Malala’s Magic Pencil – Malala Yousafzai (author), Kerascoët (illustrator)

Malala's Magic Pencil CoverFirst Published: 17th October, 2017
Genre: Children’s Memoir / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Malala has a comfortable life playing with her brothers and going to school, until the Taliban takes over her town.

This is not the story of a girl and her magic pencil. It’s the true story of Malala Yousafzai for younger readers. I do have some doubts about this title choice, as the context is not necessarily going to be clear for children picking this up. An adult will hopefully recognise the name and realise what it’s about.

The focus is on Malala wishing she has a magic pencil to change the world, then slowly coming to realise that she could do a similar thing through her writing. I did like the way this storyline tied together, as it makes it relatable for a younger audience. It does also highlight how reading and writing can be used in a practical way, which reluctant readers can sometimes find difficult to see.

The pictures are fairly realistic watercolour paintings with black ink outlines. The details help to make the settings clear. There are also swirly patterns in places, examples of which can be seen on the cover, which invoke a sense of imagination and creativity.

There are obviously violent aspects to the story, as Malala’s town was taken over by the Taliban and she was shot. This is handled in an age-appropriate way. There are some images with men carrying guns and it’s clear people are scared, but there are no scenes showing the guns in use. The attack on Malala is very glossed over. It cuts from saying they want to stop her to her looking out of a window with a hospital bracelet on. I do think this image could have been clearer about being a hospital, as the small details would be easy to miss, particularly if the reader hasn’t stayed in a hospital before. It wouldn’t have needed to show all the gory details of the attack to do that.

The text is better suited to older picture book readers. There are some longer paragraphs and pages with multiple paragraphs. There is also a lot to take in, even in this simplified form. That said, I think the framing of the story does make it understandable for the intended age range. It’s a difficult story to simplify and it mostly succeeds in that.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

All the Stars Left Behind – Ashley Graham

Stars CoverFirst Published: 6th June, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Leda moves to Norway after her father’s death. Roar is an alien looking for a weapon to stop the destruction of his world.

Aliens in this setting are basically human. There’s a reference to humans being “almost another species” compared to Aurelites (Roar’s people). So there are differences, but they’re not that huge. The only oddity is blood colour changes depending on where someone is born. It’s probably best not to worry about the science of that too closely.

The early part of the novel had some odd jumps and inconsistencies. My guess would be there were some heavy cuts in the beginning during editing and the rest wasn’t changed to match up, but it means it’s a little confusing at times. Things settle out when the space elements gets going.

The book has instalove, which is not really my thing. I did like that Leda and Roar have to consider life beyond instalove. I wasn’t so fond of the idea that sex is mandatory for relationships (this comes mainly from Leda). I also don’t like over-protective and controlling behaviour from love interests. Roar does this less often than some, but he still ends up climbing into her bed and hugging her without asking, not letting goes when she struggles, and it’s fine because that’s what she wants after all. This is scary, not romantic.

There’s a fair bit of representation in this book, but some of it is rocky. Early on, there’s a microaggression about a woman having shoulders that are too broad for a woman, which sets the tone. There are a lot of little things and some big things. I’ll discuss a few of them, but it’s not a complete list.

Leda has spina bifida and uses crutches. The good sides are that she isn’t magically cured when the alien stuff gets going and she can’t suddenly run around without crutches when the plot demands it. There is also a mention of having limited energy, such as walking without crutches for a short distance making it hard to walk at all. However, I wasn’t fond of her constant self-hatred. She’s internalised a lot ableism, which may well be realistic, but it is somewhat constant during the story. She wants people to see past her disability, as though it’s a negative thing that overlays the real person inside.

Leda appears to be non-white. She’s described as having light brown skin and black hair. Roar considers that she looks “Spanish-meets-Arabic”. So she’s likely someone who has ancestry that is not clear. I didn’t like that Roar considers her “beautiful in an exotic kind of way”. This is not a compliment. Worded another way, this is saying she’s pretty for someone of her race, not properly pretty like all the pale blondes.

Roar’s friend Petrus is mute and uses sign language. Both norsk tegnspråk and Aurelis’s sign language. It’s unclear how he became mute, though it’s implied that he hasn’t always been.

One of the characters is a trans boy. The reveal was through misgendering and deadnaming the character, which is repeated several times. Also, it avoided any issues that would be specific to Aurelites. Namely that males have living tattoos that develop at birth. There is a brief mention of the trans boy having tattoos, but it’s something I’d have expected to be much more of a big deal in this context.

