Book Review – The Diamond and the Boy by Hannah Holt

It’s time for my next book review but a bit of a preamble first. For those who don’t know me, I trained as a chemical engineer before I started writing. I also have a science-obsessed daughter who had us read The Natural History Museum Book of Dinosaurs to her when she was four, and who was receiving adult books on astronomy, science and nature for her birthdays from an early age. My favourite of her birthday books is The Elements by Theodore Gray. It is visually spectacular and the text is very readable, challenging and, at times, funny. The page on carbon is fascinating.

Which brings me to the non-fiction picture book, The Diamond and the Boy by Hannah Holt (who, incidentally, is also an engineer). The Diamond and the Boy is a remarkable book about graphite (aka carbon), diamond (aka carbon) and Tracy Hall (the man who created the first diamond-making machine). The book is popular in review circles and Hannah has also discussed her process on a number of blogs (links for a selection of these are at the end of this review), so I will try to bring something new to the discussion.

Creating non-fiction picture books that engage the child is no easy task. There are facts you can’t fudge for the sake of a story and in the past, those facts have been presented in a relatively dry manner – facts must be boring, right? Thanks to the wonderful selection of non-fiction children’s books on the market this has changed and we are seeing books that stay true to the facts and also present an engaging text for children. I could have chosen any number of remarkable non-fiction books to review, so why The Diamond and the Boy?

The Diamond and the Boy appeals to the engineer and the parent in me. It’s a book that humanises science. It’s a book I wish I’d had for my science obsessed daughter so I didn’t have to wade through dry facts each night. The lyricism creates evocative reading. The parallel narratives set up a metaphor for Tracy Hall being as tough as diamonds without being clichéd. But it also shows that you don’t have to be tough to succeed. It demonstrates key attributes parents want for their children: curiosity, determination, patience, perseverance and resilience.

The Diamond and the Boy is also a book about grandparents. Tracy Hall is Hannah’s grandfather. This isn’t apparent in the main text, however, the back matter on Tracy’s life shows the relationship they had and the relationship Hannah wanted. In fact, all the back matter in this book is excellent reading. Hannah doesn’t shy away from the issue of blood diamonds and she presents the history of diamonds and Tracy Hall’s legacy in a timeline.

The incorporation of science, engineering, biography, history and human relationships and traits in one short picture book is a marvel. To present it in a way that feels authentic and natural is what makes this book remarkable.

A version of this post also appears on The Wonder of Words.

Book Review – The Mapmakers’ Race by Eirlys Hunter

Happy New Year and welcome to Pendants and Paperbacks 2019. Holidays are the perfect time to catch up on reading and I have been doing a lot of that over the past week or so. As part of my regular book review series, I’d like to share with you my thoughts on  Eirlys Hunter’s junior novel, The Mapmakers’ Race.

Sal, Joe, Francie and Humphrey Santander’s father hasn’t returned from his latest expedition. Worn out with worry and with no money left, their mapmaking mother chooses to enter the family in the Mapmakers’ Race. Contestants have 28 days to find and map the best route through the unchartered wilderness from Grand Prospect to New Coalhaven. With a prize pool that will solve almost all of their problems what have the Santanders got to lose? Unfortunately, a lot. When the children’s mother is left behind at a train station en route to the start line, the children are stranded in Grand Prospect not knowing what to do. Finally, they decide to embark on the race by themselves, hoping their mother can catch up.

What ensues is a madcap adventure as the Santander children do their best to make their parents proud in spite of dangerous terrain, terrifying beasts, villainous adults and each other. Every day provides a new challenge for the children and they overcome each one through quick thinking, experimentation and perseverance. While not set in our world, the story is not completely fantastical either: perhaps the best way to describe it is magical realism set in a world similar to our own with just a splash of steampunk. Some of the scenes could be a little scary for younger children but I am a firm believer that in the safety of a book children need to see dangerous and scary scenarios worked through and overcome.

Eirlys Hunter has devised a strong cast of characters and an engaging plot to create a true adventure story where overcoming obstacles to meet the final goal is key. Not only does she write adventure with skill, but in the story’s down moments she also has a beautiful way with words. Here is a taste:

The moon hung so big and bright that he could barely make out any stars until he turned his back to the moon and looked towards the dark horizon where there were tens, then hundreds, then thousands of stars pulsing silently – chips of ice in an infinite, frozen world.

Alongside Hunter’s rollicking text are illustrations by Kirsten Slade whose map drawings add shape to the story.

If you are interested in investigating further, there is the Look Inside feature on Amazon plus an extract in The Sapling. The Mapmakers’ Race can be purchased at Amazon or the Book Depository. If you are in New Zealand please support your local bookstore or order online at The Children’s Bookshop, Wellington.

This review has also been posted on The Wonder of Words website.

Book Review – Once Long Ago

Once Long Ago, the book I read as a child until it fell apart, is the book I have chosen for my first review.

Once Long Ago: Folk and Fairy Tales of the World, first published in 1962 by Golden Pleasure Books, is a collection of 70 traditional tales from 49 different cultures retold by Roger Lancelyn Green and illustrated by Vojtěch Kubašta.

As well as compiling myths, legends, and fairy tales from around the world, Green was a biographer of children’s writers and a member of the Oxford literary group, the Inklings, along with J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.  In Once Long Ago, Green’s writing retains the fairy tale format of earlier versions while creating a magic that appealed to me as a child, and still does as an adult. My old favourites, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Snow White, are all included and I quickly gained new favourites: the Australian tale, The Bunyip, the Flemish tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and the Norse tale, Why the Sea is Salt.

I have read questions online about how accurate Green may have been in writing stories from cultures other than his own. We have to remember that this book was published in 1962 and to have a volume of such diverse tales from a wide range of cultures is to be commended. I am choosing to believe that Green researched these stories thoroughly and took due care and time when creating his versions of them. The English story, The Three Bears, does support this view since there is no Goldilocks in sight. Instead, the original character, a little old woman, is the antagonist.

Not only is this book a fine example of great storytelling, it is also a work of art. Born in Vienna, Kubašta moved to Prague when he was four. He studied architecture and civil engineering but soon moved into his life-long career as a commercial artist and book designer. He is perhaps most famous for his pop-up books. His illustrations in Once Long Ago are bold, bright and filled with emotion: the image of the old witch on her raft of snakes in the Armenian tale Zoulvisia is impressively evil, the arrogance of the chicken in the Spanish tale The Half-Chick is cleverly depicted, and my favourite image of all, that of the girl in the English tale Coat of Rushes accepting her new silver dress from the fairy, is hauntingly beautiful.

A few years ago, for a significant birthday, I treated myself to my own copy of the book to the tune of $NZ500. It may seem odd that I am reviewing a book now classed as “hard to find” and costing a fair penny to buy should you find a copy. What I want to illustrate is the need for children to be exposed to traditional tales. In New Zealand, books of Māori myths and legends by Peter Gossage or Gavin Bishop are strong contenders for any bookshelf, Xoë Hall is creating stunning editions of myths and legends in English and te reo Māori, and Annie Rae Te Ake Ake has retold 15 tales all impressively illustrated by young Kiwi artists. Look for volumes further afield too. I learnt about people different to me through the tales in Once Long Ago and I would like to think this created a strong foundation for fairness, acceptance and tolerance. I encourage you to find a modern collection of traditional tales from around the world; one filled with gorgeous illustrations and magical stories, preferably one where the stories are written and illustrated by people who grew up with them. Since this is such a personal choice I can’t recommend what volume you buy, but I can say that if your children read it until it is faded and frayed then it is a book well-loved and one they will carry with them forever.