Non-fiction continues to go from strength to strength, reflecting the vast range of material that it can cover; here we present plays, adventure London and, even the universe!  I wasn't going to make an Editor's Choice for this edition but Linda Newbery has reviewed the excellent When a Writer isn't Writing by Jenny Alexander and asked for this to be her editor's choice and so it is. Once again, an excellent selection of titles to discover and facts to ingest – whilst Linda Newbery has made her choice, I don't think I could without bias, so why not tell me your favourite?

How to be a Cowboy

Written & Illustrated by: Alice Lickens

Published by: Pavillion Books

Reviewed by: Louise Ellis-Barrett

Have you ever wondered how you could make yourself into a cowboy? The answer to all your questions along with a range of resources to help you in your mission, are at your fingertips in this wonderful activity book with its sheet of stickers and even a cowboy paper doll to create.

Once you are a cowboy, where do you go and what do you do? With maps of the most popular cowboy states you can choose your location, find yourself a ranch, learn the language, and then get travelling.

This little book is packed full of action and adventures for young children to create, they can use their imagination, along with a little prompting from the text and activities. Hours of fun to return to over and over again on your own or with friends.

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Escape to Wonderland

Illustrated by: Good Wives and Warriors

Published by: Puffin Children's Books

Reviewed by: Jayne Gould

‘And what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’

Tapping into the current trend for intricately patterned colouring books, this smaller sized volume, ideal to pop into a bag and take with you, gives the reader a fantastical version of Wonderland to make their own. Following the chronology of the original book, the artists have taken snippets of the story, mainly conversations and Alice’s thoughts, and illustrated them with beautifully detailed line drawings. The reader is invited to give free rein to their imagination as they meet the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat, take tea with the Mad Hatter and play croquet with the fearsome Queen of Hearts.

This is a book which will absorb older children and adults for hours, as they pore over the pictures and decide on their colour choices.

The level of detail in some of the kaleidoscopic drawings is quite astounding – the more you look the more you see!

Good Wives and Warriors is the creative partnership established by Becky Bolton and Louise Chappell after graduating from the Glasgow School of Art. They design large-scale installations for fine art settings as well as undertaking design commissions for a wide range of companies around the world. They have produced another colouring book for Puffin based on A Christmas Carol and a third classic title is to follow.

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When a Writer isn’t Writing

Written by: Jenny Alexander

Published by: Five Lanes Press

Reviewed by: Linda Newbery

There are a great many books on the craft of writing. My reservations about some of them is their implication that writing is like assembling flat-pack furniture – you only have to follow the rules to end up with a publishable book. Such advice may be helpful but, to me, over-emphasis on the nuts and bolts of writing omits what it’s really about. One book which counters this is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, first published in 1934 and still credited as an influence by many authors. Brande takes the line that unless you think of yourself as a writer, and cultivate that private, solitary, reflective side of yourself, no amount of technique will make you one.

This nurturing of creativity is at the heart of Jenny Alexander’s book. Her varied career has encompassed fiction and non-fiction for adults and children, both traditionally and self-published, and she regularly leads workshops for writers of all kinds. With Brande acknowledged as an influence, the advice given here differs from techniques-based manuals in its emphasis on finding satisfaction, self-knowledge and happiness in writing, rather than looking to regular contracts, sales, prizes and fame as the main measure of success. Would-be writers can now find limitless online advice about competing in a crowded field, on getting the attention of editors, agents and readers, and how to self-promote; but Alexander, points out that striving for commercial marketability can come in time to seem shallow. This is another way in which her book differs from others; most writing manuals are aimed at people seeking publication for the first time, whereas Alexander has much to say about mid- or late-career crises in which a writer can feel stale, even trapped by success, and in need of a fresh approach.

There is a great deal of useful advice here about coping with blocks. Jenny Alexander points out that we tend to set great store on being busy and productive, and certainly the children’s book world likes authors to produce books at regular intervals: 'Not being busy offends our ideas about how we should be, and the notion that results can come from doing nothing offends our ideas about how life ought to be. We want productivity to reflect the hours we put in at the computer and expect to be able to produce books like sausages, one after the other, so long as we apply ourselves to it.' Sometimes, however, we simply need to do nothing: wait, absorb, let the subconscious mind find answers.

