Non fiction picture books for the young and young at heart promise bountiful adventures

Non-fiction pictures books to let the imaginations of young readers take flight.

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Non-fiction picture books about mounting very small scientific expeditions, Aotearoa’s native plants, voyaging across the Pacific and whales make for a varied collection of informative and entertaining new books for young New Zealanders - and those who prefer their facts with pictures.

Reviewer Dionne Christian

The Observologist by Giselle Clarkson (Gecko Press, $39.99)

I thought I may review The Observologist by listing ten things I learned from reading it and looking – sometimes awestruck at its rich simplicity – but I realised within the first few pages that you can pick up Giselle Clarkson’s glorious new book and learn ten or more things merely by reading just a couple of pages.

Who knew that toadstools and mushrooms are one in the same?  Or that the study of ants is called myrmecology?  Or that sparrows’ wings beat differently when they are getting something like a blade of dry grass?  And who would have thought, when you take the time to stop and look, that a humble snail’s shell can be so beautiful?

The Observologist is possibly the most detailed “picture book” of the year, but Clarkson’s comic-type but comprehensive illustrations and Vida Kelly’s wise design afford plenty of space so its facts and, of course, observations live and breathe. It’s a remarkable achievement to break down complex scientific information, make facts fun and playful for ‘budding natural scientists,’ and introduce readers – of all ages – to worlds they may not realise are right in front of them. Playful yes, but certainly not lacking in scientific rigour (check out the small type of its two page index).

Even more noteworthy, Clarkson presents it all without a nod to modern devices and technology so beloved of many of us today.  It makes for a largely egalitarian book where you can go outside to a damp corner or weedy patch and keep busy for hours; there’s no need for specialist equipment or trips to exotic climes.

Humour plays a big role, too. I smiled reading the explanation of Observology (The Study of Looking) and laughed aloud at the picture page Boring Situations Improved With Observology (Indecision at the plant shop and there’s a power cut are particularly apt for my kids and me).  Clarkson is right when she states:

‘A good thing about being young is that you’re closer to the ground than most adults, so you have an excellent view of what’s going on down there.

Another good thing about being young is that nobody thinks you’re strange if you pay attention to a worm, an ant or a puddle.  Adults tend to feel embarrassed doing that type of thing.’

Hopefully, the book will encourage adults not to feel weird and accompany their young ones outside into the four humble and readily accessible places suggested for observology:  A Damp Corner, Pavement, A Weedy Patch and Behind the Curtains (see, you don’t even have to go outside!).  There are suggestions for extending your observology – draw what you see – and handy hints on how to relocate a spider or help an exhausted bee.  We’ll be making good use of how to get a fly to go outside when – if – summer kicks in.

A quote from Clarkson is the best way to end:  Asked about what she hopes the book helps children feel towards the natural environment, she answered:

“I hope it will encourage children to see that a fascinating, lively, natural world is more than just big animals in faraway places – it’s all around us.  I think being a conservationist starts when you feel a personal connection to a plant or an animal or a place, and observing the quiet magnificent of a spider, a moth or a dragonfly is a wonderful way to begin building that relationship with nature.”

Given that, The Observologist is a job very well done indeed.

Rustle! Donovan Bixley’s Native Plants of Aotearoa by Donovan Bixley (Little Moa, $24.99)

There are a multitude of picture books about Aotearoa’s native birds; Donovan Bixley’s excellent Squawk! is one. This time, he turns our attention toward native plants and shows they are just as splendid and different as our birds.  It’s a thoughtfully-produced (rounded corners, wipeable cover) hardback with an interactive element in the vibrant centrespread where readers can tot up the number of native plants they can name. It’s colourful and simply written, perfectly pitched at young ones who like information to be straightforward, with a touch of humour that comes from Bixley’s lively illustrations.  Once again, you’ll learn lots and have fun doing so.

Those Magnificent Voyagers of the Pacific by Rick Fisher with Andrew Crowe (Bateman Books, $34.99)

To sail thousands of kilometres across the Pacific – an ocean so vast you can fit all the land on Earth into it – Polynesian navigators and their ancestors had to be expert observers of the natural world.  For this attractive picture book, Andrew Crowe has successfully pared back his 2018 book Pathway of the Birds: The Voyaging Achievements of Māori and their Polynesian ancestors to tell the epic story – 5000 years in the making – for younger readers.

Of the earlier book, the Journal of Anthropological Research wrote: ‘A veritable mine of information about the environments and resources of ancient Polynesia,’ and the same could be said of the excellent well-written and even better illustrated 2023 kids’ version. Like Clarkson and Bixley, Crowe is adept at packing in and packaging facts while Rick Fisher’s luminous illustrations, with almost photographic quality, add extra detail and make for rich looking. 

The story is extended throughout when Crowe and Fisher consider ‘meanwhile, on the other side of the world,’ and contrast voyaging skills and experiences in other nations.  It’s an interesting comparison, which could open some lively discussions.  The pukapuka includes a double page spread about the resurgence of voyaging societies and the chance they offer to pass on wayfinding skills and knowledge which could have been lost – at the detriment to us all, I suspect.  There’s also an exploration timeline, questions to consider, notes on background sources and information and a list of useful books and websites to learn more.

Stranded by Linda Jane Keegan & Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Bateman Books, $21.99)

Linda Jane Keegan is a volunteer marine mammal medic with Project Jonah which helps to explain how this poignant true story contains such rich detail. Based on the stranding of 49 upokohue/long-finned pilot whales at Onetahua/Farewell Spit in February 2021, it makes good use of research and firsthand experience to tell the story from the point of view of pilot whales.

This allows readers to build empathy with the whales, understanding more about their world and what humans can do to aid and assist if they come across a stranding. Isobel Joy Te Aho-White has incorporated pūhoro, a Māori pattern that shows swiftness, to provide a sense of movement but it also reflects Stranded’s seamless integration of te ao Māori and te Reo throughout.

Aimed at tamariki aged 5 – 8, younger readers may prefer to stick with the story while older or more curious ones can learn more from a series of information panels subtly dotted throughout.  Writing a children’s picture book where death features is not an easy thing to do; Keegan and Te Aho-White do so by gradually panning out to include the wider environment and perspective.  The final double page spread is considered and uplifting. 

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  • Non fiction picture books for the young and young at heart promise bountiful adventures