They Did It First:50 Scientists, Artists and Mathematicians Who Changed the World

They Did It First: 50 Scientists, Artists and Mathematicians Who Changed the World
Julie Leung and Caitlin Kuhwald (edited by Alice Hart)
Macmillan Children’s Books

This book profiles 50 STEAM boundary-breaking trailblazers – pioneering artists, scientists and mathematicians – each of whom overcame enormous challenges to make incredible contributions in their own fields, and in one way or another, change the world for the better.

Some Julie Leung selected will already be familiar to readers – Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing,

Jane Goodall, Toni Morrison, Aretha Franklin, for example, but  that many others will probably not be.

It’s clear that the author has made an effort to feature men and women from around the world, as well as choosing from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Thus she highlights Nikola Tesla, the first person to invent the AC motor (1887) Johanna Lucht the first deaf engineer to help manage a crewed NASA flight from mission control – “Never give up” she advises aspiring deaf engineers and scientists” with time and patience … “you will gain hearing allies.” along with the first Chinese woman – Tu Youyou – to be awarded a Nobel Prize (2015) in Physiology or Medicine.

New to me are Alexa Canady who faced an uphill struggle as a woman of colour, to become the first female African American neurosurgeon;

she specialised in paediatric care, saving numerous young lives.

I’d not heard either of Riz Ahmed, first EMMY Award winner for acting (2017) who is of Asian descent;

and other than her name I knew little about Zaha Hadid, the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize (2004).

The subjects, arranged chronologically, mostly came to prominence in the 20th or 21st centuries, although Isaac Newton (1668) is there, as are two 18th century people Maria Gaetana Agnesi, an Italian mathematician, and German astronomer Caroline Herschel.

Like me, I suspect youngsters reading this fascinating and inspiring compilation, will be prompted (perhaps by their motivational quote) to do their own digging to discover more about some of these incredible people starting perhaps with some of those for who a vignette portrait with a sentence beneath and a brief paragraph on the next spread, are all we’re given. To that end there is a final list of books and other resources.

Also at the end of the book is a time line, as well as a note from the illustrator, Caitlin Kuhwald whose stylised portraits, painted digitally, are instantly eye-catching..

Role models for aspiring youngsters, all.

The Surprising Lives of Animals

The Surprising Lives of Animals
Anna Claybourne and Stef Murphy
Ivy Kids

The author of this look at animal lives talks in her introduction of the close link between humans and other animals, dividing the book into five aspects of behaviour that we all exhibit. She then goes on to explore elements of each one through a wide variety of animals both large and small, using playfulness (Having Fun), Thinking and Feeling, Everyday Life, co-existence and community (Living Together), and Settling Down and reproducing, as themes.

Adults as well as young readers will find plenty of interest: I was surprised to learn for instance that seagulls have been observed playing catch by dropping a stick or a stone from high up in the sky then swooping down to catch it before it reaches the ground – an aspect of playfulness so some scientists think.

Did you know that octopuses are highly intelligent and are able to work out how to undo screw-top jars and childproof containers to get their tentacles on tasty snacks?

Or that that an African grey parrot named Alex, studied by animal brain scientist Dr Irene Pepperberg was able to identify different colours, shapes and materials, and sort items into categories? This is just one of the numerous things she discovered during her 30 years of training and working with the bird.

Equally clever in their own way are the Army ants found in South America that are able to build bridges out of their own bodies. Then having done so they use the bridges to get across gaps and work co-operatively until all members of a colony have traversed the gap. That’s teamwork for you.

Anna Claybourne mentions the work of a number of animal scientists in her ‘Scientist Spotlight’ insets. Her narrative style makes the entire book highly readable as well as informative; and Stef Murphy’s illustrations illuminate not only the animals’ fascinating behaviours but also their habitats and characteristics.

Recommended for family bookshelves as well as primary school collections.

River Stories

River Stories
Timothy Knapman, Ashling Lindsay and Irene Montano
Red Shed (Egmont)

Prepare to immerse yourself in Timothy Knapman’s tales of five rivers.

Our travels begin on the African continent with a trip along the Nile, at 6,695 km. the world’s longest river. Rising in the African jungle it comprises two tributaries, the Blue Nile and the White Nile, and flows through forests, mountains, lakes and deserts before reaching the Mediterranean Sea.

