Non-fiction round-up

The weeks seem to fly by, making it difficult for me to keep on top of reviewing what I am sent. Thankfully, now that it’s the summer break, I can catch up on my reading and reviewing pile because there are some GORGEOUS books out there waiting to be read!

This post is dedicated to the recent batch of lovely non-fiction books that I received from Nosy Crow, Little Gestalten and Big Picture Press. The covers on each are works of art in themselves and I think how wonderful it is now that children can learn about fascinating topics and have such beautiful books to look at. It makes learning a real pleasure.

So You Think You’ve Got it Bad? A Kid’s Life in Ancient Greece, by Chae Strathie and Marisa Morea, published by Nosy Crow, in association with the British Museum

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Anticipating groaning children’s complaints about their hard lives, this series shows its readers that, actually, living in the 21st century isn’t all that bad compared to children who lived thousands of years ago. Despite the joy of living in a sunny, warm climate, Ancient Greek children had some pretty strange life experiences. Girls now might (or might not) jump for joy at the non-requirement of school attendance, while wealthy boys had their own slave called a Pedagogue who had to take them to school, sit with them in lessons, and ensure they behaved, before helping them with their homework when they got home. Then, if you needed a good clean from playing in the dirt, you had to rub olive oil all over your body and scrape it off with a strange implement called a Strigil, if you didn’t have easy access to water in your house. Imagine how much that would cost nowadays!

The book is fascinating and funny – though personally I wasn’t too keen on the speech bubbles with modern slang in them, just my preference. I felt the facts were great enough on their own and provided good humour anyway. But I am old and this is aimed at young people! The book combines a good mix of information and illustration in its layout, making this an enjoyable read and one you can pick up and put down as you wish. Great for young children who are learning about Ancient Greece (and their curious parents too!).

Press Out and Decorate Ancient Egypt, by Kate McLelland, published by Nosy Crow in association with the British Museum

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Another collaboration with the British Museum sees this gorgeous title that informs through reading and doing. The wire-bound book has press-out pieces of figures and animals related to Ancient Greece, with an accompany guide to what the items are. For example, you can make a Canopic Jar, used by the Ancient Egyptians to store a mummy’s liver, lungs, intestines and stomach. Or you could create a Sphynx – and the one in the book is very friendly-looking! There are holes in the top of many of the figures, so you could either hang or sit these on display, and the material is robust enough to survive fumbling fingers. You can also colour these in and use them over again as stencils for your own creations.

This is a lovely idea for a rainy-day activity and also provides good props for a display if you’re a teacher covering this topic with your class. At the moment, I am just admiring the rich gold of each cardboard page – I don’t want to ruin it with my clumsy fingers!

Out and About Night Explorer, by RobyN Swift and Sara Lynn Cramb, published by Nosy Crow and the National Trust

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Doing things at night always feels more exciting than going out in the day. The added intrigue of the dark makes everything seem more mysterious and fun and the suggested activities in this book will keep enthusiastic nature detectives interested. You could build a tepee using tree branches and sticks; create a moth show by hanging a white sheet on your clothes line and shining a torch on it to attract the insects; make your own hedgehog home using a cardboard box, or just wander around looking for nocturnal insects, animals and birds. The book contains useful identifying information for children, ranging from the basic way a creature looks to naming them by their poo. Young astronomers will find the stargazing section fascinating – I must put this to use next time we get a clear evening so I can name something more than the Frying Pan.

There are Bugs Everywhere, by Britta Teckentrup, published by Big Picture Press

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I’ll preface this review with a warning: I’m quite squeamish and find insects with long, hairy legs terrifying. When I was little, I had a nightmare about woodlice taking over the world and shoving me in a tumble dryer. So I don’t usually ‘do’ bug books. However, I adore Britta Teckentrup’s illustrations and I decided to be brave and look inside this lovely book. I must say that her colourful, sensitive drawings make learning about insects more palatable than the photographic versions available to children and adults. I can see the character and possibly beauty of a Japanese boxer mantis, whereas when I was at school, and my friend brought some preying mantises(?) in to show us all, I had to hide in the corridor. The book tells you what constitutes a bug (it must belong to the arthropods group and have six or more legs as well as an exoskeleton); how they see and breathe; how long they’ve been around (some have existed for over 500 million years in the ocean) and how many of them are the ultimate hunters. As well as providing facts, the book invites the reader to make their own guestimates about things such as which is the strongest, longest, noisiest and fastest. This is a bug book that I can stomach, though I still remain wary around these amazing but sometimes stomach-churning creatures.

