New review: The Secret Diaries series by Philip Ardagh, illustrated by Jamie Littler

Blending fiction and non fiction can create a perfect harmony, bringing stories AND facts to life so children can enjoy learning about the world around them. This is exactly what happens in the fantastic series written by Philip Ardagh, illustrated by Jamie Littler and published by Nosy Crow in partnership with The National Trust. The Secret Diaries series introduce wonderful fictional characters who live and work in a particular time in history and share their experiences with the reader through diary entries.

The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge Medieval Knight in Training and The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny Victorian House Maid describe what daily life was like for a working young person, with each central character brilliantly brought to life. Younger readers might need a little guidance with the authentic accents but they’ll soon get the hang of it! All the facts and trivia are supported by footnotes that explain various terms and phrases along the way and give a wonderful insight to the time period in question.  There is a fictional narrative running through each book with a mystery to solve or a thrilling adventure to be had, ensuring the reader is fully engaged, all the while learning through the story.  The wider cast of characters featured give an opportunity to share what different roles people had and how the class system worked.

In Medieval Knight in Training we learn who the kennel boy was (poor chap!), how people ate, all about falconry and what a Fletcher did!  In Victorian House Maid in Training we discover how a chimney was cleaned, what ‘pinny’ is short for, the huge number of people who worked in a Victorian mansion and just how hard a maid had to work! All the while John Drawbridge survives a plan to overthrow the castle and solves the mystery of the attack; and Jane Pinny uses her detective skills to find out who stole a beautiful necklace.  Each book is brilliantly illustrated by Jamie Littler with drawings that bring to life the humour and adventure as well as the historical trivia.


All in all The Secret Diaries series is ideal for young readers wanting to learn more about history and enjoy a great fun story.

With thanks to Nosy Crow for sending me these books to review. 

Guest blog: James Brown, illustrator of Al’s Awesome Science.

How many times have you opened a book and marvelled at the illustrations inside?  I often do and feel somewhat envious of someone who can pick up a pencil, pen or paintbrush and create a little bit of magic, bringing to life an authors’ words! AAS_CVR_WEB

James Brown is just such a person and his delightful illustrations in Al’s Awesome Science: Egg-speriments! written by Jane Clarke demonstrate how words and pictures work together to capture the imagination.

Today on the blog, James is sharing his experiences of working on Al’s Awesome Science and insight into his illustration techniques. Welcome to the blog James!


“Pictures don’t just trigger the imagination, they fire it up. And in particular for the Al’s Awesome Science series, which features lots of science experiments for young readers to try at home, it was important to get things ‘spot on’. How else could readers give the experiments a go? I think that’s what drew me most to it – the buoyancy, the action and how to convey this visually to readers.

I remember as a child being a bit disappointed when images were repeated in books or when there were insufficient drawings. Al’s Awesome Science is filled with pictures of all the key hilarious moments in the story, but the series also allows for the ‘extras’ – awesome facts and experiments – the refreshing bits and bobs which the designer Becky places so quirkily throughout each book. I admit the experiment pages bring out the kid in me. I like doing them snappily, like I used to do in my homework diary at school. I was forever doodling. I used to Tipp-Ex the inside lid of my pencil case and draw repeatedly on it. Once it was filled, I’d blob over it and start again. If it was a caricature of the teacher I could always hide the evidence!


When I’m out and about, especially on trains, I love using sketchbooks. I’ve got lots of Moleskin ones, a different colour per project. But, I confess that, in the main, when I’m working up an idea, character or spread, I use everyday plain A4 white paper – and reams of it!  Squiggle, scratch, swirl, sweep. I’m not sure how many other illustrators do this, but I also enjoy sketching in biro first. It’s all about getting the right shape and movement – those ‘unprecious’ sketches and scorings loosen up my initial drawings. Now I understand why editors always jump to the back of portfolios to find the sketchy stuff!