However its exact source is disputed. Timothy tells readers that one explorer John Hanning Speke declared the true source to be Lake Ukerewe (now called Lake Victoria).  During the trip we learn of festivals, historic events associated with the river, view some wildlife and visit the pyramids, tombs and temples of Egypt.

The second journey is along the Mississippi that extends the entire length of the US all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. This river is home to over 1000 animal species and flows through the site, I was fascinated to learn, of Cahokia, a lost 12th C city.

We’re in Europe for the third journey that takes us from a glacier in the Swiss Alps to the Netherlands where the Rhine’s delta is located.

There are mentions of music and musicians, magic, myths and legends, and sightings of fairytale forests as well as castles, windmills and bulb fields.

High on a Tibetan plateau is where the Yangtze journey starts. We read of dragons and dolphins, glimpse pandas and if the timing is right, see the amazing Dragon Boat Festival.

The Amazon with its incredible rainforest flora and fauna is the river of the fifth trip. There’s so much to discover and I was astonished to learn of Ed Stafford’s walk along its entire length, making him the first person to do so, a journey of 6,992 km that took him 860 days – WOW! Awesome!

There’s much of interest whether yours is history ancient or modern, geography, mythology or something else Timothy includes, and illustrators Aisling Lindsay and Irene Montano show in the engrossing, vibrant spreads that unfold to show the entire length of each river journey.

World stories to wallow in for sure.

Neither of the rivers I’m personally familiar with – the Thames and the Ganges – are included in Timothy’s book; now’s that another story – or many.

Karate Kids

Karate Kids
Holly Sterling
Walker Books

Holly Sterling teaches karate and competed for England in karate, winning many medals, so it was almost inevitable that she would eventually create a picture book on the topic and here it is.

Let’s meet Maya who narrates the book, announcing before the story starts that she aspires to be a karate kid.

We then join her one Saturday morning as she dresses in her special suit (a gi) and sets off with her dad and soft toy lion to the dojo.

There she and her friends are greeted by their sensei or teacher, and then having removed their footwear, they bow to her and the class begins.

They warm up, practise blocks, then try out

and perform a patterned sequence of moves called ‘kata’ and conclude with mokuso (meditative breathing).

It’s evident that Maya as well as the other learners thoroughly enjoy participating in the session

and as she leaves Maya pauses to watch and admire one of the older children, a black belt wearer practising her kata.

In addition to showing Maya and her friends’ joyful enthusiasm for what they are learning, Holly’s lively art reflects her own enthusiasm both for karate and for portraying young children.

Be sure you check out the end papers of this karate-enticing book.

Beware of the Crocodile

Beware of the Crocodile
Martin Jenkins and Satoshi Kitamura
Walker Books

You can always rely on Martin Jenkins to provide information in a thoroughly enjoyable manner and here his topic is those jaw snapping crocs, which, as he tells readers on the opening spread are ‘really scary’ (the big ones). … ‘They’ve got an awful lot of … teeth.’

With wry, rather understated humour he decides to omit the gruesome details and goes on to talk about how they capture their prey: ‘ Let’s just say there’s a lot of twirling and thrashing, then things go a bit quiet.’ I was astonished to learn that crocodiles are able to go for weeks without eating after a large meal.

The author’s other main focus is crocodiles’ parenting skills; these you may be surprised to learn are pretty good – at least when applied to the mothers.

Not an easy task since one large female can lay up to 90 eggs; imagine having to guard so many  newly hatched babies once they all emerge.

As for the father crocodiles, I will leave you to imagine what they might do should they spot a tasty-looking meal in their vicinity, which means not all the baby crocodiles survive and thrive to reach their full 2m. in eight years time.

As fun and informative as the narrative is, Kitamura’s watery scenes are equally terrific emphasising all the right parts. He reverts to his more zany mode in the final ‘About Crocodiles’ illustration wherein a suited croc. sits perusing a menu (make sure you read it) at a dining table.

All in all, a splendid amalgam of education and entertainment for youngsters; and most definitely one to chomp on and relish.

My Pop-Up Body Book

My Pop-Up Body Book
Jennie Maizels and William Petty
Walker Books

Who doesn’t love a pop-up book especially when it includes SO much learning in such a fun way as this one written by William Petty and illustrated by Jennie Maizels.

