Books I’ve read from the Gadgeteers Summer Reading Challenge 2022 List

A selection of books from the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge 2022

One of my favourite activities when my children were young was to visit the public library during the summer holidays to take part in the annual summer reading challenge. I love the way that this initiative has grown over the intervening years and with my science head on, I was delighted to see the Gadgeteers theme for summer 2022. Noticing a number of books that I’ve previously read and reviewed on the list, I thought that I’d post a summary of my reviews in case they help anyone to make their first choices.

Picture Books: here is the official list

One More Try written by Naomi Jones and illustrated by James Jones. Cute shapes demonstrate the principles of perseverance, resilience and tessellation.

The Little Pirate Queen written by Sally Anne Garland. An inspiring tale of a little girl who has learnt to create something from the resources she has at hand, can be read on a literal or metaphorical level and I think therefore appropriate for any class within a primary school.

Early Reader Books: here is the official list

Marv and the Dino Attack by Alex Falase-Koya, illustrated by Paula Bowles. A superhero powered by kindness and imagination saves the day at the Natural History Museum.

Middle Grade Books: here is the official list

Beetles for Breakfast written by Madeleine Finlay and illustrated by Jisu Choi. A stylishly illustrated exploration of the application of biology to solve some of the problems our planet will face over the coming decades. An absolute feast for the brain!

Sabotage on the Solar Express written by MG Leonard and Samuel Sedgman, illustrated by Elisa Paganelli. Futuristic fuel cells, scientific sabotage and a runaway train in the red heart of Australia all contribute to an edge-of-the-seat, runaway train detective adventure.

Harley Hitch and the Iron Forest written by Vashti Hardy, illustrated by George Ermos. A thoroughly engaging and entertaining mystery for readers aged 8+, with scientific exploration and discovery at its core. Illustrations throughout make this a great choice for children who are emerging readers.

Escape Room written by Christopher Edge and illustrated by David Dean. A fast-paced, immersive adventure with mathematics and artificial intelligence driving the plot.

I hope that you all enjoy these marvellous stories which introduce STEM principles, and find many more books at your local public library, to entertain and engage you in new ideas over the summer holiday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Roar Like a Lion by Carlie Sorosiak, illustrated by Katie Walker

Cover design by Sarah Darby, published by David Fickling Books

After nearly two years living with the COVID-19 pandemic, research shows that many children and young people are suffering with poor mental wellbeing, so this newly published title from David Fickling Books will, I’m sure, be welcomed by many school librarians and school counsellors. It is an absolute joy in all respects, from the glossy, colourful cover, distinctive artwork and playful use of different font styles and its inspirational approach to the topic of mental wellbeing.

Author Carlie Sorosiak has looked to the animal kingdom with which we share such a large percentage of our DNA, to identify lessons that we can take from the mammals, birds and even reptiles that surround us. The tone of this book is one of kindness and compassion, which is brilliantly highlighted by the muted pastel colour scheme and Katie Walker’s distinctive and uplifting illustrations. The inspired decision to focus on stories of animals makes this book hugely appealing to tweens and teens, who can hopefully take encouragement from the cameos outlined here and apply the lessons to their own daily situations. The text is accessible, the advice written in down-to-earth fashion and nicely broken-up with different font effects, colour panels and the aforementioned illustrations.

My own favourite chapter is entitled DIG A LARGE BURROW Be Your Kindest Self which starts with this quote from author Henry James:

Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.

page 74, quote from Henry James

the chapter continues with tales of animals which have demonstrated remarkable acts that we would construe as kindness; wombats allowing other animals into their burrows to shelter from the devastating bushfires that swept Australia in 2019; dolphins who have rescued surfers from shark attacks and a giant tortoise who “adopted” a baby hippo in a Kenyan wildlife park!

Whether you want advice on making friendships, reaching out to other groups in an inclusive manner, finding your inner bravery or accepting your own unique self, there is a story for you in this book. In fact, if like me, you just want to read a warm-hearted book, packed with interesting anecdotes from the animal kingdom then I encourage you to find a copy of this delightful book. It is aimed at a readership of 10+ but I honestly think it could be enjoyed by anyone and should feature in all classroom, library or home wellbeing collections.

I am most grateful to Liz Scott and David Fickling Books for supplying me with a free copy of Roar Like a Lion in exchange for my honest opinion.

Non-fiction November Review: Everything is True by Dr Roopa Farooki

To be published by Bloomsbury on 20th January 2022

I finished reading this book well over a week ago and it has taken me until now to process the information and raw emotion in order to attempt writing a review. As I am not at all certain that I can do justice to such an important book, I will start by saying that I urge you to read this book to gain some insight into the real impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare workers. It will open your eyes to the human story that the government and much of the mainstream media seem to gloss over in their slick presentation of statistics.

