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: The Cure for a Crime by Roopa Farooki

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This fast-paced new entry into the MG detective fiction world certainly provides a story to wake you from your post-Christmas snooze and propel you headlong into the New Year.

Featuring super-bright, sassy twin sisters, Ali and Tulip, a grandmother (Nan-Nan) with hidden depths and a pair of frenemy twin brothers, Jay and Zac, the story takes off at a relentless pace and never lets up.

Ali and Tulip’s mother is a junior doctor, and as such, the twins expect her to be exhausted. However, since the instalment of her new boyfriend Brian Sturgeon into their home, mum’s zombie like state is so uncharacteristic that the girls decide to investigate. When their school teacher Mr Ofu exhibits the same symptoms as Mum, and they spot Brian Sturgeon on the school site, the two sets of twins team up to find out what the sneaky Professor, who describes himself as “Britain’s top brain surgeon” is up to.

As they navigate their way around London, the hospital where their mum works, and through school these sisters are never short of a smart reply, excuse or action to smooth their way. A unique aspect of this adventure is that the author, Roopa Farooki, herself a doctor, has infused the story with medical knowledge. The girls exhibit their life-saving skills and the appendix (very appropriate!) contains extracts from their Mini-Medix blog to further add detail. This is completely in character with Tulip’s personality and feels like an intrinsic part of her story.

As for Nan-Nan, she is a force of nature, who does not let her use of an electric wheelchair ( embellished with go-faster stripes) hinder her activities. She is the only character who can anticipate the off-grid activities of her grandchildren, always arrives at the perfect moment and has as many whip-smart replies as any teenager! She also shares the twin’s dislike of Sturgeon the Surgeon but initially tells Ali and Tulip that their mum is depressed rather than having been infected by some diabolical scheme run by the slimy boyfriend. However, once her hidden depths are revealed she puts her former “skills” to work in assisting them uncover the mystery.

This book is perfect for fans of Ruby Redford, Murder Most Unladylike and Alex Rider. Equally appealing to boys and girls, featuring a multi-ethnic cast of characters and strongly showcasing the practical applications of science as well as overflowing with useful facts it is a joy to read. I certainly hope that there will be further MG adventures from the talented Roopa Farooki to come.

I would recommend it for upper KS2 children because one plot twist featuring reproductive medicine will possibly require some discussion which younger children probably will not understand.

 

I am grateful to Kate Scott and OUP Children’s Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book.

Atlas of Ocean Adventures by Emily Hawkins and Lucy Letherland

 

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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.

Review: Codebusters by Dan Metcalf

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This book is an entertaining, easy read which opens a door to cryptography for a Key Stage 2 readership. It is produced by Bloomsbury’s Black Cats imprint, a set of fast-paced stories with illustrations throughout, designed to appeal to even reluctant readers.

Jackson Hilbert has to move schools, to Bletchley Grange, mid-term and decides to re-invent himself as “Jax” a popular footballer rather than the maths geek he was viewed as at his last school. However, he just can’t stop his competitive edge getting the better of him in a prime number challenge in his first maths class, and following a little code-cracking he is recruited by the “codebusters”!

Before his first week at Bletchley Grange is over, he is embroiled in deciphering a trail of clues alongside Jasper Newton, Michelle Chang and Charlie Babbage, to discover the whereabouts of a stolen school trophy. With guidance from the super-intelligent Captain Sir Alastair Horacio Turing PhD, this team of smart kids pool their talents to take on the challenges that the mysterious ”Elgar” has set for them.

I love the way that the author, Dan Metcalf, has played with the names of his characters and introduced ideas such as the Caesar cipher, which could spark an interest in the discipline of cyber-security in young readers. For those intrigued by secret codes, more information and some fun worksheets can be found on the author’s website: danmetcalf.co.uk I would certainly recommend this book as an entertaining read for children of 8+ and a great cross-curricular resource for accompanying aspects of the Key Stage 2 computing curriculum.

Animal-themed Picture Books

Scruffle-Nut by Corinne Fenton

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“As winter leaves tumble and twirl a wisp of memory wraps itself about me and whispers me back to long ago…”

Thus begins this poetic story which gently explores the subject of bullying through the tale of a young girl and a squirrel she befriends in a city park. When Olivia notices the little squirrel with the stumpy tail, whom she feeds with biscuit crumbs from her pocket, she realises that he is able to outsmart the faster, greedier squirrels she labels the Bully-Bunch. The wonderfully evocative artwork implies that she uses this lesson to deal with the bullies in her own life, and many years later she still remembers Scruffle-Nut as she sits in the park.