Some of the supporting characters are either gay or bi/pan. There’s not a lot to say on that, as not a lot happened, but they’re there.

The central issue is that this book copies some tropes that are popular in mainstream books, without critically looking at those tropes. It’s great to have a more diverse cast, but not so great to copy harmful tropes relating to that diverse cast. It’s painful because a lot of these things were on the surface. They could have been sorted without changing the main plot. It did feel like the author was trying, but wasn’t able to get there.

All this aside, I thought the book was reasonable. It passed the time and there were some bits I liked. The concept of aliens hiding out in a remote part of Norway was an interesting idea. The space conflicts make it clear that there’s more going on. There’s the potential for a series tackling some colonial political issues. Note that the book does have an ending, but it’s written as though it is the first in a series rather than a true standalone.

Fillius Glint – Ditrie Marie Bowie

Fillius Glint CoverFirst Published: 31st January, 2017
Genre: Science Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A universe is attacked by hackers who want to destroy it. Meanwhile in the universe, three people find some magical colouring pencils.

There are four viewpoint characters and a frame story. The frame is a family where the children are growing universes. When hackers attack the home network, Nancy loses most of her universes. The one that remains is where most of the story takes place.

Fillius has quite a bit of viewpoint time, showing the lead up to the main story events. He was raised in the gender-neutral religion of Zorda. Everyone uses Spivak pronouns, which is briefly explained at the start of the book. People with breasts bind them. The aim is to be as genderless as possible, in honour of the deity. I had issues believing all this, because the Zords are very binary for a gender-neutral cultural group. When they do gendered things, it is based on where they would be assigned in a binary society. So if they would be assigned female at birth, they might wear a dress or makeup. They also have names to indicate that, just with a letter cut off the end, rather than using truly gender-neutral naming conventions (Clar/Clara, Nor/Nora, Belind/Belinda).

On my first read, it gave the impression that being non-binary was a sham and that no one was really non-binary. On a second read, I can see it might be intended to show Fillius’s issues. He decides he’s a man based on his genitals. He starts misgendering other Zords. Everything he sees is filtered through this perspective. It’s also possible the names are due to more recent converts altering their names. However, this is the first introduction to anyone non-binary in the book, and the only time the Zords are shown living in a community, so I remained uncomfortable with it even after seeing it in the context of the full story.

Fortunately, the other viewpoint characters are more interesting and don’t fall into this as much. Their story happens in the present in the universe, as each of them picks up a magic crayon.

Luiz is recovering from breaking up with his girlfriend by taking a lot of drugs. He’s also in trouble with a business associate. I liked that his story deals with issues facing people of ethnic minorities in a majority culture.

Calliya is a shaman who lives alone in the forest and has control over elements. This introduces another religion and culture. I also liked how it highlights the ridiculousness of some of the worldbuilding, such as the trees with tacos growing on them. I could imagine a child growing a universe like this.

Nor is a Zord living outside of a Zord community. Unlike the Zords in Fillius’s sections, it’s clear Nor really is non-binary. Ey faces issues like gendered changing rooms. Ey competes in a sport that splits people by weight class, rather than gender, to avoid some of those issues. Nor is very honest and open, to the point that when things get weird, ey just tells eir coach plainly what’s going on, magic crayons and all. There is some misgendering of Nor by the others initially, particularly from Luiz, but this is something that self-corrects. It’s rare to have characters get it wrong, realise they were wrong, and start getting it right, without being told to do that.

Once I got past Fillius’s initial sections, I did enjoy the book overall. The setup and plot are unique. The protagonists contrasted well with each other. It presents a world that’s fanciful, yet also complicated in a realistic way, with different cultures and how they interact. The main weakness was the Zords, because outside of Nor, it didn’t hold together for me as a gender-neutral society.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

Ada Twist, Scientist – Andrea Beaty (author), David Roberts (illustrator)

Ada Twist CoverFirst Published: 6th September, 2016
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Ada Marie Twist loves to explore things and ask questions. It might just be that she’s a scientist.

The story is in rhyming verse and broadly splits into two parts. The opening has Ada as a baby growing up. Her family notice that she loves to explore things, along with the chaos this causes. Once she starts talking, she has endless questions about the world. This introduces the general idea of the things that make a good scientist.

I liked that Ada doesn’t speak until she’s a toddler. Children don’t follow an exact timeline of development, and it’s treated as something to not worry about. However, the text does assume she will speak eventually. This could hit the wrong way for children who are non-verbal, in presenting speech as something that will happen for everyone.

