curriculum activities (history, maths, geography, computing) that I would highly recommend it to primary school libraries and upper key stage 2 classrooms. I know from my own experience that a large number of primary school children are fans of MG spy fiction and I am sure that they would love to discover more about the world of covert operations and classified information. For children who love the adventures of Agent Zaiba, Mickey and the Animal Spies, Taylor & Rose Secret Agents, Ruby Redfort, The Mysterious Benedict Society or Alex Rider, this book is sure to be a mesmerising read.

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.

Review: What it’s Like to be a Bird written by Tim Birkhead, illustrated by Catherine Rayner

Cover illustration by Catherine Rayner, published by Bloomsbury, 19-08-2021

A fantastic example of non-fiction aimed at children, What it’s Like to be a Bird is written by renowned ornithologist and Professor of Zoology, Tim Birkhead and illustrated by CILIP Greenaway Medal-winning artist Catherine Rayner. The combination of real science presented in colourful, eye-catching large format is as engaging as it is educational. The cover gives a clear example of the delightful illustrations, brimming with personality, to be found within, and every detail of this book from its size, hardcover and beautiful endpapers painted with speckled bird’s eggs speaks to its quality.

After an introduction which taps into the desire to fly that most of us have experienced at some time, each double page focuses on one aspect of bird behaviour as illustrated by a particular species. After initially pointing out that there are some similarities between birds and humans, the rest of the book highlights the diversity to be found in the class of birds and the range of adaptations displayed by birds which have enabled them to inhabit all the continents of the globe. The spreads are fully illustrated in Catherine Rayner’s sumptuous muted watercolours, with the text arranged in paragraphs blended with playful font effects.

As each bird is examined, its extraordinary skills and behavioural patterns are recounted in story-like prose which is easily understandable but does not talk down to young readers. Scientific vocabulary is used and explained precisely. The sections have titles that might be found in a chapter book; The Hunter Who Listens, Falling from the Skies and Sledging for Beginners are some examples. The book is therefore equally suited to being read aloud by an adult to share with children, or read and understood independently by Key Stage 2 or even advanced Key Stage 1 readers. Within the pages you will learn which bird has the most light-sensitive eyes of any animal species; which bird loses half of its body weight whilst waiting for its egg to hatch and which bird flies non-stop for eight days on its migratory journey between Alaska and New Zealand. Tim Birkhead shares his expertise with a light touch, comparing the incredible skills exhibited by the birds with everyday objects and phenomena with which children can easily relate. In my opinion, this is a marvellous gift to present to children; first rate information in a format that they can easily comprehend.

I absolutely love this book and know that I would have loved it as a child; I can still remember my primary school Year 3 teacher who signed our whole class up to be young ornithologists, constructed a bird table outside our classroom window and instilled a life-long love of birds. Whilst my knowledge and interest back then was based on observation of the natives of Hampshire (I clearly remember the excitement when a nuthatch clambered up the bird table) I would have been fascinated to learn about the symbiotic relationship between honey guides and humans, the local accents of macaw parrots and the carrying-pouches hidden under a male sungrebe’s wings. As with all the best children’s books, I learned something new from reading it, an amazing fact about the robin which I will leave you to discover for yourself. I highly recommend this book as an addition for all school libraries and classroom bookshelves. It would also make a beautiful gift for any primary school aged child, a fountain of knowledge that they will enjoy referring to time and again.

I am most grateful to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Trailblazers Lin-Manuel Miranda by Kurtis Scaletta

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.
Cover art by Luisa Uribe, published by Little Tiger Press

Author: Kurtis Scaletta

Illustrator: Cover image Luisa Uribe, internal images David Shephard

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“Overall the show won eleven Tonys, including best musical.”

This book in three words: “Meet me inside”

I can give this book no higher recommendation than to tell you that as soon as it arrived through my letterbox it was read in one sitting by the teenage uber-Hamilfan in my household and given her seal of approval!

This latest biography from Little Tiger’s Trailblazers series is aimed at a Middle Grade readership with an engaging blend of illustrations, short chapters and fact-filled illustrated panels, but the evidence here suggests that it will also appeal to the huge number of Hamilton fans amongst the YA readership. Author Kurtis Scaletta presents the details of Lin-Manuel’s non-stop rise to the top of his profession in an engaging and entertaining manner. Throughout the book you learn about Lin-Manuel’s important influences, the stories behind his musical productions and his key collaborators as he has turned the world of musical theatre upside down. It certainly gives the impression of a man who writes as if he is running out of time and leaves you wondering “what comes next?”

As well as exploring Lin-Manuel’s unique musical and creative talent, this biography is careful to explain that a lifetime of hard work is behind the phenomenal success that he enjoys today. I also love that it outlines his continuing involvement with the Puerto Rican community, inspired by his father’s political work, and his determination to portray his culture in a positive light. His hugely generous charitable activities and his dedication to his family are further details which contribute to the picture of an individual who combines great talent with humility.

History certainly has its eyes on Lin-Manuel Miranda and this book fizzes with the energy apparent to anyone who has had the good fortune to see the live performance of Hamilton. I hope that it will inspire young readers to believe in their talents, follow their hearts and dedicate themselves to using their skills to make the world a better place. It is lovely to see a book which promotes the arts and their place in society as budgets for the arts seem to be constantly under threat both in schools and society as a whole. Highly recommended for all existing fans of Hamilton and all children who have an interest in music and drama.

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: Keep Calm by Dr Sharie Coombes, illustrated by Katie Abey and Ellie O’Shea

Illustrations by Katie Abey and Ellie O’Shea, published by Studio Press Books

This is a fantastic activity book overflowing with great advice for young people to help them deal with the worries and anxieties which may have arisen during the COVID-19 crisis. It has been written by Dr Sharie Coombes who is a child and family psychotherapist and I love the reassuring tone that she sets for her young readers. She does not talk down to her audience but provides child-friendly explanations to help young people understand the way the body reacts to stress. For example, she tells us about the amygdala in the ancient limbic system of the brain and how its function is to warn us about anything which could become a problem, but calls the amygdala Bob, a loving but slightly daft guard dog. The lovable illustration of Bob is then used throughout the book to explain how the activities can help to calm Bob and stop him barking unnecessarily. 

The activities themselves can all be added very simply into daily routines and include mindful breathing, colouring, craft and artwork, reframing thoughts from negative to positive, spending time outdoors and even some basic yoga poses. The friendly doodle-style illustrations help add to the cheerful, mood-boosting tone of the book. I would say that all the activities are suitable for children of 8+. At the end of the book there is advice for parents carers and guardians, including contact details for a number of support services. This would be suitable for classroom or home use.

Overall, I would recommend this slim volume as a great addition to your collection for helping children who may be experiencing some negative impact on their mental health following the strange times we have all lived through in 2020 and 2021. I have been actively searching for books to add to a children’s mental health collection and I am happy that Keep Calm is now on my list.

I am most grateful to Toppsta and Studio Press Books for sending me a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.