Then, from this sketchy beginning, I start refining, trying to retain some of that initial energy. I think that’s why my other favourite stage is watercolour (which I save ‘til last). No matter how adept you might think you are, watercolour has its own mind and it can sometimes surprise you. Often the happy accidents are the ones that add more character, either to clothing or backgrounds.

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Using my lightbox really helps to overlay and position. I do less-rough roughs on my iPad, using Procreate, then crayon, watercolour and gouache for the finals. I always aim to do the final artwork in character batches, for continuity, and have whole afternoons or evenings on just one person. You really get to ‘know’ them that way!

Sometimes characters pop up first time around. Einstein, for instance, is very similar to the first sketch I drew. I was given free rein, which is always exciting. I knew he had to be big, hairy and animated. Immediately I thought of THE Einstein and gave him a big, bushy moustache and scraggly hair. The lolling tongue and sideways eyes gave him just the look I was after. Mr Boffin is basically me (if I ate my spinach, drank umpteen protein shakes and actually went to the gym, that is). Mrs Good is a take on my mum (sorry, Mum!). But Mr Good, who was a little portly at first, took a bit of slimming down… The twins Lottie and Al were a little too old at first but soon lost a couple of years.

The freedom to try things out has been the most splendid aspect of illustrating this series. It’s very much a two-way conversation between me and the creative team. We always bounce ideas back and forth! I think flexibility and being open to ideas is important. My editor Natascha even sends me videos of her son doing the experiments! Then, BINGO! I can picture it and so too (hopefully) can the young scientists reading it with their own sketches and diagrams and oodles of doodles.

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Al’s Awesome Science: Egg-speriments! by Jane Clarke, illustrated by James Brown is out now, £6.99 paperback (published by Five Quills). Look out for more fun and experiments with Al and Lottie in book two, Splash Down!, coming spring 2018!


With thanks to Catherine Ward and Five Quills for sending me this book to review. Find out more about the illustrator at

Fabulous Non-Fiction!

It’s National Non-Fiction November so the perfect time to share some of the wonderful non-fiction books published recently.  I often tell children that there are so many amazing books written for them that they are spoilt for choice! And they really are; especially when it comes to beautifully produced non-fiction books like those featured on the blog today. With Christmas not too far away these books would make wonderful gifts!  They also demonstrate the brilliance of text and illustration working together to bring the world to life for young readers.


The Picture Atlas An Incredible Journey by Simon Holland, illustrated by Jill Calder

This is an absolutely wonderful atlas exploring the world continent by continent. Stunning, detailed illustrations give life to the wealth of facts and information to be found on every page.


Delving into each continent, the history of the people, artefacts, the landforms, the animals inhabiting the land and even the food are described through the perfect combination of words and pictures.



Every time you read it you discover something new and there’s a helpful glossary at the end of the book. This is a wonderful book to encourage children’s natural curiosity and a fantastic way to support learning about the world.

Find out more about the illustrator at

The Picture Atlas is published by Bloomsbury



How to Think Like a Coder without even trying!

by Jim Christian illustrated by Paul Boston

Have you ever wondered how on earth computer programmes actually work? Well according to this book, you already know! With straightforward explanations of what coding is, a fascinating look at early computers and of course, the most amazing computer of all, the human brain, the book explores all aspects of coding and gives the reader the chance to try their hand at creating code.



For independent young readers, everyday situations are turned into opportunities to code – and of course, adults can join in too.  You don’t even need a computer!



It’s packed full of information and lively illustrations featuring fun robot characters who enliven the text throughout.  How to Think like a Coder takes what can be a rather intimidating topic and makes it more accessible and something all the family can share!

Find out more at and

Published by Pavilion Books.



Her Right Foot by Dave Eggars, illustrated by Shawn Harris

I will admit to having a big soft spot for New York having spent my honeymoon there.  But even as a child, I was always fascinated by Statue of Liberty (anyone remember she came to life in Ghostbusters 2!) so this book was an ideal opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the story behind it.