It contains a wheel, flaps, even a handful of small books within the main book; and all in just five incredible spreads whereon David Hawcock’s paper engineering is awesome. Scattered throughout the spreads are simply masses of bite-sized chunks of information, some hand lettered by the illustrator.

The level of interactive opportunities is incredible: readers can follow the development of a baby in the mother’s womb by rotating the wheel;

the thoracic skeleton positively leaps out of the pages, and the chambers of a heart can be revealed beneath a flap. Did you know that the heart of a girl beats faster than that of a boy?

The central pop-up from each spread reveals in turn, a baby, the head and organs on and within – a nose mini book lets you emit green snot from the nostrils;

the chest, the tummy and intestines (you can even track poo on the move) and finally, the whole skeleton. There is SO much to explore and discover on every one of the spreads.

An absolutely superb introduction to the body and its biology – its form, functions, growth and repair; and a terrific production, creative, clever and totally fascinating. Delve into this and children will see that they share much more in common with one another than any superficial differences.

Strongly recommended for the family shelves and classroom collection.

New in the Biographic Series

Biographic Picasso
Natalie Price-Cabrera
Biographic Audrey
Sophie Collins
Biographic Marilyn
Katie Greenwood
Biographic Marley
Liz Flavell
Biographic Beatles
Viv Croot
Ammonite Press

Here’s a look at five new titles in the enormously engaging Biographic series that features great people and their lives through infographics.

Natalie Price-Cabrera looks at the life and art of Pablo Picasso dividing it into four sections, Life, World, Work and Legacy and this same structure is used for the other titles too.

Picasso was most definitely a boundary breaker and I love his comment quoted in the book, “My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the pope.’ Instead, I was a painter and became Picasso.” We’re given a look at what was going on in various parts of the world in 1881 when he was born; a family tree (again a feature of all the books except the Beatles) and several time lines.

Pretty much everyone knows that Picasso was a pioneer of Modernism but did you know that his full name has 20 words in all? Or that he’s currently THE most stolen artist in the world clocking up 1,147 artworks that have gone missing ; that’s out of the total of more than 150,000 he created during his life. Wow!

Next is the totally cool fashion icon, movie star winner of an Emmy, an Oscar, a Grammy and a Tony, Audrey Hepburn presented by Sophie Collins. I was amazed to learn that she spoke 6 languages – English, Dutch, Flemish, French, Italian and Spanish, speaking in all of them on behalf of UNICEF. She was supposedly able to talk to animals too. She broke her back after being thrown from a horse while filming The Unforgiven, and she once had a pet deer called Pippin. Seemingly animals played quite a part in her life.

Katie Greenwood’s choice of icon is movie star Marilyn Monroe, born 3 years earlier than Audrey Hepburn but sadly had a much shorter life, dying at just 36 from barbiturate poisoning. Amazing to think that she was reading To Kill a Mockingbird at the time of her death, having been born in the same year as its author, Harper Lee.

On a happier note, Marilyn was at one time THE most famous movie star on the planet. Moreover, she performed 10 shows during the course of 4 days to 100, 000 troops serving in Korea in 1954.

I’m a huge fan of the music of singer/songwriter Bob Marley, Liz Flavell’s subject for her latest musician Biographic. As with the other titles, this one is full of fascinating bits and pieces including that his music inspired some 7,000 prisoners of war to escape and that he was shot at twice while trying to bring about peace between two political groups.

Marley was almost as much in love with football as he was with music and would organise his musical tours to coincide with football matches in various parts of the world. Bob Marley was another icon who died far too young – at just 39 – from a brain tumour. More cheerfully, in 1980 to celebrate the independence of Zimbabwe, Bob performed before 40,00 people including Prince Charles, Robert Mugabwe and Indira Gandhi, forfeiting his fee so the gig could be free to everyone who attended.

Last and definitely not least, the most famous pop group of all time, The Beatles are presented by Viv Croot. It was interesting to be reminded of the array of musical traditions represented by 8 performers/groups as diverse as Ravi Shankar, the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles that influenced them. Imagine doing a television performance that is watched by 400 million viewers; but that is exactly what happened with their performance (with friends) of ‘All You Need is Love’ in June 1967.

Pretty well everyone has a favourite Beatles album: which is yours? Could it I wonder, be the one (released in May 1967) that includes all the song lyrics in the album artwork.