5 Minute Nature Stories

5 Minute Nature Stories
Gabby Dawnay, illustrated by Mona K
Magic Cat

Nine lyrically written stories about various key topics demonstrate the interconnectedness of the natural world. Starting with The Mystery of Mushrooms, poet and science writer Gabby Dawnay presents first a story and then the key facts about each of her chosen subjects. Her mushroom story begins with the distribution of spores scattered by the wind across the forest floor where, in the moss they start to create a network that grows and spreads underground until up pop a cluster of little mushrooms ready to start the cycle over again.

Making links with the underground mycelium by means of a partnership called mutualism, are the roots of the trees that also form an invisible subterranean web, we learn of in The Wood Wide Web.

Next to make an appearance is a group of Red Deer that forage on the fruits, bark and foliage of the woodland terrain that gives them a protective environment. These majestic creatures sing The song of the Deer, the chorus of which is, “This forest is ours / and together we’re strong. / In the meadows we roam, / in the woods we belong!”

Meanwhile, high up in the branches is a nest upon which sits an adult starling, until that is, three baby birds hatch from their eggs. Thereafter Mama Bird flies off to seek worms in response to their call for food. That she will do until some months later, they are ready to fend for themselves. Then comes The Flight of the Starlings as this story is called.

Other tales are of the metamorphosis of frogs, the amazing seven year long ‘feast’ of the stag beetle, the honeybee’s dance, photosynthesis as seen through the eyes of a little grey rabbit and finally, we encounter the tiger moth that uses moonlight to orientate and guide her nocturnal flight to find a mate – it’s called transverse orientation.

Each story is illustrated by Mona K whose natural world scenes are an appealing mix of realism and anthropomorphism. A lovely book to share.

Invertebrates Are Cool! / Slow Down and Be Here Now

Invertebrates Are Cool!
Nicola Davies and Abbie Cameron

In author Nicola Davies’s latest Animal Surprises book, she takes us in the company of a young naturalist, on an exploration of the world of bugs, mini-beasts and some sea creatures too. In case you are wondering what all these might have in common, it’s that every one of the animals featured lacks a backbone. First of all we get close up to some earthworms, find out how to make a simple wormery and watch the clever tunnellers at work. Next come the slitherers with slimy undersides – snails and slugs.

It’s strange to realise that these are cousins to cuttlefish, squid, nautilus and even more astonishingly, the octopus.

Beetles are the next focus; did you know there are more than 400, 000 different kinds? Some such as ladybirds will be familiar, but readers may not have encountered chafer beetles or the devil’s coach horse, both of which are featured in Nicola’s rhyming narrative and Abbie Cameron’s illustrations. The latter are sufficiently detailed to enable identification of the creatures and on some spreads readers are able to get right up close to the featured animal.

There’s a final ‘match the animal to its home’ puzzle. A book that’s likely to nurture children’s interest in the natural world and whet their appetites to get outdoors and explore.

Slow Down and Be Here Now
Laura Brand, illustrated by Freya Hartas
Magic Cat Publishing

The author presents twenty awe inspiring events that take place in the natural world, each of which is a captivating reason to do as the title says, to slow right down and to be fully in the present, immersed in an amazing wild life happening. It’s as though time has been suspended as she presents each of these ‘moments’ in its allocated double spread, including a harvest mouse building a nest, a snail retracting into its shell when threatened by a predator, a goldfinch extracting seeds from a dry teasel head

and a frog sating its hunger by catching and swallowing a fly. Thus the reader is able to watch each occasion when they so choose, as they savour the words and study carefully Freya Hartas’s delicately detailed, sequential illustrations, which include occasional gently humorous anthropomorphic enhancements.

The text itself comprises a mix of easily digestible paragraphs of information, an on-going narrative and captions to the illustrations.

Not all the nature moments could be observed at first hand but anyone who follows the suggestions on the ‘Come Into the Here and Now’ pages, will likely encounter some of these wonders or indeed, chance upon opportunities of their own to observe moments of joy, awe and wonder.

It’s the Journey not the Destination

It’s the Journey not the Destination
Carl Honoré, illustrated by Kevin & Kristen Howdeshell
Magic Cat

The author of this book urges readers who undertake any of forty adventures here to take their time. That’s the only way to discover what makes each place special and worth a visit. I’ll never forget one time I was staying in Jaipur when a group of tourists from the USA rolled up to the hotel and one of them said, “Hey, what country are we in now?” Their whistle-stop tour to several parts of the world certainly wasn’t about the amazing people, the sights, sounds and smells – the real things that makes each place special, which they were going to miss out on with this attitude. It’s a pity they’d not been able to read what Carl Honoré has to say before setting out.

