From the origins of life to the mysteries of the unexplained, Sue McGonigle selects recently published non-fiction that could find a place under the Christmas tree.
The Natural World
What’s Wild Outside your Door? by Peter Wohlleben (10-12) is a book to inspire city children to explore their neighbourhoods and discover the natural world on their doorstep. It covers equipment, where to look, what you might find, simple experiments and how to record or display your finds. A substantial read, it is translated from the original German and fully illustrated with clear and attractive photographs and artwork from the best-selling author of The Hidden Life of Trees.
A book which focuses on the subcategory of insects who feast on humans in different ways, Please Don’t Bite Me by Nazzy Pakpour, illustrated by Owen Davey (8-10) covers a range of pesky creatures from mosquitoes to cockroaches, wasps to fleas. We learn it is the female mosquito who is the bloodthirsty one, why wasps are amazing architects and which insect is the world’s worst housemate. Written in a lively style, and beautifully designed and illustrated.
Sarah Darwin and Eva-Maria Sadowski, the creators of Evolution (8-10) suggest we join them on an exhilarating journey from the origins of life to the present day. Themes covered include creation, natural selection and fossil hunting as well as contemporary concerns notably climate change. Pioneering individuals feature throughout from Charles Darwin (The author’s great grandfather) and Mary Anning to Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough. An interesting book with a retro feel to the font and illustrations, it includes maps, charts, and a timeline.
The Night Sky and Space
The wonder of the world at night is explored from different angles in When the Stars Come Out, a highly attractive book by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by Lucy Cartwright (8-10). Readers are invited to look up at the sky at night, find out about the history of astronomy and marvel at the aurora and shooting stars. Other topics include nocturnal animals, humans and their sleep patterns, fear of the dark and night-time festivals.
Luna Scope is keen to become an astronaut and with her grandmother as her guide, embarks on a special programme, learning about the universe, space travel and training in zero gravity. In the process she also learns about female scientists, engineers and astronauts from Valentina Tereshkova to Wally Funk and Katherine Johnson. We are all Astronauts is a lively feminist take on space exploration from Kate Pankhurst, the creator of Fantastically Great Women.
Human Stories and achievements
Travelling through time, Brilliant Black British History by Atinuke, illustrated by Kingsley Nebechi (8-10) introduces us to important topics including slavery, the British Empire and fight for independence, the Windrush generation, racism and the richness of Black British culture. Readers also learn a little of the individual stories of Black Britons from former slaves in the Georgian era to First and Second World war heroes.
Focusing in particular on the Second World War, Spies by David Long, illustrated by Terri Po (10-12) tells the exciting stories of secret agents working undercover to access classified information for the war effort. It includes the story of Roald Dahl and his involvement in a scheme to try and persuade the Americans to take part in the war and the dancer, Josephine Baker who used her stardom to gain access to diplomats, listen to their conversations and carry messages.
Following the success of Kay’s Anatomy, Incredible Inventions by Adam Kay, illustrated by Henry Paker (8-10) is an entertaining guide to inventions that changed the world. It focuses on everyday objects in our homes, transport and communication; from safety pins to satnavs. Lots of fun with interactive elements, imaginary inventions and (warning!) rather a preponderance of toilet humour.
The Book of Mysteries, Magic and the Unexplained by Tamara Macfarlane, illustrated by Kristina Kister (8-10) is a book which invites young readers to wonder and ask questions. It looks at magical objects, figures including witches, wizards and familiars questioning why witches get a bad press and wizards generally don’t. Legendary places, strange happenings such as ghost trains, hauntings and curious creatures, aliens also feature and it asks big questions such as is time travel possible?
OK, this is stretching the nonfiction genre but The Secret Lives of Dragons Prof Zoya Agnis, illustrated by Alexander Utkin (8-10) is a highly inventive look at the world of dragons from an international expert(!). It includes chapters on dragon evolution, different species and notable sightings. The history of dragons in stories is included with the tales of Perseus and Beowulf. Keen ‘drackenosphers’ are advised to listen for the sound of leathery wings and invest in a pair of heatproof gloves and a book of riddles and jokes.
