Posted in general and welcome, non-fiction, picture books

LOTS of Dinosaurs, Urban Jungles and Monsters!

When the postman delivers parcels of books to review, I always squeal with excitement at what lies within the book-shaped jiffy bag. It’s like receiving regular Christmas or birthday presents and if anyone knows me, they know that books are my favourite things (alongside perfume and clothes!).

Whenever I receive something from Big Picture Press, I know it’s going to be gorgeous, so it should come as no surprise to you that I am going to rave about the four titles in this post.

Lots, by Marc Martin

Published earlier this year, Lots is a fun way for children to find out about the world in which we live. Rather than take a very geographical approach to exploring different countries, Australian Marc Martin chooses cities (eg Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong) and places (eg Antarctica, the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands) to crowd his double-page spreads with fascinating facts and gorgeous illustrations. Each picture, each written snippet of information, has been hand-drawn and handwritten, making this book seem very personal and inviting.

Usually if I am presented with pages full of colour and text (eg comics) I find my mind becoming confused – unsure of where to look first or next. I didn’t have this problem with this book; instead, I let my eye wander around the pages. On the Tokyo spread, for example, I found out that there are lots of vending machines (I had no idea about this before), selling everything from soft drinks (pretty standard) to underwear (quite unusual!) and flowers (how do they keep them fresh?!). I learned that the Shibuya Crossing is the busiest crossing place in the world, with 10,000 people per hour making their way through it. What about the traffic lights?! And also, that the word ‘Kawaii’ means ‘cute things’ and that Godzilla is an official citizen of Japan.

In a previous post I mentioned that I love books with fascinating facts in them. Lots has already become my go-to book for trivia and certainly describes what is in this lovely book!

Dinosaurium, curated by Chris Wormell and Lily Murray

Image result for dinosaurium

I haven’t yet dared to take this book into school because I know it would be snaffled in an instant by a particular group of boys who are obsessed with anything dinosaur-related. At first I wondered how another book about dinosaurs could possibly be different to the many others that have been published (with them being extinct, surely most of what can be said has been?) but I was glad to be proven wrong.

The USP of this book is its approach and presentation. The fact that it has been ‘curated’ rather than ‘written’ is indicative of its uniqueness – the book is a 24/7 museum ‘that is always open to explore’. The contents are divided into several ‘galleries’, which are then classified according to what falls into them (eg in Ornithopoda, you have Primitive Ornithopoda, The Jurassic Period, Iguanodon, Hadrosauridae and Egg Mountain). Intrigued by ‘Egg Mountain’, I was interested to discover that this name was given to a plateau in the Rocky Mountains in Montana where a herd of Maiasaura made their nests and laid their eggs. Unfortunately, many didn’t hatch as they were covered by volcanic ash, but their loss has become our gain as they have been preserved for future study.

Even though I am not a huge fan of dinosaurs, I can’t help but admire this book, which is part of the ‘Welcome to the Museum’ series. It would easily be a valuable addition to an adult’s bookshelf and I imagine many will buy this because they are equally attracted to its beauty and factual content as their children. In-depth, intricate and impressive, this surely must be a Christmas present for any child who is into dinosaurs.

Urban Jungle, by Vicky Woodgate

Image result for urban jungle vicky woodgate

This is such a novel idea – to produce a book about animals that live in 38 cities around the world – and Vicky Woodgate does it so well. The aim is to look at the different animals that populate world cities because, as Woodgate says: “As urban areas continue to expand, we’re sure to see more and more wildlife on our doorsteps.”

I’m dual nationality British/Canadian, and I used to live in British Columbia, so I was keen to read about Woodgate’s selection of Vancouver animals, having had a couple of comical encounters with raccoons in Stanley Park (apparently home to around 500 species of fauna). Raccoons didn’t make it onto Woodgate’s list, but I was gutted to learn that I’ve never seen, for example, the Northern Flying Squirrel or the Western Red-backed Salamander.