The book has four main sections: Journeys on Foot, Journeys by Bike, Journeys by Boat and Journeys by Train. These slower modes of transport have been deliberately chosen by the author as being most suitable for those who want to savour the sights, sounds and smells both of the places they stop at and what they pass as they travel. Every section starts with a world map locating each journey.
No matter which of the Journeys on Foot you choose, doing it with mindfulness will make all the difference. Otherwise you’ll likely miss the possibility of seeing a sloth hanging upside down or even better, swimming in the blue waters of Costa Rica’s Tenorio Volcano Park, a dazzling tropical rainforest. And you’ll most certainly not feel the ancient spiritual power of the enormous Uluru stone monolith or notice how its colour changes with the angle of the sun.
I have visited India’s Rajasthan state almost every year for at least two decades doing a lot of exploring on foot but cycling from Jodhpur to Udaipur (my favourite of the three cities mentioned) to Jaipur is too great a challenge for me though I’ve met people who have done just that.

Each of the cities and environs offers an astonishing mix of ancient and modern; a sensory cornucopia for sure.

Another of my favourite cities, Amsterdam, is included in the Journeys by Boat section. Here you can explore the wonderful canals and elegant architecture, perhaps in a pedalo, savouring every moment of the experience.

When readers turn to the final section, in particular the ‘Hail the Highlanders on the Jacobite Steam Train’ spread they may well recognise the Glenfinnan Viaduct illustrated; that’s because the Hogwarts Express travels over it in the Harry Potter films. However the entire journey offers a visual feast with those amazing mountains and valleys.

No matter which of the journeys you put on your ‘to do’ list, make sure to read carefully the author’s 12 ways to travel ‘Slow’; it could make all the difference to your experiences. Till then you can become a world traveller without leaving your sofa by slowly reading this beautifully illustrated book; but think of what you’re missing.

The Secret Unicorn Club

The Secret Unicorn Club
Emma Roberts, illustrated by Rae Ritchie & Tomislav Tomic
Magic Cat

Do you believe in unicorns? Whether or not you do, there are countless children who are obsessed with these mythical creatures. I’m sure many of them would be interested in becoming members of the Secret Unicorn Club whose role it is to search for and look after unicorns in the wild; and this is where Emma Roberts’ book comes in. It will help readers to become experts and thus eligible for club membership; and during their learning journey they will collect ten badges.

Having followed the instruction on the very first page and thus earned the first ‘Friend’ badge, readers are introduced to a mother and baby unicorn. These two stand ready to impart some information about themselves and fellow unicorns including how their poop aroma is affected by the weather conditions at the time it’s deposited; what their tears do and why they are precious; there is also a paragraph about unicorn horns and another about tails and manes. Absorbing all that earns the reader a unicorn knowledge badge.

Subsequent double spreads are devoted to the care of unicorns – interestingly they have a penchant for the Easter Bunny’s prize carrots (cooked three ways);

and next, unicorns in the wild – the wilder the better if you want to find one. We then meet a special team with natural magic that help make the various kinds of weather, for instance a burp from one of these unicorns results in lightning.

Talking of magic, that’s the topic for the next spread; with my messy partner I could certainly do with brewing up some of the tidying up spell. Most magical of all though, is the special nature event, the ‘aurora’.

It’s great to see the next spread devoted to nature conservation for there are, we read, relatives of the unicorn that need protection today – the narwhal, and the rhinoceros.

Now here is something truly astonishing: the Montgolfier brothers had a secret passenger aboard when they took their first ever flight: apparently stowed away in the balloon’s basket was a unicorn that assisted the brothers by controlling the wind with its magical breath. Really? That’s part of the final historical spread whereon readers earn a history badge and thereby become eligible for that membership and the unlocking of a surprise hidden handbook inside the back cover, wherein there’s further precious knowledge that will appeal especially to horse lovers.

With its intricately detailed, whimsical illustrations and beautiful borders,.youngsters with a fondness for mythic fantasy will lap this up

Our Story Starts In Africa

Our Story Starts in Africa
Patrice Lawrence, illustrated by Jeanetta Gonzales
Magic Cat

Paloma is visiting Trinidad, staying with Tante Janet and is eager to play with her cousins whom she’s not met before. They however don’t want to play with her; “How can you be family?” they say in response to her different way of speaking. Paloma’s sadness at her cousins’ comments is palpable in Jeanetta Gonzales richly hued illustrations, but Tante Janet is on hand to comfort her and tell her a secret.