Music, Dance and Celebration
Following the success of Musical Truth, in Musical World Jeffrey Boakye aims to present Modern World History ‘as you’ve never heard it before.’ Readers take a 300-year trip through time exploring how forty songs can be seen to represent key moments in world history. Each chapter starts with a question, from the factual ‘How did black culture make it into the pop mainstream?’ to the philosophical: ‘How can music bring joy through pain?’ Illustrations are by Ngadi Smart (10-14).
Dance by Sir Alistair Spalding illustrated by Jason Raish (10-12) is a stunning coffee table sized gift book for the dance enthusiast in the family. Ballet is covered in depth as well as dance styles around the world from Morris Dancing to Flamenco. Its ceremonial and social role is explored and the power of dance to tell stories. Back stage we learn about choreography, set and costume design. The illustrations make clear dance is not just for girls, in fact the majority of the individuals named both on stage and behind the scenes are male.
Another very attractive book, Celebrate! by Laura Mucha, illustrated by Hannah Tolson (8-10) outlines 50 festivals around the world from those internationally well-known such as Diwali, Chinese New Year and Christmas to festivals specific to a particular place or people and the reasons for them. For example, we learn about Witangi Day marking the signing of a treaty in New Zealand and the Iditarod Trail Sled dog race from Alaska to the USA.
General Knowledge and Fact finder Fun
The Big Book of Things to Know by Sarah Hull, Laura Cowan, James Maclaine, and illustrated by Susanna Rumiz, Alyssa Gonzalez, Carolina Búzio and Paul Boston (5-8) covers four popular themes: Your Body, Space, Animals and Dinosaurs, and is a great introductory general reference book. Readers will learn interesting information to astound family and friends such as why their blood is red, and how many people it takes to land on the moon. With an accessible layout, appealing artwork plus glossary, index and downloadable links this is a great book for young fact finders to explore.
And finally, History Factopia by Paige Towler, illustrated by Andy Smith (5-8 & 8-10) is just the book for Christmas Day (or rainy-day amusement) with a clear and colourful layout and a good mix of photographs and artwork. It is ideal for random browsing of trivia. Readers choose their own trail through the book. For example, by starting with naked athletics in Ancient Greece you can travel to the first Jamaican Bobsleigh team and then onto the invention of artificial snow in Hollywood.
Happy non-fiction reading, one and all!
Sue McGonigle is an independent consultant and co-creator of Lovemybooks.
What’s Wild Outside your Door? Peter Wohlleben, Greystone Kids, 978-1771648950, £14.99 hbk
Please Don’t Bite Me, Nazzy Pakpour, illus Owen Davey, Flying Eye Books, 978-1838740900, £14.99 hbk
Evolution, Sarah Darwin and Eva-Maria Sadowski, What On Earth Books, 978-1912920532, £16.99 hbk
When the Stars Come Out, Nicola Edwards, illus Lucy Cartwright, Little Tiger, 978-1838915124, £14.99 hbk
We Are All Astronauts, Kate Pankhurst, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 978-1526615435, £7.99 pbk
Brilliant Black British History, Atinuke, illustrated by Kingsley Nebechi, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 978-1526635716, £12.99 hbk
Spies by David Long, illus Terri Po, Faber & Faber, 978-0571361854, £12.99 pbk
Incredible Inventions, Adam Kay, illus Henry Paker, Puffin, 978-0241540787, £14.99 hbk
The Book of Mysteries, Magic and the Unexplained, Tamara Macfarlane, illus Kristina Kister, DK Children’s Books, 978-0241612071, £16.99 hbk
The Secret Lives of Dragons Prof Zoya Agnis, illus Alexander Utkin, Flying Eye Books, 978-1838741174, £9.99 pbk
Musical World, Jeffrey Boakye, illus Ngadi Smart, Faber & Faber, 978-0571377497, £8.99 pbk
Dance, Sir Alistair Spalding, illus Jason Raish, Big Picture Press, 978-1800783362, £25.00 hbk
Celebrate!, Laura Mucha, illus Hannah Tolson, Nosy Crow, 978-1839940415, £18.99 hbk
Big Book of Things to Know, Sarah Hull, Laura Cowan, James Maclaine, illus Susanna Rumiz, Alyssa Gonzalez, Carolina Búzio and Paul Boston, Usborne, 978-1805074113, £16.99 hbk
History Factopia, Paige Towler, illus Andy Smith, Britannica Books, 978-1804660409, £10.99 hbk