I’m loving the current trend of beautiful non-fiction picture books aimed at middle grade readers – these huge, fully illustrated books are the stuff of childhood dreams for an inquisitive kid, no matter what subject! I’ve rounded up six of my recent reads to show you – all of these were sent to me for review, but my opinions are my own.
As Large As Life by Jonny Marx, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat, from Little Tiger
This is sure to entertain little animal lovers, with so many interesting facts about the strange and wonderful creatures of the world, all set against fully illustrated spreads in a bright, eye-catching style. There are animals in here I hadn’t even heard of, so it definitely doesn’t stick to the same old few!
However, I’m not entirely sure it does what it says on the tin, or rather what the title and blurb imply – there’s actually not a huge focus on the relative sizes of the animals, nor are they grouped in any particular sizes (ie, world’s smallest or biggest) but rather by habitat, so the book as a whole comes across as more of a general collection of animal facts. On one double-page spread, “The Shallows”, there are nine animals depicted and only one has any mention of its size (and that’s only that it’s “a small species”). There’s also no introduction on each spread, just isolated facts amidst the art, so it’s a little chaotic to read. It’s still very lovely, but I just felt it wasn’t quite as cohesive a theme as it could have been. There’s a beautiful fold out image at the end which has all the animals mentioned depicted to scale – at least I assume they’re to scale. This is described as a “chart”, but has no key or information on it, only art, so again, it’s not really exactly what is described.
Overall, I think this is a great book for those who want to learn some new animal facts, but don’t go into it expecting it all to be about size!
Hide and Seek History: The Greeks by Jonny Marx, illustrated by Chaaya Prabhat, from Little Tiger
I’ve previous reviewed another book in this series, The Egyptians (click here for that!), and adored it, so I was super keen to review this one! As with the previous book, this is an absolutely stunning book, from its heavy weight, to its foiled cover, to the intricately detailed flaps on every page. Although the facts are concisely written and would be very accessible to confident readers, you could spend hours poring over the details in this book – it’s just beautifully designed, and the flaps (often multiple layers of them!) are fitted into the artwork so satisfyingly. I was hugely impressed with the page featuring the Twelve Labours of Hercules, which is just gorgeous! Unfortunately the glue had been put down wrong in a couple of places in my copy, but I imagine this is a fluke and it just made a couple of the flaps harder to open.
The book covers aspects of Greek civilisation from literature to religion to war, and also briefly discusses archaeological discoveries and some key artefacts, like the Riace bronzes. It’s not the most nuanced discussion of the issues with archaeology, of course, nor does it offer an in-depth analysis of Greek civilisation, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect that in a non-narrative book like this, and it would make a great starting point for interest in the classical world. There is a good attempt made to feature archaeologists who aren’t white men, though, which I appreciated a lot, and Ancient Greek women like Hypatia and Sappho make appearances. There is a range of skin tones amid the background characters (though not as many darker characters as in The Egyptians).
I love this series, and think the interactivity of these books is the perfect way to kickstart an interest in history!
Everything You Know About Dinosaurs Is Wrong by Dr Nick Crumpton, illustrated by Gavin Scott, from Nosy Crow
Wow, this is the best dinosaur book I’ve read, I think! Busting myths on every page, this book is written in a jaunty, accessible style that lays out all sorts of things we used to think about dinosaurs and why they’re wrong. It’s full of dinosaurs I’d never heard of before, and even the ones you do know might well look rather different – the illustrations are wonderful, giving colour, patterns, feathers and fluff to all sorts of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. I love that there’s a disclaimer at the end that a lot of this might turn out to be wrong in future too – what a way to get kids interested in the future of paleontology! It’s a great reminder that science isn’t a fixed thing; there are still discoveries to be made.
