Monday 25 April 2022

Non-Fiction or Not Non-Fiction - that is the Question...

My new book The Greatest Show is coming out imminently. It’s the story of life on Earth, performed by insects in a shoebox theatre. It’s described as ‘Non-Fiction’. But is it?

In this post I want to tell you a bit about my experience of wrestling with deep geological time and the paleontological past of Earth, show you my favourite research  books, and look at a few non-fiction picture books and how they use the page visually… and maybe have a peek at the boundaries of non-fiction – where’s the line where it becomes fiction?

Researching the Greatest Show….

This is a Very Useful Chart for keeping track of your geological eras of the Earth

I don't have a proper science background, and I found when I was trying to research periods of time for the Greatest Show that what was tricky was that information didn't stick, so when I came to each page to build the pictures, I had to research it all anew. My double page spreads were roughly 50 cm wide - which worked well for quite a lot of geological periods – there was often about 50 million years between whatever event (usually some sort of mass extinction) marked a new time zone. My Tape Measure of Time – could unfurl at a scale of 1cm to 1 million years.

But 50 million years is a REALLY long time, and I had to make my slice of tape measure just tell one or two main stories about the climate, so I needed to know enough about everything that happened to be able to decide what was important.

In this slice of Tape Measure, Annette and Anton are showing how oxygen levels rose in the Carboniferous era.

This is where there's the WORST MASS EXTINCTION of ALL TIME, at the Permian-Triassic boundary.

This is that quite recent mass extinction when Alan the Asteroid extinctified the dinosaurs (and lots of other animals.)
There is so much information online and of course there’s the treasury of free information that is Wikipedia and also research papers and science journals. I spent quite a lot of time trying to work out what a sauropod lung might have looked like. I discovered proper scientists are super-helpful if you email them a query about something.  

But whenever I got bogged down or mind-boggled about how to boil down Earth’s massively intense and complicated story, I had three go-to children’s information books. So here are my three Earth-Story bibles:

Book One: Dinosaurs: A Children's Encyclopedia

Pub. 2011, consultant Darren Naish. It's about so much more than dinosaurs, just about every other life form is in there as well.

I'm always captivated by this glimpse of Ediacaran sea and swaying Charnias, it's like going in a time machine for a visit.

Here's a Precambrian animal, Opabinia, with its random five eyes, reaching out of the page to shake you by the hand.

Book Two: Hannah Bonner's Prehistoric Trilogy  (OK I’m cheating, this is obviously three books.)

When Bugs Were Big, When Fish Got Feet, and When Dinos Dawned, all by Hannah Bonner.

Hannah does it all - makes the words and the pictures, and works out how to explain with humour the most properly deep scientific concepts. On this page, as well as providing a glimpse of an early Triassic landscape from the point of view of a hungry Luperosuchus, on the left hand side we can trace our mammal ancestry back to when we were egg-laying amniotes and a shared ancestor of dinosaurs.

Book Three: The What on Earth? Wallbook of Natural History

by Christopher Lloyd and Andy Forshaw. You can see it's so well used that it has collapsed.

This book is a big zig-zag timeline. It's organised into different levels to simultaneously show EVERYTHING, including: evolution on sea and land, the changing climate, the moving continents, geological activity and mass extinctions.

Non-fiction is a picture book challenge – to make and also to read. Reading non-fiction can be a difficult for those who like a well-aerated page, who get distracted and confused if there’s too much to see on the page (like me). So it's a visual challenge to design non-fiction pages that say what they need to, but in a digestible way, and I think the non-fiction illustrator has to use every element at their disposal to distill the message they want to tell. 

Just grabbing a few favourite non-fictions from my bookshelves, I have picked out Animalium, Professor Astro Cat and On the Origin of Species.

From my bookshelves: Animalium

by Katie Scott and Jenny Bloom

This is a book that is really a Natural History Museum, with exhibits that we feel we can reach out and touch. It also reminds me of a Cabinet of Curiosities, like the Natural Curiosities of Albertus Seba.

It's on a generous scale, like the Birds of Audobon. There's lots of space for the exhibits, who are large. The displays show what's inside animals and also terrariums of creatures assembled.

From my bookshelves: Professor Astro Cat's Frontiers of Space

by Dr Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman

The designs and illustrations of Ben Newman use shape and proportions and retro colour palettes to bring a lot of physics to the reader.

Find a solar system in your fruit bowl.