Alexander’s advice about countering blocks includes self-questioning exercises to discover what’s stopping you, where your motivation is, and the values you want to convey in your writing. Interspersed throughout are short contributions from other writers (including one from me). Reading this satisfying blend of life-coaching, self-help and spiritual guide is like listening to a wise and kindly friend.

At first I made bookmarks on my Kindle edition, but soon found that I was bookmarking almost every page – there was so much that chimed with me. If you’re interested in finding fulfilment and happiness through writing, this book should be your companion. 

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Stuff that Sucks

Written by: Ben Sedley

Published by: Robinson

Reviewed by: Simon Barrett

Stuff: a pile of things not specifically described. 

Stuff that Sucks explores painful teenagers’ emotions and what happens to make this pain worse.

The book begins with a discussion of the painful emotions teenagers may feel - worry, sadness, loneliness, anger, shame – caused by the bad things that can happen life (such as parents divorcing or bullying) and their own negative thought process.  Our pre-historic brains make these emotions worse.  Societies claim happiness is normal.  Societies also claim the way teenagers are labeled, and the expectations that this comes with, are normal.  A sense of failure is thus created.  The more some teenagers try to avoid these feelings, the worse the feelings become.

Stuff that Sucks suggests it is better to focus on the things that teenagers care about.  Firstly the book proposes a number of exercises helping the reader to work out what they value.  Secondly, the book advises teenagers to be more mindful of the present, the here and now.  Thus it’s author encourages teenagers to accept these painful feelings, and instead of exhausting themselves trying to avoid them, live what is for them a worthwhile life, creating fewer opportunities for stuff that sucks.

The book is based upon the Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT, pronounced as the word ‘act’).  It is so-named after its core message: Accept painful things happen; Choose those values by which you want to live; Take action.  It is succinctly captured in the subtitle of the book, “Accepting What You Can’t Change and Committing to What You Can”.  Whilst ACT may help a range of young people, it particularly useful for individuals whose painful feelings prevent them from doing something they believe is worthwhile.  This can be characterized as a teenager saying ‘I want to change, but I am too anxious’.  ACT changing the but to and: ‘I want to change and I will ...’ [1]

Moreover Stuff that Sucks is accessible for teenagers.  The ideas are presented clearly, using helpful examples where necessary.  More important information is highlighted in bold and sometimes differentiated by font.  Illustrations usefully break-up some of the text in a stylized, age-appropriate way, whilst also supporting the main meaning in the text.  Some pages are full of text, however, the book makes good use of bullet-points and paragraphs for ease of reading.

Stuff that Sucks will be a really useful self-help book for many teenagers.  Parents and other adults working with teenagers may also benefit from reading it, particularly the ways in which we can inadvertently perpetuate a sense of failure in young people.  In my role as a Religious Studies teacher I am always talking about values with young people, but this book has made me think that maybe I need to make more time in my classroom to generate specific actions encouraging students to live a more worthwhile life.

[1] Claudia Dewane, “The ABCs of ACT — Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Social Work Today, Vol. 8, 5, 2008, p.34


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Counting Lions

Written by: Katie Cotton

Illustrated by: Stephen Walton

Published by: Frances Lincoln

Reviewed by: Bridget Carrington

This is a sumptuous hardback picture book in large format (35cm x 20cm), which surpasses even Frances Lincoln’s customarily high production values.  Although it appears as part of their children’s booklist, it’s something that could (and should) grace any adult coffee table. The foreword is by Virginia McKenna, a long-standing campaigner for animal conservation, and 5 per cent of the profits from this book will be donated to the Born Free Foundation that she co-founded, as will all author rights.

Subtitled ‘portraits from the wild’, it is the illustrations that catch our attention first, from the full-face image of the head of the male lion on the front cover to the giraffes wandering into view on the rear. Additionally (no pun intended), inside we see gorillas, tigers, elephants, Ethiopian wolves, penguins, turtles, macaws and zebras, all wonderful animals whose existence is to some degree threatened by the way the human animals wish to live their lives. These are charcoal drawings of enormous detail, drawn from photographs taken in the wild, and their monochrome shades somehow emphasise the form and movement of the animals where the use of colour might well detract.

On each double-page spread a large heading counts the animals from one lion to ten turtles, and this is repeated at the foot of eight lines of poetic but accurate description of the creature’s life in the wild. More detailed, factual information is provided in a further section at the back of the book, which also reproduces small images of each animal. 