The Language of the Universe: A Visual Exploration of Mathematics, by Colin Stuart and Ximo Abadía, published by Big Picture Press

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Like insects, mathematics also terrify me. I have a mental block with them and when my husband and daughter start discussing matters related to squared or cubed numbers or algebra, my brain freezes and all I hear is ‘blah, blah, blah, blah.’ But this book actually makes maths look interesting! The huge cover alone, with its glorious sparkles and colour, shows that it’s not just about dull numbers. No! Although while I can accept that Maths is like a language, I won’t accept that, ‘Maths is arguably the most understood language in the world.’ I get the point – we can use numbers no matter what language we speak because maths is universal. But I am still at pre-holiday-maths level with no sign of improvement.

That said, much of the information contained in this book is mind-blowing. Nature uses the Fibonacci Sequence (well, he discovered it – they were already using it) to pack the most amount of seeds into a space. It has the basic principle that you add up the previous two numbers to get the next in the sequence – 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21 – etc. Sunflowers rock this with their seeds. Cicadas exemplify prime numbers (they live in the ground for 13 years, then burst up in a group, feed, mate, lay eggs and then the babies hatch and return to the ground for 13 more years). Cicadas seem to be very good at counting. That was supposed to be a (poor) joke but actually some animals can count, according to the book. For example, three-day-old chicks were put in the middle of two screens. The chicks watched as the scientists put one ball behind one screen and four behind the other. Nearly all the chicks moved to the screen with the most balls (I would have been the chick who was the exception). THEN, the scientists took two of the four balls away and put them behind the first screen, so there was three behind that and two behind the other. The book says ‘The young chicks had to work out the sums 4-2 and 2+1. Amazingly, 80 per cent of chicks correctly moved to the screen with 3 balls).’ I find this all fascinating but I must admit I’m still wondering if the chicks understood English (or whatever language the scientists spoke) and knew they had to always go to the screen that had the most balls. Am I missing out on something here?

The fact that I am wondering aloud, or on screen, in this review shows how much this book has grasped me with its information. I want to read more, even if my number-challenged brain keeps saying, ‘What?’. I am very glad that Big Picture Press brought out this book because maths can seem like a difficult subject to interest children and the subject, as a whole, hasn’t had a lot of pages dedicated to it in such a fun and fascinating way.

Recordmania: Atlas of the Incredible, by Sarah Alexandre Emmanuelle and Tavernier Verhille Figueras, published by Little Gestalten

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In the school library, the Guinness Books of World Records are a huge favourite with the children. Children from years 2 upwards run to grab one of the books and share the amazing information inside with their friends. They particularly seem to gravitate of course to some of the more grotesque features, giggling at the pictures and the horrifying facts that accompany them. But I totally understand why they love these snippets of amazing information. You can learn something bizarre and entertain friends and family with that for ages!

This volume does a similar job, swapping photos for beautiful illustrations. We learn, for example, that the smallest dog ever was the Teacup Yorkshire Terrier Sylvia in 1942, who measured only 3.7 inches and width and 2.8 inches in height and weighed a mere 7 ounces. The smallest house was one built in 2012 in Warsaw – so tiny that apparently you could walk past it and not even know, even though it had two stories, with one bedroom, one bathroom and one kitchen. Apparently seven people maximum could fit inside. This sounds like something that would spring up in London to solve the housing crisis – and would cost a fortune to buy. The quietest place on Earth? Microsoft’s Anechoic Chamber. Apparently this is a lab where sound and electromagnetic waves are measured and the walls absorb 99.9% of the sound waves. On the contrary, the loudest band in the world is/was Manowar, which broke or made the record when it played in Germany on 9 July 2008. During the song ‘Call to Arms’, noise levels reached 139 decibels. Ouch. I could go on and on. This is packed with fascinating facts and I think, once I’ve finished writing this review, I will be here for the rest of the evening. Perhaps creating a record for the longest time spent reading a record book?    

Please note that I was sent copies of all these books by Nosy Crow, Little Gestalten and Big Picture Press for review, but this did not influence my reviews in any way. Thank you to the publishers for the gorgeous books!

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