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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Funky Non-Fiction for Kids

Like the books featured in my post yesterday, these non-fiction titles all make liberal use of quirky humour to engage their child audience (and any adults lucky enough to get a look in as well!). I was extremely fortunate to be one of the winners of this bundle on Non-Fiction Day last year, and this review is sadly long overdue.

The books cover three broad topic areas: Maths, Science and History, and all have been at least dipped into over the past few months by both my daughters (aged 8 and 13). In all cases, an initial dip has lead to a longer reading session than originally intended, and a series of "Did you know that ...?" type comments. What more could you ask of kids' non-fiction? :)

The Murderous Maths of Everything by Kjartan Poskitt takes a narrative approach and can be read cover to cover. It uses a framing story of a visit to the Murderous Maths Organisation to give the reader a tour of some fascinating mathematical ideas, concepts and quirks. As a tour type book, it covers different areas including weird arithmetic, interesting geometry and quirks in measurements. It proved interesting to my fairly maths-averse daughters and certainly succeeds in showing how maths can be fun without getting dangerously geeky.

The two Horrible Science books are quite different, and have both been enjoyed in quite different ways. The Horrible Science Annual features experiments as well as explanations of concepts and comic strips of discoveries and facts. As an annual, this is an assortment of various types of science topic rather than having a theme. My youngest particularly enjoyed the 'Make a Freaky Face' page, which has kids doctor a photo of themselves to make the eyes and mouth upside down. Looking at this picture upside down is fine, but the right way up is really freakish. Naturally, this would be a fun thing to do with pictures of everyone in the family, and maybe some celebrity pics from magazines or newspapers ... [NB I've also seen this done on QI with a hideous version of Alan Davies, so it's not just kids who enjoy this.]


How to Draw Horrible Science has probably been the most revisited of all these titles, and both kids have been pleased with the results they've had in following the instructions in this book. I particularly like the care with which this has been produced: the book is wire bound, so it always lies flat open and it's easy to work from. Lots of different styles of people and animals are included, as well as essential and scientific additions like gaseous emissions, indications of speed, bodily excretions of all types and ways to indicate temperature and movement in drawing.

The first History title is the Horrible Histories Annual which, like the Horrible Science Annual, dips into lots of different historical topics rather than taking a theme. It serves as a perfect introduction to the Horrible Histories series or adds extra content to an existing collection. In typical annual style, it features puzzles and comic strips on suitably gruesome topics such as the Witch Trials, poverty in the Victorian period and 'Revolting Revolutions'. And, being the 2012 annual, there is also a section dedicated to games and sports with the Olympics and similar events.

How to Change the World with a Ball of String is an easily browsable volume that covers scientific as well as historical information. Its organising idea is the arbitrariness of important discoveries and events, and introduces many key world events by drawing attention to their randomness. Headings such as "Discover a Continent ... by going the wrong way" and "Fight a War ... by sitting still" will entice children to read about Columbus's discovery of the Americas and the lack of movement in the Western Front of WWI.

Overall, these volumes are great examples of enticing and intriguing non-fiction for children which capitalises on kids' natural curiosity. Each of these titles clearly starts from an assumption that children want to find out about things, rather than working from a list of what kids 'should' know.

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