The final pages tell us about the author, illustrator, and the Born Free Foundation and its celebrated founder, and guide the reader to organisations and further reading on allied topics.

This is a lovely book, but with a couple of technical issues in its physical production which I feel mar the reading experience. Firstly, the use of orange text on the white background is hard to read. Additionally, in the copy I read the gorilla and the tiger images, which stretch across the midpoint of the spreads, suffered from imprecise placing, spoiling the images by squashing the central detail.


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Tutankhamun's Tomb

Written by: Jen Green

Paper Engineering by: Keith Moseley

Illustrations by: Gary Slater

Published by: Quarto Books

Reviewed by: Louise Ellis-Barrett

Ancient Egypt is a fascinating subject, it is studied at School in KS2 and poured over at home by the many enthusiasts, adult and child alike who will both find this book irresistible and fascinating. 

As archaeologists continue to investigate the mysteries of the Pharaoh's tombs, more and more information is coming to light, and as technology advances, more discoveries are leading to a greater understanding of a fascinating history.

In this book, written in consultation with experts from the British Museum, you will discover the tomb along with a pop-up image of its imagined original discover. Then learn about writing, the Nile Valley and the Valley of the Tombs, the processes involved in the burial and preservation of the dead in Ancient Egypt and much more besides. Richly illustrated and with stunning pop-ups, this is a sumptuous and educational book perfect for home and the classroom – the prefect teaching resource and source of much new learning.

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Written by: J.L. Powers

Published by: Allen and Unwin

Reviewed by: Simon Barrett

Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, 2011. Fourteen year old Amina lives in a bombed-out house with her well-educated parents, ailing grandmother and older brother Roble. Al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist rebel group, controls the city and applies a strict interpretation of Islam. Amina and her family’s relative safety are threatened when Al-Shabaab declares her father’s art un-Islamic.

Amina describes the everyday reality of living in a city torn asunder by civil war. Amina and her family try to live a normal life. The children go to school in the morning and attend dugsi in the afternoon where they learn the Qur’an. In the evening, the boys play football and Amina goes to a friend’s house. Her father continues to paint in his studio since giving up his job as a university professor. Her mother is pregnant, previously having worked as a nurse in the city’s hospital. Everyone is afraid, leaving home only when necessary and always in groups. It is worse for the women, who should be accompanied by a male relative. As Al-Shabaab’s grip tightens, everyday becomes even more difficult, especially when the men in Amina’s family are taken. For a young woman, a pregnant mother and an ailing grandmother it means death by starvation.

The city seems increasingly fractious. Families must choose whether to stay or go, joining Somali’s nomads living in safety elsewhere in the world. Home telephones are unanswered.  The occupants have presumably left. The rich and powerful, having made money on the black markets, exploit and sell out their friends. Neighbours moreover turn their backs on neighbours. Everyone looks after their own interest as the drought dries up what food there is in the city and the continued uncertainty of whether Al-Shabaab will return. There is also friendship, readily helping those in need and giving of food to those who starve.

Amina remembers a peaceful Mogadishu. Amina’s parents represent this legacy. Her father had been an Art professor at the University and her mother, a nurse in the city’s hospital. Amina’s father still paints in a figurative style containing a political message that is no longer tolerated by those in power.  He is described as a devout Muslim, whose liberal values are not contrary to his beliefs.  Amina’s mother also reminiscences of more liberal times when women enjoyed greater freedom, where women went to the movies, restaurants and sailing.

Amina, the character, embodies the hope of a future Mogadishu. She resists the strict interpretation of Islam, daring to run wild through the city by herself. Amina is a poet and artist too. Her canvass however is the walls of bombed out buildings and her materials are the fragments of war, shards of glass and bullet shells. Amina writes about what has been lost, but also about the strength of her people to survive and the hope of a better life. This message amongst all the destruction reaches out to the citizens of Mogadishu, and in her naivety, expresses a honesty and love for life. Although there is pain, the story ends with the rebuilding of the city and those that live there.

The Through my Eyes series is a non-fiction series edited by Lyn White telling the story of children living in contemporary conflict zones. The series was inspired by the success of Deborah Ellis’s Parvana, and the editor’s own experience of hearing the stories of children from war-torn countries. Other books in the series are Shahana (Kashmir), Emilio (Mexico), Malini (Sri Lanka), Naveed (Afghanistan) and Zafir (Syria). 

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Stuff that Sucks