Little by little she tells Paloma a story, one that starts in Africa. She explains how the comb the child holds is like combs found by scientists investigating the banks of the River Nile in northeastern Africa, used by people similar to the two of them, who lived thousands of years back, The conversation moves to warrior queens of yore, in particular one who fought the Romans two thousand years ago. I love how present and past come together by the visual juxtaposing of Paloma and her aunt, the comb and the historic ruler they are talking of.

This device continues to be used as their discussion turns to story telling and how African people preserved their stories on parchment, carved in stone, painted in caves and on jars, woven into kente cloth and through the beating of talking drums, not forgetting most importantly the passing on of stories orally from generation to generation. “Just like we’re doing now, Tante!” says Paloma.

Prompted by Paloma’s next question about writing books, the narrative turns to the role of libraries past and present, by which time the two decide to have a break for some refreshing ginger beer specially made by Tante Janet. This necessitates picking some limes from the yard, which is full of trees that Paloma hasn’t ever seen before. As the picking proceeds the two discuss some of Africa’s treasures; fruits, spices, precious wood and frankincense resin used in perfume making. Children will be horrified to read of jealous rulers from other lands, stealing diamonds, gold and most precious of all, African people.

Then with the limes collected, the subject of enslavement comes up :“That’s how we came to Trinidad,” Tante Janet says, leading on to colonisation,

and eventually through the wretched times of colonisation and enslavement, to the emergence of the fifty African countries comprising a thriving, present-day community of many places, faces and achievements.

That is where this superbly illustrated, engagingly and sensitively written book differs from many others about the African continent wherein the focus tends to be on (non contentious) topics like dance, music and traditional costume. How refreshing and exciting is Patrice’s approach for any adult who wants to present Black history to today’s youngsters, including this reviewer who feels increasingly ashamed of British policies and actions both past and present.

(In the final spread there’s more information about the topics discussed during the story.)

Scientists are Saving the World!

Scientists are Saving the World!
Saskia Gwinn and Ana Albero
Magic Cat

In this comic strip format book a little boy (with special interests in time travel and dinosaurs) and his mum spend time together talking about scientists and some of their amazing work.

First come the palaeontologists, one of whom was Mary Anning who inspired many others to search for dinosaur remains; another was Louis R. Purnell, an ex-fighter pilot who looked after fossils in, among others, the Smithsonian museum in the USA.

Their discussion then moves on to astronauts; it’s great to see Leonid Kadenyuk, the first Ukranian citizen to blast off into space, as well as Liu Yang who flew to a space station to undertake experiments to find out if it was safe for other astronauts to live there. Did you know though, that it takes thousands of scientists to launch a rocket?

Next up are the meteorologists and we’re introduced to two women, Joanna Simpson who discovered how hurricanes work and June Bacon-Bercey whose knowledge of Earth’s atmosphere meant she could predict when very hot weather was on its way.

The talk then focuses on acoustic biologists. It’s clever how this entire discussion is advanced by the boy’s question and his mum’s response at the end of the previous topic. In this instance the two biologists we meet are new to me: Deepal Warakagoda, an expert in bird sounds who, when walking in the Sri Lankan rainforest, heard an owl noise never before recorded. The other is Katy Payne, recorder of elephant sounds but not only that, for when out on the ocean with her husband, she discovered that humpback whales sing songs.

They move on first to robotic engineers, then in turn marine biologists, geologists, botanists, arthropodologists (scientists who study many-legged bugs), conservationists working tirelessly on save the world: Sir David Attenborough being one, another is Wangari Maathai who started a famous campaign to help more women plant trees in Africa.

Unsurprisingly there’s a spread devoted to those life saving inventors of vaccines including Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci two of those behind the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that protects against COVID-19.

We return to the boy’s thoughts about time travel: Mum talks of astrophysicists, introduces Neta Bahcall who studies dark matter, and the bedtime part of this awesome exploration brings the focus right back to the child who falls asleep thinking of the idea that all those incredible people were once small children like him who asked lots of questions, had big dreams and followed them.

What a wonderful way to inspire the next generation of scientists: this collaboration between author Saskia Gwinn and illustrator Ana Albero works really well, making this a book that can either be read right through, or with pauses at the end of whichever spread one chooses, so cleverly is it put together.