Here is my first review for this blog. I review for Linda Richards' January Magazine - http://www.januarymagazine.com - an excellent on-line review zine. On this site, I will be writing reviews that Linda can't publish - crime fiction, which another editor does, books that may be older than a few months, books that someone else has reviewed on the January Magazine site or that have been published already overseas but have only just been released in Australia, where I live.
In this case, I would like to declare my interest - I have a book in this series, Your Cat Could Be A Spy - but I was sent the books below to review and, while some others in the series are not as good as these, this particular bunch are very good indeed and deserve reviewing. Children's books get very little review space anyway and since this series has been around for a while, hardly anyone is bothering to review the books any more, even the specialist magazines. If you'd like to buy one of these titles, try the website - http://www.itstrue.com.au - or the general Allen and Unwin web site - http://www.allenandunwin.com. If you live in Australia, the books will already be available in the shops. You can order them from one of the bigger bookshops if you live outside Australia and sooner or later, they will reach your neck of the woods.
Now, read the review!
IT’S TRUE! You Eat Poison Every Day (Peter Macinnis), Hauntings Happen And Ghosts Get Grumpy(Meredith Costain), Space Turns You Into Spaghetti (Heather Catchpole and Vanessa Woods)
These three books are the most recent titles in Allen and Unwin’s It’s True! series for children between the ages of eight and twelve. They are aimed at the younger end of the range, but can also be enjoyed by older children.
Children do enjoy non-fiction when written for entertainment. They like to know new things, preferably disgusting, but quirky will do, hence the popularity of the Guinness Book of Records. Teachers and parents tend to think that if it isn’t fiction it isn’t a real book, though there’s the occasional grudging, “Oh, well, at least they’re reading...”
When properly done, a non-fiction book can tell just as good a story as any novel and at the same time teach them new information that they don’t necessarily have to use for a school project.
This series in general aims at that. Some of the books are better than others and it must be said here that the latest have shown an improvement in style. Gone is the bitsiness, i.e. one short anecdote after another, that made some of the earlier titles less good than they could have been.
You Eat Poison Every Day, written by an expert in the field, is the quirkiest of the three, but provides quite a lot of good factual information, including why poison isn’t much use as a murder weapon in modern times. There is plenty of fascinating historical background and bizarre stories about weird murders and why the usually idiotic killer was caught, as well as the uses of poisonous ingredients in paint, wallpaper, make-up and even clothing dyes. Reading it, you aren’t surprised people lived such short lives in the past, you’re surprised they survived as long as they did! And don’t think we’re living in a poison-free world now, either - I found myself muttering, “Oh, no!” in dismay as I read. Children should enjoy this for the grossout factor at the very least!
Hauntings Happen And Ghosts Get Grumpy, by veteran children’s writer Meredith Costain, covers various areas of the supernatural, from ghosts and things psychic to UFOs and firewalking. There are personal accounts of supernatural things that happened to the author and her family and friends, as well as more historical events. Meredith Costain does suggest some possible alternative explanations to spooky interpretation of the events mentioned, but leaves it to the young reader to decide. That’s appropriate for this type of book. It’s a lot of fun, with interesting anecdotes from around the world; I even learned that my local cinema, built on the site of a dance hall, is haunted by dancing ghosts. Now I’ll know what’s happening if someone dances past in the dark the next time I go to the movies...
Space Turns You Into Spaghetti is written by the team who wrote an earlier title, There Are Bugs In Your Bed. It gives a simple introduction both to the space program and astronomy. There is a brief mention of UFOs, but because this is a science book, the notion that there might be extraterrestrial visitors out there is gently but firmly put down, at least to suggest that there is no evidence and we don’t know. The authors suggest that if the reader really wants to help search for life elsewhere in the universe, she should check out the SETI At Home program, which helps make sense of all the signals we’re getting. There is a chapter about “So You Want To be An Astronaut” followed by one about whether you’d like to live on another planet, leading into the astronomy section of the book, which is mostly about the solar system, the sun, the life cycle of stars and black holes. The authors of this book love their subject and it shows. It is not a book meant to be used for that school project about the solar system, though it could be. It’s about the wonder and beauty of the universe. I wrote a book on the space program myself, back in the late 1990s, Starwalkers: Explorers of the Unknown, and I can relate to this one.
All three books have useful web sites listed at the back and Hauntings also has an extensive book list. Do yourself a favour and buy these as birthday gifts. It will save you a search and the children who receive them will actually enjoy them, not just offer polite thanks!