Her Right Foot is absolutely fascinating, full of things I didn’t know about how the Statue was built to how people feel about it.  A non-fiction picture book, it’s totally accessible and a wonderful book to read aloud.



The fantastic, vibrant illustrations capture the narrative brilliantly and history comes to life before your eyes – an impressive debut for illustrator Shawn Harris. And even more incredible is the message ‘found’ in the small trait of the Statue’s right foot that encapsulates the freedom the Statue of Liberty represents.




A very timely publication, this book will be enjoyed not just for an entertaining take on history; but also for the deeper meaning of tolerance and acceptance behind it.

Find out more about the illustrator at

Published by Abrams & Chronicle Books

With thanks to all the publishers of these books for sending me copies to review.



Book of the Month: BUGS by Simon Tyler

book of the monthSimon Tyler is an author illustrator and graphic designer with a passion for presenting facts and information in accessible and aesthetically pleasing ways.  He has absolutely succeeded in doing that with Book of the Month, Bugs, which he wrote and illustrated in association with the Buglife conservation charity. Published by Pavilion Books, Bugs is simply one of the most gorgeous books I’ve seen this year so a very suitable choice for Book of the Month, in celebration of National Non Fiction November!




BUGS written and illustrated Simon Tyler

Enter the fascinating world of bugs with this book which will introduce you to some of the strangest, scariest, biggest and smallest insects around.  Discover the bug with a 30cm tongue, get to know the insect that east dung for dinner, and meet the ant that can paralyse with a single sting. 

What strikes you instantly about this glorious book are the stunning illustrations and incredible use of colour.  Each image is beautifully detailed allowing you to get up close to some amazing life forms.


Bursting with fascinating facts there are over 50 bugs featured, with all types of information about the wonderful world of insects; their habits, senses, defences, what they eat and where they live.


The presentation and production quality is really special, making this a wonderful book to give as a gift to any insect enthusiast – or indeed anyone curious about the world around them.


There’s a helpful glossary to decipher the scientific terms used and the first few pages give a brilliant introduction to insects in general. With an attractive font and accessible layout, Bugs is a lovely book for all the family to share and even if you’re not fond of creepy crawlies, I think this book could convert you!

Find out more at 

With thanks to Pavilion Books for sending me this book to review.

book of the month

Guest blog: Mixing Fact and Fiction by Jane Clarke

I’m delighted to welcome Jane Clarke to the blog today, author of Al’s Awesome Science: Egg-speriments, a brilliant new series of science-based adventures for younger readers.  Whether they are budding scientists or maybe are just curious about how the world works, this series is sure to entertain them. Full of great characters (I particularly love Einstein the dog!), wonderful illustrations by James Brown and of course, super science experiments that can easily be tried at home, Al’s Awesome Science is a fantastic blend of fact and fiction. Jane, an award winning author of over 80 children’s books, is sharing today how she achieves this.  Welcome to the blog Jane!


“In the Al’s Awesome Science books, I aim to write a great story, filled with fun science facts and experiments, that’s an entertaining read regardless of how much the reader knows about the subject. Continue reading

New reviews: Cool Coding and Cool Physics

Cool Coding by Robert Hansen and Cool Physics by Dr Sarah Hutton both illustrated by Damien Weighill.

When these gorgeous two books arrived there was a scramble as to who would look at them first – me, the boys or my husband! Aimed at older children and interested adults, both books are a fantastic introduction to the areas of science they’re focused on.  My eldest is due to start GCSE Computing Science in September so he has claimed Cool Coding for himself – not before I’d had a read of course! Cool Physics will be a useful addition to the shelf in support of GCSE Science – and may even help me help my son with his Science homework now and then!! A continuation of the Cool Science series from Pavilion Books, Cool Coding and Cool Physics are great reads.