This is an incredibly beautiful book with which to start a conversation about bullying with young children; I would highly recommend it for schools and families alike. Corinne Fenton’s powerful writing will reward repeated reading and the artwork by Owen Swan absolutely compels your attention.

 

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review. 

Pip Finds a Home by Elena Topouzoglou

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Well here’s a picture book that likes to play with your preconceptions, a penguin at the north pole, a hooded explorer who is female, a penguin that isn’t a penguin … and ultimately turns out to be extinct!

 When Pip the penguin is transported from the Arctic to the Antarctic on an exploration ship, he tries to find his place amongst the different species of penguin which inhabit that hostile landscape. As the beautiful, watercolour, artwork by writer and illustrator Elena Topouzoglou shows us, Pip has similarities to, but is not exactly the same as any of the penguins he encounters. Despite their recognised differences, the penguins welcome Pip as their new friend and he joins in with their snowy games.

Finally he sees a bird that shares his striped beak, flippers that resemble wings and grey feet. It turns out that Pip belongs to the northern hemisphere after all, and in fact his species has been extinct for a long time. Can you guess which species Pip belongs to? Get your hands on a copy of this gorgeous book to find out! At the end of the story there is a non-fiction section packed with fascinating facts about these incredible birds which have adapted to live in some of the harshest conditions on earth. This book is sure to be a hit with readers of 3 and above, with its message of inclusivity, atmospheric artwork and educational content.

 

Thank you to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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. 

Review: Magical Kingdom of Birds The Snow Goose byAnne Booth

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This is a wonderfully gentle story, perfect for children from the age of six who love magical, fairy adventures and have an interest in the natural world.

Firstly, the book itself is irresistible with its seasonably scarlet cover featuring the titular snow goose, embellished with just the right amount of glitter to appeal to its intended readership. The 117 pages are beautifully illustrated by Rosie Butcher, which together with the font size make this book ideal for newly confident readers.

The story begins with Maya enjoying the company of her big sister Lauren, who has newly arrived home from university. They are preparing for Christmas, enjoying building a snow goose in the fresh snowfall and looking forward to a visit from two of Lauren’s university friends. When they go inside to warm up, Maya notices that the “Magical Kingdom of Birds” her special colouring book  is open in her bedroom, with a picture of a snow goose waiting to be coloured.

Only Maya is aware that this book, inherited from her mother, transports her to the Magical Kingdom of Birds as she colours the pictures. Once there she helps Princess Willow and a talking magpie named Patch to foil the wicked plans of Willow’s uncle, Lord Astor. This time Maya finds herself sitting beside a lake, in a wintry landscape, which is covered with magnificent white and blue geese. Princess Willow appears and explains to Maya that the geese are waiting for the Silver Snow Goose to arrive, bringing the first snows of winter, and then leading the Winter Festival before guiding the flock in their migration south. However, it appears that Lord Astor has kidnapped the Silver Snow Goose and it will take a great act of bravery to rescue him and ensure that the noisy gaggle of geese are safely lead to their winter feeding grounds.

As the adventure unfolds, the courage and teamwork of the geese is explored and an incredible amount of knowledge about these awesome birds is provided quite seamlessly as a natural part of the story. The loyalty and community spirit of the birds is inspirational to Maya and the lesson “to find your own way and listen to your heart” is presented in a non-preachy way. I loved the fact that Maya’s physical disability does not prevent her showing courage and contributing her skills and ingenuity to the rescue mission.

At the end of the book there is a factual section presenting a great amount of interesting information about snow geese; this is followed by an introductory chapter to another Magical Kingdom of Birds adventure, The Silent Songbirds.

I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful story and highly recommend it to readers of 6+.

 

With thanks to OUP Children’s Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review: On the Origin of Species retold and illustrated by Sabina Radeva

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This simplified explanation of Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking book, retold and illustrated by Sabina Radeva is one of the most sumptuous non-fiction books that I have had the pleasure to read, and I sincerely wish that it had been available in my, or my own children’s childhoods.

The first thing that struck me was the beautiful blue/green palette of the illustrations, which to me amplifies the beauty of life on our planet. Inside the covers there are detailed pictures of insects which the reader is challenged to find within the pages of the book.

The text is simple and straightforward, accessible to every reader, as it describes the way that living organisms have evolved on earth and explains Charles Darwin’s revolutionary theory of adaptation and evolution. The balance between text and illustration has been designed so perfectly that this book absolutely grabs your attention.