This thread wouldn’t have sustained the whole book, but it then switches to the second part. Ada notices a really terrible smell, and decides to investigate what’s causing it. She doesn’t find the solution, but the evidence is there in the pictures and the answer can be guessed. This shows science doesn’t have all the answers and encourages readers to come up with the answer. However, it does mean the plot trails off rather than having a firm resolution. This may not work for some readers.

The artwork is done with watercolour, pen and ink. Graph paper and pencil elements are used for the backgrounds. The characters have great expressions. I especially like Ada’s sibling, who is often shown pointing at Ada when she’s made a mess.

This book is in a series of similar books about children with science and technology interests. There’s some reference to that, as they all go to the same school, but it isn’t needed to read the others before this one. It is very clear that it’s an American school, as Ada’s class is referred to by grade, so it could cause some confusion for children in other countries.

My biggest reservation happens outside the story, because there is an author’s note at the end. Ada’s namesakes are introduced: Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie. There’s also a comment that women have always been involved in science. This is true, but the book shows Ada as a black girl. The two named examples are not. I’d have liked to see at least one black woman named, even if she wasn’t Ada’s namesake. The obstacles Ada (and readers like her) will face are not only going to be about gender.

In general, I thought it was a cute book with a positive message about young girls interested in science. The way the plot ends is likely to work for some readers and not for others, so that’s worth keeping in mind. The family cat does face some peril at points in the story, but it’s stopped before the cat comes to any harm.

Spelling the Hours – Rose Lemberg (editor)

Spelling the Hours CoverFull Title: Spelling the Hours: Poetry Celebrating the Forgotten Others of Science and Technology
First Published: 18th July, 2016
Genre: Science Poetry / Poetry Collection
Poets: Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas; Mary Alexandra Agner; Michele Bannister; Lisa M. Bradley; Sofia Samatar; Sonya Taaffe; Bogi Takács; A.J. Odasso; Lev Mirov; Mari Ness; na’amen
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This poetry collection contains twelve poems about marginalised people in science and technology. Each poem also has notes about the scientists featured in the poem, to provide some context.

“noble, nobel” (na’amen) and “Augur Effect” (A.J. Odasso) are an interesting contrast, as they cover the same three women (Lise Meiter, Chien-Shiung Wu and Jocelyn Bell Burnell). The former poem is longer and considers the specific work of each involved. I liked the shifting rhythms as it goes from areas with short lines to longer passages. The latter poem takes a more personal approach, linking the poet’s overlooked contributions to those of others, and how the poet was also part of erasing the names (however unknowingly) when writing about science. I do like that both poems were included, rather than trying to stick to one poem per scientist, as they provide very different approaches.

My favourite poem was “Madrepore” (Mari Ness). Aquarium ecology interests me as a fishkeeper, but I also liked the connections back and forth between Anna Thynne’s work and her family. Science doesn’t happen in isolation from the rest of life.

Another strong poem was “Never Cease” (Bogi Takács), which focuses on Rózsa Péter. This also handles how science interacts with life, but on a wider political scale. Rózsa was barred from her profession due to being Jewish. This is a bilingual poem in English and Hungarian.

One of the most interesting structures was “Girl Hours” (Sofia Samatar), as it’s like a scientific report in reverse. This one doesn’t have addition notes at the end, as the notes come first as part of the poem. It wasn’t my favourite in the collection, but I did like the choice of arrangement.

Some of the poems focus on named individuals. Other poems focus on anonymous contributions, such as the women employed as computers and the Nahua artists who illustrated the Florentine Codex. People included as central figures in the poems are Alan Turing, Christopher Morcom, Priscilla Fairfield Bok, Bart Bok, Anna Thynne, Agnes Pockels, Paris Pişmiş, Lise Meiter, Chien-Shiung Wu, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, James Barry, Axiothea of Phlios, Rózsa Péter and Henrietta Swan Leavitt. The cover features Mary Alice McWhinnie.

The introduction by editor Rose Lemberg comments that the poets tended to write about people they already knew about, and had some meaning for them, rather than finding out about the people they didn’t know. This did produce a range of responses, though I’d also be interested in who we might find by wandering in search of stories we didn’t know existed. An area that didn’t surface in the poems, despite some set during older history, were the accomplishments outside Europe before the impact of colonialism.

It’s a strong collection which will appeal to those who enjoy poetry with scientific themes. It delivered on its promise of highlighting marginalised people in science and technology, including a few who were new to me.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]