Next I turned to Barcelona, another city in which I’ve lived, and apparently seen nothing much in the way of wildlife, apart from at the old zoo! Woodgate lists the Kuhl’s Pipistrelle, the Grey Heron, and the Painted Pigeon (I’ve never seen those in the Placa Catalunya), as well as the European hedgehog and Red Squirrel. I might have caught sight of the Iberian Bluetail Damselfly though when holidaying in the rice-growing region south of the city.

This is a great way to find out about the many different animals that exist throughout the world in more urban environments and could also be a fun addition to a city break for young people – and their parents! Colourful, factual and engrossing.

The Atlas of Monsters, by Stuart Hill and Sandra Lawrence,204,203,200_.jpg

Monsters, fairy tales and myths are amongst my favourite things so when this beautiful collection landed on my mat, I was very happy indeed.

At first, the book looks similar in layout to many produced by Big Picture Books – each country or continent of interest is introduced with a map with the ‘main’ monsters of note drawn onto it. This is followed by a page or two of short descriptions to match the monsters, detailing their names and the legends behind them. I was pleased to see the Sasquatch, which was a monster I was familiar with from British Columbia (though of course I’d never seen the fellow). I was interested to see a monster from Spain called Cuegle (from Cantabria) which apparently has three glowing eyes and arms with no hands or fingers. Apparently mothers put holly sprigs onto their babies’ cradles to keep them safe from the holly-hating Cuegle! The Gurumapa has an onomatopoaeic name – at first I thought him grumpy but it seems he’s more than that as people in Nepal think he’s a terrifying ogre with monstrous fangs.

However, there is a difference in this Atlas to other similar titles. Throughout the book there are notes and questions made by a mysterious explorer called Cornelius Walters, who lived in the 15th century. Walters in fact made this map … or is it just a hoax on the readers? The librarian who writes the introductory letter to this book isn’t sure what is fiction and reality, unable to decipher the cryptic code in Walter’s ship’s log.

So, we have a gorgeous series of maps drawn in a medieval style, short, punchy descriptions of monsters and a mystery. What’s not to like?

Please note that I was sent copies of the books in this post for review purposes but the views expressed are entirely my own.

Posted in general and welcome, non-fiction

Two nab-them-now non-fiction books

Today’s review on Childtastic concerns two amazing non-fiction books from Dorling Kindersley, which any child fascinated by fun facts will want to have at their disposal.

The first is:

Image result for 13 and a half incredible things you need to know about everything dorling kindersley

When I was little, I used to carry around a huge but deceptively light paperback book about amazing facts. I couldn’t get enough of learning about people, places and things from around the world and I’d tell anyone who would listen what I’d discovered. I still have that book – I can’t bear to give it away – but this new release from DK is a great addition.

The premise is simple: a double-page spread for more than 100 topics with 13 concrete facts about them and then a half-a-fact that acts as a myth-buster. For example, looking at the snowboarding infogram (Feel the Force – there’s a lot of pleasing alliteration in here and play on words), I discovered that while many people think that snowboarding is dangerous, you’re more likely to get injured playing football, basketball or rugby. (Tell my knees that!). Meanwhile, on the ‘Get the Message’ spread (about methods of communication throughout the ages), I was surprised to read that car phones date back to 1946, although to be honest you would have needed a car anyway to transport them, since they were a handset attached to a 36kg (80lb) box.

Image of Planet Parade, from the book.

The best ideas are simple ones and I can see that this will be a hugely popular addition to my school library. The children love books in which they can find facts quickly and easily and the accompanying images are arresting (I must admit I skipped past the enormous fly and the skull with the eyes literally out on stalks). This book is big, bright and brimming with fascinating facts that you can keep coming back to when you want to learn something new. I’m off now to read more about storms … not in teacups, though.

And… I’m back. The second title under the microscope today is a tome that requires some upper-body strength to lift.