The work of other scientists such as Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Alfred Wallace is acknowledged, giving readers the message that scientific progress is often the work of more than one famous name. As you progress through the book, you fully appreciate the many years of detailed observations of multitudes of species that Darwin made in order to formulate his theories; the power of curiosity and wonder shines through the pages. Direct quotes from Darwin’s original text are illustrated with immense care and beauty by Sabina Radeva, whilst terminology like variation, natural selection and migration are explained with absolute clarity. I liked the way that difficulties in the theory and more recent updates are also discussed.

In summary, I think that this incredible book should be an essential addition to every school library to help all children understand how scientific discovery and scientific theories progress. Its extraordinary design can only help to enthuse readers about the natural world and scientific curiosity and development of understanding. I know that I will be gifting copies to my young relatives to marvel at. Oh, and don’t forget to identify the bugs and butterflies featured on each page!

 

This is #Book10 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge, hosted by Cathy at 746Books.

Review: Bloom by Nicola Skinner

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What a breath of fresh air! This is an amazing debut novel from Nicola Skinner with a mysterious plot which bursts into life and blooms with appreciation of the natural world.

In a corner of the grey concrete town of Little Sterilis there sits a literally, and metaphorically, broken home. Our reluctant heroine, Sorrel, lives with her mother in a house where the leaking taps seem to be crying and the “curtains were constantly pinging off their rods in some desperate escape mission.” The only way that Sorrel can cope with the sadness of her life is to be the best behaved pupil in her school, with boxes full of good behaviour certificates to prove the point. Her school Grittysnit Comprehensive perfectly mimics the town; a grey building containing pupils wearing grey uniforms, the Headteacher, Mr Grittysnit’s mantra is “May obedience shape you. May conformity mould you. May rules polish you.”

This ghastly man’s latest plan is to allow the school’s most generous benefactor, Mr Valentini the local construction magnate,  to concrete over one of the last remaining green spaces in the town, the sports field, and construct a new examination hall. He has also introduced a new competition in the school to encourage the pupils to conform to his ideal of good behaviour, which Sorrel is determined to win at all costs – even risking her friendship with intelligent, scientific, rebellious Neena.

However,  one evening a mini earthquake on Sorrel’s patio reveals a packet labelled “Surprising Seeds” and a mysterious voice begins talking to Sorrel. These manifestations eventually throw “the normal order of things upside out and inside down.” Firstly, in a town where gardening has ceased to exist, Sorrel and Neena have to track down Strangeways Garden Centre, where the down-at-heel owner, Sid gives them advice along with an old gardening trowel previously owned by Agatha Strangeways. An ancient book discovered in the school library named “The Terrible Sad History of Little Cherrybliss” and written by Agatha, brings the history of their town to light, and the sowing of the seeds has hilarious and unconventional results.

This book is an absolute riot of amusing wordplay, celebration of the natural world and a storyline that rampages faster than the bindweed in my vegetable patch. The friendship between Sorrel and Neena is brilliantly crafted, with their different personalities and motivations leading to misunderstandings and falling out in a very realistic way. I loved the image of Sorrel reflecting on a childhood photo of herself playing in a netted “soft play” centre under harsh electric lights and comparing this with Agatha’s childhood, playing outside in the meadows and the river. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, with a school setting that anyone can relate to, accompanied by a dash of magic which highlights the joy of nature and green spaces, the need to embrace the wild and to protect the living world. A highly recommended book for anyone of 9+

 

This is #Book5 in my #20BooksofSummer created by Cathy at 746books.com

 

Review: Holes by Jonathan Litton

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Until i picked up this book I had never even considered that a hole was more than just an empty space! However, in his introduction the author, Jonathan Litton, explains that he has wanted to write about holes since spending his childhood digging them! Thank goodness for that obsession as he has, over the subsequent years, gathered information on an incredible number of holes – which he presents here, accompanied by Thomas Hegbrook’s stunning illustrations.

I am simply incredulous at the amount of knowledge that I have learned on the subject of holes from this book. Just one surprising example is the reason that Swiss Cheese Plants have holey leaves – apparently it gives the leaf the best chance of catching maximum light in the rainforest! The range of natural holes is explained, we are informed where they are located, how they are formed and what they contain. In the “Man-made Holes” section there are fascinating facts about mining, wells and boreholes, tunnels, subways and living underground. Further topics include: holes made by plants and animals, architecture, astronomy and even a couple of pages on philosophy.

All pages are fully coloured and illustrated, with paragraphs of text packed with facts. My only criticism is that occasionally the dark text is printed over a dark background colour, making it difficult to read.  I think that children would need to be confident readers to access this book independently, I could imagine it being shared between an adult and children from 6+