Before retraining in medicine, Dr Roopa Farooki previously published fiction, for both adults and for a middle-grade readership, additionally she lectures on a post-graduate writing course at the University of Oxford. Her prowess as a writer blazes through this account of her experience as a Junior Doctor during the first forty days, “la quarantena”, of the pandemic lockdown in March 2020. Already grieving for the loss of her older sister to breast cancer, she is exposed to the rapidly escalating crisis of COVID-19 infected patients at a time when the scientific and medical community were desperately trying to assess the best way to deal with the new virus and frontline medical staff were asked to treat patients with little or no protective clothing. The absolute vulnerability of the healthcare workforce facing this new threat is laid out starkly, and although it angers her, the language of the battlefield is deployed to  underline their sacrifice on the frontline.

The book is arresting in its structure. I think it is the first time that I’ve read a biographical account written in the second person. As a reader, you are forced into Dr Roopa’s shoes and experience the immediacy, viscerality and exhaustion of  her journey through la quarentera. This focus on the first forty days of lockdown demonstrates how unprepared the powers at the top of our society were, and reminds us that we could and should have learnt from the experience of clinicians in Italy, who desperately tried to warn other countries what they were about to face. This lack of leadership in the very early stages accounts for the anger that comes later in the recount, in the light of so many lives both clinicians and patients, lost unnecessarily. The doctor certainly does not hold back on her scathing opinion of our Prime Minister.

As lockdown is enforced Dr Roopa begins walking to and from work and in the early days spots a fox, which she thinks is basking in the early spring sunshine. As realisation dawns that it is actually lying dead under the trees, she charts it’s gradual decomposition which symbolises her own slow deterioration under the onslaught of the pandemic. As the flow of patients with breathing difficulties into the hospital increases, frontline staff must treat them despite a total lack of PPE, or even basic scrubs. You can almost feel the bone-aching exhaustion of 13 hour shifts in which she is lucky to get a 5 minute break. Being skilled at tricky procedures such as accessing awkward veins means that Dr Roopa is often called in to take body fluids from COVID-positive patients, increasing her own risk still further.

It does not escape the doctor’s notice that there is a disparity in the COVID-19 mortality statistics between populations of different ethnicities. Amongst the names of those healthcare workers who died from the virus in the early stage of the pandemic she recognises that the majority are of BAME heritage and, as someone who was born in Pakistan, she conveys the desperation of knowing that becoming infected could be a death sentence. This is compounded by a less than sympathetic domestic experience, where she is treated like a leper who might bring disease into the family home. With so little support from those around her, mental conversations with her deceased sister become a means of rationalising the situation. Inevitably, Dr Roopa does fall ill with COVID-19; thankfully she recovers to return to the NHS frontline.

I am beyond admiration and gratitude to Dr Roopa Farooki for her dedication to her dual vocations as both doctor and writer. I hope that this searingly honest account will open the eyes of many to the sacrifices that are made by NHS staff to protect the health of the nation; standing up to their responsibilities in the face of indifference, ineptitude and disrespect from some of those in power who should be supporting them.

I am grateful to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for access to an electronic proof of Everything is True ahead of publication in return for an honest opinion.

You can read my reviews of Roopa Farooki’s two Mini-Medics Mysteries written for a middle grade readership on these links: The Cure for a Crime and Diagnosis Danger.

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.

#GriefAwarenessWeek Review: Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Published by 4th Estate

This slim volume contains the powerfully emotional thoughts of acclaimed novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as she contends with her raw grief following the death of her beloved father, James Nwoye Adichie. The chapters are each just a few pages long thereby allowing the reader time to reflect on every step of her journey as she examines her pain and tries to reconcile herself to her loss. Her notes on grief provide snapshots expressed in her uniquely elegant style which speak to the universal suffering felt by those of us who have lost parents or other deeply loved family members.

My wariness of superlatives is forever stripped away: 10 June 2020 was the worst day of my life.

page 15

As she shares her pain, anger, frustration and utter disbelief that she will never again see her father, small details emerge of this kind, gentle and brilliant man. Like many thousands of bereaved individuals around the world the author had to deal with the pain of losing her “Daddy” at the peak of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, compounding the loss still further. She and her five siblings are marooned at different points on the globe, communicating their memories and sadness over Zoom and waiting on the vagaries of international travel before they can arrange a funeral. At a time when all of your usual compass points have been torn away, the feeling of utter helplessness is palpable.

In sharing such an intimate account of her own grieving process I think that the author helps us all to recognise and articulate the sorrow that we experience when a loved one dies and also provides assistance in expressing our condolences to others who are bereaved. She states right at the start:

You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language.

page 5

I think that many readers will be grateful that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has provided us with the words that both honour her own devastating loss and, at the same time, help us give voice to our own emotions.

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.