Explanatorium of Nature - primary image

If you have a budding naturist at home, this is a must-read. The authors and illustrators of this book have chosen a huge variety of creatures and looked at them from different viewpoints, helped by the use of specially commissioned photography.  For example, in the spread below, ‘How Herbivores Work’, we find out exactly what it is that makes herbivores the animals they are, rather than the simple knowledge that they eat plants. They specifically need large digestive systems to help them break down the massive amounts of hard-to-digest cellulose that they ingest. As you can see in the picture below, giraffes often grab their food with their tongue, which is dark-coloured to help protect them from getting sunburnt (scientists think). I never knew that!

Explanatorium of Nature - look inside 3

A page I found fascinating was on how octopuses work. I had no idea, for example, that they are relatives of slugs and snails, and that they are amongst the most intelligent of invertebrates. Also, thanks to their soft composition (no hard internal or external shell), octopuses can squeeze through most spaces, as long as their beak fits (the only part of them that is hard). They are nature’s escape artists: ‘Houdinis’ with 8 legs.

I admit I skipped the insect pages – I have no stomach for creepy crawlies up close – but I had a good look through the rest of the book, which comprises ten chapters covering:

  • the basics of life
  • microorganisms
  • plants
  • invertebrates
  • fish
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • birds
  • mammals
  • habitats.

This is a huge compendium full of answers to all sorts of questions that any young natural scientist may have, such as why chameleons change colour, how wings work, and how trees work (did you know that more than 99% of a big tree trunk is actually dead?). This will be another much-borrowed book in the library, though I may have to ensure the children have adequate biceps to carry it!

Please note that while I received review copies of both books, the views expressed are entirely my own.








Posted in general and welcome, non-fiction

Even more animal magic!

Childtastic has animal fever this week, with Britta Teckentrup’s beautiful Where’s the Baby yesterday, and two lovely animal titles today, too! The first is Melissa Castrillón’s Animazes, which follows 14 of the world’s most fascinating animal journeys.

If you ask me what I know about animal migration I’d probably say that I know how salmon in Canada can swim miles and miles back upstream to spawn and die, and that certain (lucky) birds fly south to spend the winter in sunnier climes than in the UK. Not a very impressive bank of knowledge, I know. So, I was fascinated to find out that Mali elephants are constantly on the move to find water and food in the Sahara Desert, even travelling through the aptly-named Porte des Élephants (the Elephant Door) – a passage between two rocky ravines. Apparently, these large, beautiful beasts can travel up to 34 miles a day, though they tend to do so when it’s cooler at night.

And then there are the Christmas Island red crabs, who provide the world with one of the most colourful migrations when 40-50 million of them journey from the central rainforests of the island to the coast to mate and lay their eggs. One of the biggest dangers they face is the automobile, so special underground tunnels have been made to help protect them on their journey!

Animazes is designed so that readers must find their way from the creature’s starting point to their final destination, taking care not to take a wrong turn into a dead end. Fascinating facts are littered throughout the double-page spreads – for example, did you know that a wildebeest calf can run only five minutes after being born?! Melissa Castrillón’s stunning pen and ink drawings are vibrant and magical, lending beautiful artistry to her non-fiction subject matter. This is a book that any child would love to have on their book shelves, or any adult for that matter.

Animazes is published by Big Picture Press. I received a review copy but the views expressed here are entirely my own.

The second book, My Encyclopedia of Very Important Animals, from Dorling Kindersley, is a mighty tome that’s perfect for animal lovers.,204,203,200_.jpg

Split into four sections – All About Animals, Amazing Animals, Animal Antics, and More Very Important Animals, the book is both generalist and specialist when discussing traits belonging to species and individual members. For example, there are over 10,000 species of birds and they all have the following in common: they have feathers that keep them warm and dry, their babies hatch from eggs, and they use their beaks to clean themselves. However, not all birds can fly – emus have the ability to run fast instead. On the other hand (or should I say ‘wing’?) owls have special feathers that enable them to fly silently.