From my bookshelves: On the Origin of Species

by Sabina Radeva

I love how Sabina has used quotes from Darwin's actual On The Origins of Species to show the beauty and awe in his view of evolution. I love this transformation of Earth's fossil layers into "a vast museum".

In this spread Sabina demonstrates convergent evolution, and shows the evolutional possibilities of the tetrapod hand. Sabina uses flat colour in a limited palette to keep everything calm and clear on the eye.

Non-Fiction or not Non-Fiction?

With the Greatest Show, the challenge was to bring Life on Earth to readers as a story. I wanted the reader to see at a glance THE MAIN STORY, to know where to look first. But then to be able to delve deeper in, if they wanted to.  So I took the model of the theatre stage - where your main stage is your first focus, and then you can peruse the wings and also see what's going on down at the Tape Measure of Time.


The Shoebox Theatre Plan - so you know where to look first to see in a snapshot what's going on.

But NOTHING in this book is at all realistic or like it really would have been. I mean - do insects do puppetry? Can they read? Would a cockroach be able to operate a spoon? Even my troupe of insects – well, they haven’t got mandibles and compound eyes – but then it’s hard to feel empathy for the true face of an insect.

The True Face of an Insect (this one's a beetle.)

My troupe of critters

So does Greatest Show rather stretch the definition of 'non-fiction'? Books get organised exclusively into 'fiction' and 'non-fiction', but is there a cross-over zone? The gap between fiction and non-fiction – is there one? Is there an overlap? 

I highly recommend Henry Gee's vivid and entertaining romp through 4.6 billion years.

Henry Gee’s book, A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth, tells it like a story. It starts: "Once upon a time, a giant star was dying." - and there we are, at the very beginning of the dawn of Earth, and its "Song of Fire and Ice". The story has acted like a time-portal, to transport us to witness the dear old Earth's very beginnings, and that's the magical thing that stories can do.

The World of Story

With my book I wanted to find out if there was a way of making the evolution of life on Earth over billion years into a story to give young readers a first scaffold to start hanging their knowledge of life on Earth upon. Why a story?

Because maybe humans are uniquely good at absorbing information through stories. Think of remembering with Memory Palaces, navigating with songlines. Before writing, story was how information was passed down generations. Stories are memorable. Story makes us want to know what happens, makes us pay attention.

But story is also a miracle. How is it possible that I can tell you a story of insects putting on a performance, and you’re prepared to go along with this crazy idea? It’s because of the power of story to seize our imaginations and curiosity. But we have to watch out – The Story’s power is really strong, and as we can see unfolding in the world today, its power can be used for good or for ill.



The Greatest Show on Earth is coming to shops on 28th April.  

Another of Mini's book-involvements is The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, with AF Harrold.  Her BlogSite is at Sketching Weakly.


Monday 18 April 2022

Eggstra-ordinary picture books about Eggs! by the Picture Book Denners

The team decided this would be a great time to share our favourite egg themed books – however tenuous that link is. So, here goes!

Lynne's egg book:

I nominate Tadpole's Promise written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Tony Ross

When eggs are mentioned, I think it’s fair to say most people think bird eggs. However, there are a huge number of other critters which lay eggs. For example, ladybirds, slugs and snails, earth worms, spiders, butterflies, and frogs. The book I’m nominating is about the last two on this list, a frog and a butterfly. Both of which hatch from eggs!
I stumbled across this book in my local book shop. I was researching for a publisher, who might have been interested in a story I was working on. As I had limited time, I’d told myself I’d only flick through the books to get a feel for them and would, under no circumstances read them. Well… that didn’t happen.
I pulled Tadpole's Promise from the shelf and flicked to the first page. I began to read and just kept reading, until I’d reached the last page. It’s one of the few times I’ve had a laugh out loud moment in a bookshop, quickly followed by a little pang of guilt. I don’t want to give the ending away because it’s clever, it’s tragic and it’s amusing. Plus, it’s a great way to introduce children to the circle of life and the natural wonder of metamorphosis.


P.S. If you want to see the eggs for each species I’ve mentioned just click on the link. 

An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long

Natascha's egg book:

AN EGG IS QUIET by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long is part of a series of beautiful nature books. Each has deceptively simple, poetic main story text and layers of more detailed informational text about eggs belonging to all kinds of species.

The book opens with beautiful eggs on the front endsheets and the back endsheets feature lots of colourful hatched creatures.

It begins with a whisper . . .