As well as the wonderful illustrations and fun premise, I loved the details in this book. There’s a page laying out what the different elements of Latin dinosaur names mean, which was fun for me as a linguist, and what I particularly loved was a spread dedicated to debunking the myth ‘Dinosaurs are for boys’, which features twenty current female paleontologists from all over the world. That’s just amazing to me, as so often you get a few token women in books like this, usually those who were among the first to break into the discipline and so their stories are centred on their struggles, but this is just celebrating an abundance of women doing their jobs well right now. I loved it.
I’m going to be buying this for all the dinosaur kids I know!
Secrets and Spies by Anita Ganeri, illustrated by Luke Brookes, from Little Tiger
From a book I adored to one where I wasn’t sure what to make of it! I was expecting Secrets and Spies to be an upbeat, lighthearted look at child-friendly aspects of espionage, with things like gadgets and codes, and while there is some of this in there, there’s also quite a bit of detailed chilling history – this isn’t the kind of ‘horrible but funny’ Horrible History style writing, but instead it can be bluntly brutal, with illustrations to match. I found it very disconcerting to turn the page from ‘try it yourself!’ code games to to an illustration of Mata Hari facing a firing squad, and there are equally abrupt and bizarre tone shifts throughout. However, it does get points for its very cool art style, which is as slick and dynamic as you could hope for, and for including as many women as possible in what could have been a very male-heavy book. It also makes sure not to be wholly western- and white-focused, which I enjoyed, as it taught me some things I didn’t know.
Overall, I found this an interesting read, but I really couldn’t work out who this book was aimed at, as some of the content seems more suitable for teens and some for younger readers. I admire it from not shying away from the reality of spycraft, but I honestly can’t think of what age group I’d recommend this for.
A History of the World in 25 Cities, by Tracey Turner and Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Lilly VanderPloeg, from Nosy Crow
This book has it all – history, geography, and social commentary, packed into a really interesting format. Each of the 25 cities featured has a map that highlights important areas and buildings, and then two pages afterwards thast goes into a little more depth about the history of the city. It’s perfect for slightly older readers, perhaps 10+, as it’s quite densely packed with information, and it obviously has a lot of mentions of war and other political issues like slavery, displacement of indigenous people, and poverty. The maps aren’t as concerned with scale accuracy as they are with giving a sense of the city’s scope and feel, which comes across wonderfully well – they’re busy and detailed, and it’s a lot of fun to pore over the details of them.
There are obvious efforts made to be culturally sensitive, such as the use of the term ‘enslaved people’ rather than ‘slaves’, but on some of the issues, particularly those of conquering and colonialism, I felt it didn’t quite hit the right tone in places – everything is presented very neutrally and without judgement, which is obviously a conscious choice, but comes across more in favour of invasion than perhaps it means to. It also made it noticeable to me when this neutral tone wasn’t maintained – I noticed this when talking about Granada, which includes the phrases “Muslim Berber and Arab invaders… went charging through Spain” and “…until the Islamic kingdom was finally overthrown”. To me this felt more judgemental than, for example, “Captain James Cook… claimed Eastern Australia for Britain, despite the fact there were people who already lived there…”, but I appreciate I might be reading too much into it. Still, I think taken in conjunction with a conversation about the nuances of history, this is an amazing book to discover a huge range of cities and glimpse their histories. I do really recommend this!
Mummies Unwrapped by Tom Froese, from Nosy Crow
Another British Museum book, and this one is a shiny golden treat! This book digs in more deeply to the topic of mummies than many books about the Ancient Egyptians, and I found it fascinating. As well as the usual gory details of hooking out brains and putting organs into jars, there’s also info on all the different people on an embalming team, the techniques used to wrap mummies, and other things placed into the sarcophagus, not to mention sections on funeral rites, and the history of their rediscovery and ‘mummy mania’. I feel like I’m writing this a lot in this post, but I really did learn some new things from this book too, and I was obsessed with the Ancient Egyptians as a kid!
Obviously this does discuss dead bodies, so might not be the best for very squeamish readers, but the text itself is well written, striking the right balance between interest and respect, while still being easily understandable. There’s a good glossary at the back too, to help out. I definitely recommend this one for history fans!