The encyclopedia combines a mixture of photography with illustrations designed to be eye-catching and appealing to children, particularly little ones. The pages aren’t word-heavy so it is easy to find information and absorb it, rather than be inundated by facts and explanations. Graphics such as photographs showing the different sizes of eggs belonging to a hummingbird, chicken and ostrich help children to understand and appreciate perspective and variety, while the colour coding at the top edge of each page helps them (and their adults!) navigate easily around the book.

Encyclopedias for children have come a long way since I was a child, and I think this would be a useful addition to any home or school library. The problem will be getting the child to put it down!

Please note that I received a copy of this book for review.

Posted in general and welcome, non-fiction

Non-fiction round-up

Boy, have I got a lot of lovely books here to review! I’ve fallen behind somewhat recently because of the end of the school term and then a much-needed holiday in Spain, but now I am hoping to be back up to speed again, with news of the latest titles.

(NB Before I proceed, please excuse any typos in this post. I’ve tried to check for them but my computer seems to be giving up the ghost and freezing when I type, missing letters out!)

First on my pile here are three lovely non-fiction books from Dorling Kindersley. Since I am keen on increasing the number of quality non-fiction books I have in my school library, I greeted these with particular enthusiasm and I think they’ll go down well with the children.

This wonderful book has everything children (and adults!) need to know about the basics of science, from ‘What is Energy?’ to ‘Properties of Matter’ and ‘Shaping the Land’. The book is full of double-page spreads covering all the major themes in science such as Earth and Space, Materials, Life Science, Physical Science, etc. Each of these spreads is colourfully illustrated with photos of the topics, diagrams, facts and ideas for experiments you can try at home (for example, you can half-fill a jar with soil, top it up with water and give it a good shake, then leave it for a day to see how the soil separates into layers).

What I like about this book is how science is made so accessible, fascinating and fun. I remember my early textbooks being drier and more theoretical in nature which perhaps explains why I never became so interested in the sciences as in other subjects. Children are very fortunate now to benefit from a real publishing push to make all subjects lively and entertaining and hopefully this will go a long way to encouraging more children to consider sciences as career choices from a younger age.

The next book I’d like to look at is the Children’s Illustrated Thesaurus, also by Dorling Kindersley.,h_578,w_459/v1/DK/7c6ebf2855a74892ba57c29af9a3f809/8b7073a8a3ca4fcc9fa9797a7d1f7815.jpg

Now, my first copy of a thesaurus was by the famous Peter Mark Roget, a British, Victorian natural physician and lexicographer (to my utmost shame, I thought he was French until fairly recently, having never looked him up or indeed wondered why a Frenchman would compile a book of English words). This thesaurus was very old – I think I picked it up from a library sale for a few cents (this was in Canada) and I thought it was the bees knees.  It always puzzled me though that there were no entries for words that began with the letters L, M, N, O and P until I was older and realised that a good portion of the book hadn’t been included in my copy!

I digress… this book, while lovely and incomplete, was not written with a child audience in mind. It had thin paper and tiny writing, with no pictures or useful explanations. The new Thesaurus by Dorling Kindersley, by contrast, is bright, easy to navigate and attractively illustrated with drawings and photographs. The words have definitions, followed by synonyms and, sometimes but not always, antonyms. Occasionally, whole or part-page spreads are given to a featured word, with an extract of text to bring its usage to life, and I particularly like the double-page spread at the beginning of the book which shows how to use it properly. With people’s ever-increasing reliance on Google and the internet to search for answers (I include myself in this group – it’s just so easy and quick now), I do worry that children are losing the ability to use old-fashioned reference skills. This book addresses this in a helpful way, while using an alphabetical bar on the left and right page of each spread to show readers where they are in the alphabet while researching a word (perhaps more useful than the traditional top-of-page references I had in my old Roget).

I would say that this Thesaurus would be a useful addition to any classroom library and could helpfully be used alongside schools’ weekly ‘Big Write’ activities, to encourage children to broaden their vocabulary while learning useful research skills.

