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+.

Review: Question Everything! An Investigator’s Toolkit by Susan Martineau and Vicky Barker

Cover image by Vicky Barker, published by b small publishing

This slim, colourful volume is the perfect complement to information and digital literacy aspects of the primary school curriculum and I would highly recommend it to any teacher who is delivering digital literacy lessons as part of the computing curriculum as well as to every school librarian. 

With clear explanations in short blocks of text, written by Susan Martineau, accompanied by colourful images and diagrams, by Vicky Barker, it takes the reader through different aspects of negotiating the overwhelming quantity of information available through digital and printed sources. The digital-art-style images are perfectly in keeping with the content of this helpful guide to critical literacy.

There is advice on, amongst other things, how to extract the facts from text; how to look carefully at the use of language for signs of sensationalism or advertising; how to identify primary and secondary sources of information; how to spot whether something is fake news and how to avoid being misled by statistics. On each double page spread there is an incredibly useful Words to Know panel, defining key vocabulary for each subject at the point of reference. The activity included in each section could very readily be incorporated into information literacy sessions and I will certainly be aiming to use many of them to supplement existing lesson plans. At the end of the book there is some simple but effective online safety advice about avoiding online bullying, being brave enough to take breaks from the online world and keeping yourself and your online presence safe.

There are a multitude of uses for this brilliant book in schools. For those who have the budget I would suggest a set to be used in non-fiction, guided reading in Year 4 or 5 would be ideal. As previously mentioned, incorporating the ideas and engaging practical activities into digital and information literacy lessons, whether in classroom or library sessions, would be highly beneficial in helping young people to indeed Question Everything! 

The author Susan Martineau has written an interesting article on critical literacy and the background to writing this book for the CILIP Youth Libraries Group blog which you can read by clicking here.

I am most grateful to Toppsta and b small publishing for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Humans written by Jonny Marx illustrated by Charlie Davis

Cover illustration by Charlie Davis, published by Little Tiger Group

This is the type of non-fiction book that I would have loved as a child and still adore as an adult. With its large size and sumptuously coloured pages it invites you to open it out flat on a table or on the floor and lose yourself in the detail for as long as you can spare. It is certainly a book that I can imagine returning to on multiple occasions.

The book begins by chronicling the emergence of the genus Homo from apes and the eventual dominance of Homo sapiens over the other species such as Homo neanderthalensis and Homo erectus. There is then an excellent map showing the migration of Homo sapiens from the original ancestor Mitochondrial Eve’s birthplace in or near Ethiopia approximately 150,000 years ago. Then the continents are explored one at a time, with their main civilisations and the contributions that these humans made, presented in detail. A feature which I greatly appreciated was the “Where in the World” inset on most pages reinforcing the understanding that similar advancements were being made in different parts of the globe at similar times whilst also making you realise how geography contributed to certain developments.

Small blocks of text and large, bold headings are complemented perfectly by beautifully detailed artwork, enabling reading for information as well as for pleasure. This book covers many of the topics included in the primary school history curriculum as well as many that are not. In my opinion this is what is so special about “The Humans”, it covers many ancient civilisations that are not usually taught in schools and thus helps to put different historical periods into context, aiding the reader’s understanding of the global development of humans. To give one example of this, I was astounded to find a double-page spread on the Micronesians and Melanesians containing information on the design of their sailing vessels and the many languages and cultures found on the islands. I had not heard of the term “Micronesia” until I was an adult and I heard it in an episode of The West Wing! It delights me to know that primary school children will have the opportunity to learn about the emergence of this culture.

Finally, the civilisations are organised in a timeline, which again highlights just how much of human development occurred in periods which are not explicitly taught in the UK. My overall impression of this book is perfectly summarised in the final paragraph, humans are “an intelligent and resilient bunch. We are the best problem solvers on the planet.” This book does a wonderful job of presenting the awesome achievements of humankind and I highly recommend adding it to any school or home library.