"An egg is quiet . . ." (hatching), then builds:
An egg is also 'colorful'  . . .  (colours),

From An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Aston & Sylvia Long

'shapely' . . . (shapes), 'clever' (camouflage to safeguard from enemies) and 'comes in different sizes'. It is 'artistic', 'textured', 'fossilized', 'giving' (life cycle), and . . .

The book ends with the joyful sounds as the creatures hatch out into the world.

From tiny hummingbirds to giant ostrich, oval ladybird eggs to tubular dogfish eggs, gooey frog eggs to fossilized dinosaur eggs, the detailed images alongside the rhythmical text are mesmerizing!

Clare's egg book:

'All the birds had laid an egg. All except... Duck!' 

That is until Duck finds the most beautiful egg in the whole wide world. The other animals aren't convinced initially. But a twist in the tale soon shows them the error of their ways. 

In the 'Odd Egg!' by Emily Gravett, the first thing that strikes me is how masterful the illustrations are. I love the softness of Emily's characters and the pencil line details. The book also has some clever novelty elements which add to the fun and interactivity and come into play with then eggs hatch. The double page where the reader meets the birds' babies is done so well! 

As well as warm illustrations, there's plenty of onomatopoeia spattered amongst in the concise text, drawing the reader in and making it a great read aloud. It might not be the ending you expect to this sweet, cutesy book... all the more reason I like it! 

Jane's egg book:

 I'm choosing "tell me a Dragon' by Jackie Morris (Frances Lincoln 2009)

This may be a bit of a cheat, as eggs only appear in the endpapers!

For years now, this beautiful, lyrical book has been the favourite of one or another of my four granddaughters. It's inspired us to have lots of fun together, collecting pebbles and dreaming up what type of dragon might hatch out of them.

Jane's youngest garden dragon, guarding some pebbly 'eggs.'

Pippa's egg book: 

Pip & Egg, written by Alex Latimer and illustrated by David Litchfield

Well, as a Pip, I had to choose that title, didn't I! But it's also a superb picture book, thoughtful and beautiful, kind and wise.

Egg and Pip become great friends, but then life brings changes. Unlike in wonderfully shocking Tadpole's Promise (see above), these two are destined to come through challenges to their friendship that leave them still good friends, but different, at the end. First Pip begins to sprout roots and can no longer move. Pip grows taller and leafier as we turn the pages. And then Egg changes ... into a baby bird! Pip understands when Egg needs to fly to a wonderful city to meet other birds. But guess where bird Egg wants to be when she realises she has an egg inside her? Back to the wonderful tree that Pip has become. What could be more satisfying?

Chitra's egg book

In my egg book, the eggs are not characters. But they are both the victims and the heroes of the story. Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market is about eggs that have to crack to become something else. It's a story of making the best of any situation, and it's the story of resilience, even when it comes to something as fragile as an egg. I also wrote a detailed blog post about why I wrote about eggs when I don't eat eggs.  

Illustrated by Kanika Nair

Moira's egg book 

Well, here's a strange little tale about an egg picture book, and about being an author....Back in 2012 I was asked to write a book for ages 4-5 on eggs. Only it wasn't going to have any words! I was nonplussed but I said yes because the fee seemed generous for writing a book with no words, and there were royalties. I was asked to select photos from a picture library that would tell an unspoken narrative about eggs - a narrative using pictures that young emerging readers could chat about with a grown-up. So I found egg photos that told of animals such as fishes, crocodiles, seagulls and eagles....and so far  'What's In the Egg' has gone on to earn me 3 times the original advance. The lesson? As an author, don't necessarily say no to unusual opportunities, even if they sound a bit strange. Keep your mind open!

The book I 'wrote' with no words. 

Garry's egg book

J.Otto Seibold presents Other Goose. Re-nurseried!! and Re-rhymed!! Childrens Classics

If you're a fan of wacky and zany or you just want to shake things up a bit for Easter, then this is the book for you.

J.Otto Seibold re-tells some classic 'Mother Goose' nursery rhymes in his inimitable illustrative style. The book includes a chapter called ' Of Eggs and Accidents - fried, tried and justified' where Humpty Dumpty goes to the mall and buys some platform boots in the sale, size eggleven. In part two he steps in a hole and loses one boot which leaves him clopping around and around in circles. 

Bonkers and lots of fun, this book gets my shout for Easter.

Mini's egg book

The Good Egg 

I did a rather egg-based post back in February to mark 20 years since the publication of my very first book, which was about an egg (Egg Drop.) You can find it here. In it I do a round-up (OK, an oval-up...) of some favourite egg books including this one. Happy Easter, and wishing you the best of eggs!