Last, but not least, is Dorling Kindersley’s What’s Where on Earth ATLAS – an atlas with a difference because it’s not only a fab way to find out about countries and continents, but it is also in 3D.,h_578,w_459/v1/DK/e74de9114aba417183b8b7378657c7fa/5ca1231df49e4b0fafaa96dcf37cb2f4.jpg

With the National Curriculum focusing heavily on geography through related subjects such as history and science, this atlas is another hugely helpful resource in classrooms. Not only does it show where different countries are in the world, and in relation to each other, but it also includes interesting spreads on things like Famous Landmarks (just looking at the Europe page now, I can see Brussels’ Hotel de Ville, Toledo’s Cathedral and of course the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben), satellite images of countries by night, and a very red map of Africa’s climate (did you know that the coldest temperature recorded in Africa was in Morocco, where it reached -23.9C in 1935?!). Mountain ranges leap up in the pages, giving a much more realistic sense of the terrain than traditional atlases do, and the double-page spread allocated to the Grand Canyon is particularly stunning in this way. Animal lovers will enjoy reading about the different species in each continent (nice to see the Prairie Dogs of North America featured – I used to watch them sunbathing near my elementary school in Canada), while fact finders will enjoy the spreads with interesting trivia about each continent (did you know that more than 2,000 languages are spoken on the continent of Africa?).

I am looking forward to adding these titles to my library when the next school year starts in September. I’m sure the children will be eager to get their hands on them!

Please note that while I was sent copies of these books for review the views expressed are entirely my own.


Posted in non-fiction

It’s a small (minute!) world after all…

Microbe is a word that I think I know the meaning of but if you asked me to explain it I would struggle. So I was pleased to read Nicola Davies’s and Emily Sutton’s book Tiny Creatures – The Invisible World of Microbes, which is all about what these mysterious things are.

“…do you know that there are creatures so tiny that millions could fit on [an] ant’s antenna?

So tiny that we’d have to make the ant’s antenna as big as a whale to show them to you?”

That’s pretty tiny.

The book goes on to explain how these miniscule living things come in different shapes and sizes (wiggly, thin, daisy-like, etc) and that, unlike other creatures, they have no legs, arms, eyes and other parts.

They crowd together so compactly that a teaspoon of soil could have as many as a billion microbes, which is “…about the same as the number of people in the whole of India”.

They multiply in number extremely quickly, so it’s not surprising that exposure to just a few can make you very sick, very quick (having just had a nasty cold, I can testify to this!).

I didn’t quite understand how powerful microbes can be. I thought they just sort of existed, but gave no consideration to what they do. According to Nicola Davies, they can “wear down mountains and build up cliffs. They can stain the sea red, turn the sky cloudy, and make snowflakes grow.”

This is pretty impressive stuff for such tiny beings.

I’ve always found science interesting but I’ll freely admit that I get confused sometimes, very easily. However, I came away from Tiny understanding more about microbiology than I did post-GCSE.

(Maybe I shouldn’t admit that.)

Davies and Sutton have created a lively, interesting and beautiful book that is not only informative but interesting. The title is shortlisted for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize 2015, and it’s easy to see why. Like Shackleton’s Journey, in my previous review, it takes a narrative non-fiction approach, which helps bring facts to life. Davies gives just the right amount of detail to inform but not overburden the mind, at times even becoming quite poetic.

The drawings are superb – colourful and beautiful. If you’d asked me before I read this book if I’d ever put a picture from a science book on my wall, I’d definitely have said “no”. But Sutton’s illustrations come alive on the paper (thankfully not the germ-ridden ones!) and possess colour and movement, from the city-scape of New York City’s apartment blocks, with intricately drawn people in individual windows, to the sweeping spread of sea and mountains. The attention to detail is astonishing and complements Davies’ skill at taking a difficult subject and breaking it down into (not-quite-microbe) small pieces.

Having always had a much stronger preference for fiction over non-fiction, I am being won over by this new trend of narrative non-fiction. There will always be books with hard facts – and that’s essential – but this merging of styles will go a long way I think to bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction.