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Group for sending me a copy of The Humans in exchange for an honest review.

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

Simone Biles

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:Jasper Dog Books by Hilary Robinson

What a joy to discover the utterly charming, funny and informative Jasper series! These books have colourful and engaging covers, are illustrated throughout with delightful black and white drawings, and most wonderfully have been printed on off-white paper using the Open Dyslexic font. I am passionate about finding books which make reading pleasurable for dyslexic readers and firmly believe that what is good for dyslexics is good for all readers. Some young dyslexic readers have told me that they found the spacing between lines to be really helpful in allowing them to read these books easily.


Review: Jasper Space Dog by Hilary Robinson


The first book in the series was published in 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. It is cleverly structured as a series of letters written between eight-and-a-half year old Charlie Tanner, on behalf of his dog Jasper, to a rocket scientist Dr Isabella Starr (girl power ). Jasper would like to become a space dog! He already has his moon boots and enjoys strutting around the local park in them, but he requires Charlie to ask a rib-tickling range of questions on his behalf before he ventures to the moon. This is such an engaging device as Jasper’s questions definitely reflect the hugely imaginative ideas that spring from the minds of young children. As I read the increasingly funny questions with a big smile I was delighted that the eminent scientist’s replies to Charlie acknowledged the humour in the enquiries, especially the suggestion to explore explosive chocolate as rocket fuel.

So much care has been taken in the compilation of this book, right down to the final chapters summarising the information discovered so far and then expanding on factual information about moon expeditions. Books which entertain and educate seamlessly are to be greatly valued and I highly recommend this to all schools and to any family looking for a book to engage a reluctant reader and help them discover the joy of books.


Jasper Viking Dog by Hilary Robinson


The second book in the Jasper series follows the same pattern as book one, this time Charlie’s letters are addressed to Astrid the Curator of the local Viking Museum. Jasper has heard that actors are required for the Viking exhibits and believing that he might have Viking roots would like to volunteer as a Viking dog! The humorous letters from Charlie yet again had me snorting with laughter, in particular Jasper’s rapid increase in age, as he convinces himself that he is indeed a Viking dog, and his theory that his friend Bruce descends from a line of Viking Berserker dogs! Each of Charlie’s outlandish questions are answered with great attention to detail by Astrid, thus presenting a host of fascinating Viking facts in easy to assimilate chunks.

Another highlight of these books is the care taken (by Lewis James, under the mentorship of experienced children’s book illustrator, Mandy Stanley) to design the illustrations.  Throughout the text there are intricately detailed drawings of artefacts or appealing cartoon-ish representations of Charlie and Jasper’s ideas, perfectly placed for children whose eyes need a break from reading at regular intervals. The illustrations in these books are .

I hugely recommend these books to any school classroom or library collection, and only wish they had been available when a certain member of my own family was of primary-school-age.


My copies of Jasper Space Dog and Jasper Viking Dog were gifted to me from the publisher, I am planning to order further copies for the library collection.


Review: Fantastically Feminist Non-fiction by Anna Doherty

Ada Lovelace by Anna Doherty


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


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. 

Atlas of Ocean Adventures by Emily Hawkins and Lucy Letherland




This stunning, oversized book is the perfect addition for any classroom or school library with a phenomenal quantity of information for children of 7+ to pore over.

You are invited to take a guided tour of the world’s five oceans, to meet their inhabitants and discover their behaviours. The book is divided into five sections, one for each ocean arranged in order of size. Each double page spread is fully illustrated by Lucy Letherland. Her style is packed with playfulness and humour, perfect for children’s non-fiction, clearly seen on the faces of the North American sea otters and the dance moves of the blue-footed boobies of the Galapagos Islands. Apart from multiple pictures demonstrating different characteristic behaviours, each page also contains a map clearly showing the location and an annotated diagram of the creature’s most significant facts.  


