Reviews: Two Captivating STEM Books

Linda Jane Keegan reviews two books that are rooted in nature connectivity. Ultrawild is a thought experiment encompassing environmental science, engineering, and outrageous ideas for how to save the planet, and The Beach Activity Book is an assortment of water-themed ideas and activities to get young people appreciating the world around them. Without a love for nature, there is little impetus for saving the world so both books speak to different stages and interests of the nature-loving child or child-at-heart.

Ultrawild: An Audacious Plan to Rewild Every City on Earth, by Steve Mushin (Allen & Unwin)

Ultrawild is a visually impressive, large-format work of genius. The glossy title and detailed cover illustration are an immediate drawcard, with a combination of wildlife, mechanics and something about cities being audacious? What even is rewilding? In short, rewilding is about bringing natural processes and ecological systems back into built-up places such as cities, with the goal being restoration of these systems and the landscapes they are part of.

Wellington Ultrawilded [Image from Ultrawild].

First of all, what a great concept to put in front of children’s eyes. But what really stands out in this book is the novelty approach coupled with a scientific thought process. Essentially, this is a book of outlandish ideas that escalate into more and more ludicrous solutions to the problem of battling climate change. But how ludicrous are these ideas? Steve Mushin—an industrial designer, artist, and inventor—approaches a series of inventions with the attitude that anything is possible, something which I think is so critical in a time where I myself am jaded by the prospect of a warming climate and the associated impending ecological doom. This book is a fun and inspiring encouragement to the as-yet unjaded mind that one can, and should, think outside the box.

Steve Mushin sitting at a desk working on a large digital drawing board, with two other screens visible, and inventions artwork on the wall.

What exactly is in this book? It’s a thought experiment, where we dive into Mushin’s mind as he works through the plausibility of various inventions that could potentially bring wildlife back to our cities and save the planet. It’s funny, entertaining, and informative. You’ll learn about thrust and aerofoils while he examines the possibility of flying bikes, or how many times a year New York City experiences exploding sewers due to methane buildup. Every spread is incredibly detailed, talking the reader through the science and labelled illustrations.

Page from Ultrawild.

I mentioned it was detailed. When I first opened the book I found it visually overwhelming. Every spread has a LOT going on. It’s clearly the work of a designer-illustrator-cartoonist, and when I put this to illustrator-cartoonist Eddie Monotone he described it as a cross between xkcd and European comics (think of Hergé’s Tintin for example). The pages are full of illustrations, text boxes, speech bubbles, and labels. It can be hard to know where to look at first but once you find a starting point there are arrows and other visual devices to help guide you through the page.

Open spread of Ultrawild on a stand outside with bush background.

The use of the text boxes and speech bubbles does help to break up the text, and it’s the sort of thing you could spend hours poring over, or dip in and out of as you please. My eight-year-old, whose attention span is questionable, spent at least several minutes flicking through and then telling me, “there’s lots of science and I want there to be more about poo.”

Oh, yes, there is actually quite a lot about poo in this book (if only said eight-year-old would actually look more closely). Ultrawild does have a Horrible Histories-esque patina about it; with compost-blasting (aka poop-blasting) canons, severed limbs, and gaseous explosions. This might not be to everybody’s tastes. Normally it’s not to my tastes, but in the context of this book it makes sense, relates to the science, and in reality is probably what will keep a lot of kids reading it. I will add, though, there are a number of disclaimers (e.g. references to 3D-printing human body parts come with reminders that this technology doesn’t actually exist yet) and redirections to his website for more detailed information.

This book is a fun and inspiring encouragement to the as-yet unjaded mind that one can, and should, think outside the box.

All in all, Ultrawild is a really cool-looking book that is original, engaging, and inspiring.


By Steve Mushin

Published by Allen & Unwin

RRP: $38.00

Buy now

The Beach Activity Book: 99 Ideas for Activities by the Water around Aotearoa New Zealand, by Rachel Haydon & Pippa Keel (Te Papa Press)

Fans of The Nature Activity Book by the same duo will also love the beach version. The Beach Activity Book does what it says on the cover, and it does it beautifully. The front cover immediately evokes the feeling of fossicking at the beach, exploring rockpools, and doing so without a care in the world.

Before launching into the activities, the book starts off with information about tikanga, sharing your adventures using the #BeachActivityBook hashtag, respect for nature, water safety, and materials you might need. It was pleasing to see this acknowledgement of tikanga, as well as incorporation of te ao Māori throughout the book, such as he rā takoha (give back days according to maramataka), whakataukī, ngā tohu (seasonal signs), and prominent use of te reo. I am also reassured by the fact that the creators/publisher sought support from Kauwaka for the mātauranga Māori in the book.

Spread from The Beach Activity Book.

The activities are organised into sections (Worlds, Wildlife, Nature’s Gifts, Wai, and Connection), and within these are icons denoting if they are Write/Look/Listen/Draw/Make/Do/Collect/Feel. The icons always appear on the top left of a page which makes it easy for the reader/activity-doer to choose something that fits with what they feel like doing. Even just flicking through the pages feels inviting; there is also plenty of information about different habitats and wildlife to soak in before, after, or during an activity. I love how there are so many different ways to engage with this book.

Tamariki checking out some shells at the launch for The Beach Activity Book.

The design and layout of the book is appealing and easy to follow, with illustrations and photos accompanying the text. I love the attention to detail of using hand-drawn frames, sticky tape or thumb tacks to “attach” the photos to the page, it’s a subtle and attractive way to incorporate photos into a mostly illustrated aesthetic. It’s a very nice book to look at, almost too nice to draw in! And there are plenty of spaces designed to write or draw in, including diagrams to label, framed spaces to draw in, lines to write on, and free spaces to fill.

Spread from The Beach Activity Book.

The writing aspect encourages deep and reflective thinking; rather than asking what did you find in a certain space, the text queries things like, ‘What did you spot that surprised you the most?’ or ‘What shapes, patterns or even structures can you make with what you found?’ These questions probe further than just finding cool stuff on the beach or in a river. Other questions take a more scientific enquiry approach, without feeling like a lesson. What I like about this book is the way it provides structured prompts to engage in and with nature, which works well when the idea of “going for a walk” seems too boring, or “go play outside” seems too vague.

Some of the activities are experiments that can be done at home with simple equipment; the materials listed at the beginning of the book are things most households are likely have to have on hand/be able to easily access. An illustrated glossary appears at the back of the book along with a list of websites and additional resources.

Pippa Keel (left) holding The Nature Activity Book and Rachel Haydon (right) holding The Beach Activity Book, at Napier Beach.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t echo Rachel Moore’s words when she reviewed The Beach Activity Book‘s predecessor, The Nature Activity Book:

“There’s so much in here that it could keep a family busy for months.”

“The tone of the book is friendly and informative, encouraging the reader to explore and think for themselves.”

“Will provide hours and hours of engaging fun for the whole family.”

These words are just as true of The Beach Activity Book; it is fantastic as a book for families, a resource for educators, and as a gift for almost any kid.

The Beach Activity Book

By Rachel Haydon

Illustrated by Pippa Keel

Published by Te Papa Press

RRP: $35.00

Buy now

cartoon character with long hair smiling

Linda Jane is the lead editor of The Sapling, a parent, and a writer of picture books, poetry, and other tidbits. Her background is varied, including work in ecology, environmental education, summer camps, and a community newspaper. She is Singaporean-Pākehā, queer, and loves leaping into cold bodies of water.