Posted in non-fiction, picture books

Bodleian Children’s Books – new imprint, lovely books

Just as I am getting back into the swing of reviewing children’s books, two beautiful titles came my way and I am delighted to give them space on Childtastic Books.

The Bodleian Library in Oxford has just launched a new imprint – Bodleian Children’s Books – with the aim of finding and republishing classic children’s books as well as publishing newly commissioned books. The two titles it has chosen to launch the imprint in September 2015 are Penguin’s Way and Whale’s Way, both written US author Johanna Johnston and illustrated by Caldecott Prize winner Leonard Weisgard.


The two books share a similar illustrative style and narrative. Johanna Johnston’s text is informative yet poetic. Take, for example, this short paragraph from Penguin’s Way:

They begin to choose partners. Two by two, they stand near each other and sing. They sing strange, echoing songs of love.’

and this, from Whale’s Way:

‘But the cows and their calves are rocked gently in the cradle of the water.’

These are both non-fiction books but the information is conveyed in a way that reads like a story, with an arc that is particularly evident in Penguin’s Way which covers a year in the life of an emperor penguin. I can imagine reading these to lovers of both fiction and non-fiction and can’t wait to introduce them to the children in my school library.

Weisgard’s drawings are beautiful and captivating, combining sponge-like backgrounds with sharp lines and colours. These books would look equally good on a coffee table as in a child’s book case but, unlike many coffee-table books, they aren’t just pleasing to the eye; the words are soothing and beautiful. As an avid avoider of nature programmes (I can’t bear seeing animals tear each other apart), this is a lovely alternative and these books are, I am sure, set to become classics once again.

Bodleian Children’s Books is not aiming to become a major player in children’s publishing, with a modest proposal to publish at least two titles per season. But the quality of the books on their list means that they deserve to make a good impression on the market.

Please note that while I was sent copies of the books to review, my opinion is entirely unbiased.

Posted in general and welcome, non-fiction

In celebration of ‘Book’

Today was the peak in the ‘Books are my Bag’ 2014 calendar, with many independent bookshops celebrating what they do and the wonderful products they sell. So what better time to review John Agard’s new and marvellous title Book?

I was sent the title to review by We Love This Book, a website for which I review regularly – mainly children’s and young adults’ books but occasionally adults’ titles too. You can read my review here: but I couldn’t resist posting a piece on it on Childtastic because, well, that’s what this website is all about!

image courtesy of

As a book lover, this was a piece of heaven. Agard, in his gentle and poetic style, takes the reader through the history of books, from a time before we ever had the written word, right up to e-books and Kindles. Book is the narrator, spilling plenty of secrets and trivia which delights even the mildest bibliophile (and there is information on where that word came from, too). The strapline says: ‘My name is Book and I’ll tell you the story of my life’, which sounds like a huge undertaking but Book is a slim volume, which packs a huge amount of knowledge into its small pages. It can be read in one go or broken into chunks and is suitable for reading aloud to younger audiences too, with black and white illustrations, poems, quotes, and excerpts from other books.

There is a gentle political message in Agard’s writing, cleverly woven into Book’s place in public libraries. We find out that ‘there were libraries in Rome as early as the first century AD’ although they weren’t open to the public till the middle of the nineteenth century ‘for free’ and that, once upon a time, signs outside libraries read ‘NO CHILDREN OR DOGS ALLOWED’. It is wonderful, therefore, that children can have access to the wealth of learning and possibilities that libraries provide… if they are allowed a future. At this point, ‘Book’ alerts us to the danger of losing libraries if funding is cut, saying ‘When politicians talk about closing a library to save money, I feel like knocking them over the head. And my hardback spine can give a jolly hard knock, I can tell you.’ If you have ever loved libraries, you can understand this sentiment, along with the wisdom of the Ancient Greeks who called a library ‘the “medicine chest of the soul”‘.

I urge you to buy Book for anyone and everyone who loves books. Or even likes them. And possibly those who are wavering between appreciation and indifference. It’s one of my top books of the year, and will stay with me for a long time.