The text, by Emily Hawkins comprises a main summary paragraph on each page, with wave-shaped sentences arranged around the pictures, which add to the overall feel of movement within the book. The level of detail will keep even the most enthusiastic wannabe oceanographers entranced for many hours. I spend two hours mesmerised, and could easily imagine spending many more studying the astonishing variety of life that our oceans sustain..

At the end of the book you will find a section about the dangers to our oceans and some practical ideas about actions that might help protect these essential habitats. Finally, there is a “seek-and-find” challenge, which I know that many children find extremely appealing.

This is a book that I am sure will provide hours’ worth of entertainment and education for primary school children, and I expect that this particular copy will be out on permanent loan as soon as I add it to the library. I will certainly be looking for further titles in the series by this talented author and illustrator partnership.

My Most-Loved MG Books of 2019


2019 has been a wonderful year for the choice of newly published children’s books and I feel very privileged to be able to read so many of them in order to make suitable recommendations to children at school. Unlike the dark ages when I was a child, there is such a variety of incredible fiction and non-fiction available, that there really is a book out there for every child to fall in love with. It is almost impossible for me to narrow down a list, and I am sure that I will kick myself after posting for missing something out…but here are the 20 books I have enjoyed reading the most in 2019.

The Somerset Tsunami by Emma Carroll: the Queen of Historical Fiction strikes gold again with a tale woven from a local natural disaster.

Scoop McLaren, Detective Editor by Helen Castles: debut detective mystery which combines small-town nostalgia with modern technology.

The Lost Tide Warriors by Catherine Doyle: lyrical and magical writing which had me in tears of joy and sorrow.

Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone: the most incredible world-building from an  author who sets new standards with every book.

Check Mates by Stewart Foster: chess, buried secrets and ADHD combined in this fast-paced, emotional story.

The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet by Martin Howard: zany travel adventure through undiscovered corners of the universe on the back of an overloaded moped; an absolute hoot!

Pages & Co. Tilly and the Lost Fairytales by Anna James: leave your cardigan on the back of your chair and join Tilly’s as she travels through more magical library adventures.

Girl 38, Finding a Friend by Ewa Josefkowicz: three interwoven stories of friendship in a beautifully written book.

Battle of the Beetles by M.G. Leonard: the final part of this amazing trilogy which made me look at insects with renewed respect.

Peril en Pointe by Helen Lipscombe: An exciting twist on the child-spy genre, this time set in the fascinating surroundings of a London ballet school.

A Witch Come True by James Nicol: the final instalment of Arianwyn Gribble’s heartwarming story in which our accident-prone heroine fulfils her destiny.

On the Origin of Species by Sabina Radeva: a perfect example of children’s non-fiction, as Charles Darwin’s theory is illustrated and updated by this creative molecular biologist turned illustrator.

The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q Rauf: Masterful and moving storytelling opening the readers’ eyes to the terrible scourge of domestic violence with utmost sensitivity.

The Good Thieves and Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell: yes two books from an author who is wise beyond her years. A fast-paced adventure set in prohibition-era New York and an essay, copies of which has become my gift of choice this year!

Bloom by Nicola Skinner: another debut of astonishing imagination with a magical, ecological theme.

Kat Wolfe Takes the Case by Lauren St John: the second case for the Wolfe and Lamb Detective Agency which seamlessly weaves environmental themes into a complex mystery plot.

Our Castle By the Sea by Lucy Strange: a gripping tale of loyalty, family secrets and legend set in a Kent lighthouse at the outbreak of World War II.

The Boy With the Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson: wonderfully empathetic writing takes the reader into the heart of a blended family dealing with emotional issues and living with ADHD.

…and one book which I’m sure would have been on my list, if a certain member of my family had not lent it to a friend before I had a chance to read it (now returned and sitting on top of my TBR stack)…Top Marks for Murder by Robin Stevens!

Please let me know what you think of my selection, and tell me what I should be adding to my TBR stack for 2020.