In the digital age, information books have a lot to compete with in terms of accessibility and interest with information being so readily available online. The best non fiction books have to work hard to attract their readers and these books are absolutely right up there with the competition being both user friendly and informative with a great layout.  Even the size is appealing.  The colourful illustrations and diagrams ably support the information being given and help describe the ideas for activities and experiment. Each book is full of fascinating facts – for instance did you know the first ever computer weighed twice as much as a full-grown African Elephant?! Or that Sir Isaac Newton was also warden of the Royal Mint?!

I’m always saying to students in the library that so many books present information in such a friendly way and are so much easier to navigate than the internet as a starting point for research; these books are a great example of this! Both present the information in short paragraphs, accompanied by bullet points or soundbite boxes which convey a wealth of ideas and a comprehensive, easy-to-understand overview of complex subjects.  I would thoroughly recommend both books as great introductions to the topics they’re focused on and to support learning in these areas.  They’re also a great option for children who are don’t want to read fiction and prefer fact books; even the most reluctant reader couldn’t fail to find these books fun!

Thank you to Pavilion for sending me these books to review.



New reviews: Nature with Nosy Crow and the National Trust

The National Trust and Nosy Crow have produced some lovely books of late, with a view to encouraging children to explore nature.  And these two are no exception, both of which we took on holidays and they proved extremely useful whilst camping in the wilds of Devon and Cornwall! 

Go Wild in the Woods An Adventure Handbook by Goldie Hawk & Rachael Saunders and Out and About Night Explorer by Robin Swift and Sara Lynn Cramb are two brilliant books for children who want to know more about the outside world.  And what better time to explore than during summer? With a few weeks left of the holidays these books might just be the answer for those of you looking for something different to do!


I really love this! The Complete Night Explorer’s Kit is a fantastic package with a cute little backpack for small hands; a map of the night sky (both hemispheres); a set of glow in the dark star stickers; a little torch and of course, a book Out and About Night ExplorerIMG_4860

We took the whole thing camping and our youngest (aged 7 almost 8) loved it! We attempted to use the night sky map but cloud cover meant we couldn’t – however we will definitely try again. The book itself is full of information about nocturnal creatures from owls to mini beasts as well as night time plant life.  There are helpful hints so you can find wildlife with suggestions such as keeping an eye out for animal poo (which of course my son found hilarious!) and how to spot animal tracks.


The book also has some great activities whatever the season or time of day, which reinforces the fun to be had being involved with nature and how to help Great British wildlife. I particularly liked the ideas for building a hedgehog feeding place in the garden.

There are colourful illustrations throughout, a useful index, a quiz and even night time games suggestions.  All in all this is a great book for encouraging intrepid young explorers and their parents to take a closer look at the world around them!  It would make a great gift and is perfect for ages 5+ (younger children will need to share the reading with an adult or older sibling).

Find out more at


-National Trust- Go Wild in the Woods-284651-1

Go Wild in the Woods An Adventure Handbook is a similar idea but for older children aged 8+.  It’s a lovely pocket sized book that aims to help children stay safe in the woods, but also discover all the magic nature has to offer with advice for everything from building dens, to how to tie knots to foraging for food and cooking over a campfire!


The book invites children to get to know the outdoors and introduces map reading skills and all important survival skills such as finding water. Think Bear Grylls!  The lovely illustrations give it a story book feel and perfectly capture the joy of discovering nature with friends and family.


I particularly liked that there’s a really useful glossary and ultimate survival kit guide with sensible suggestions of what you might need to take when exploring in the woods. We made use of this on some of our day trips! As a young girl I was fortunate to be raised in the countryside and spent hours every day exploring, climbing trees and making camps. I would have found this book so useful then too!


Go Wild in the Woods is a celebration of the wonder of nature with practical ideas that will help children make the most of the outdoors, whilst staying safe. And I suspect many parents and carers will appreciate the hints and tips too!  Well timed for summer, this book would be a great addition to the holiday backpack and give children loads of ideas of things to do outside.

Find out more at

With thanks to Nosy Crow for sending me these books to review.