Reviews: Two Illustrated Histories

This batch of reviews is brought to you by Annelies Judson, who shares her thoughts on two picture books (one new and one that’s celebrating its tenth year with us). Maria Gill’s Queen of the Cosmos: Beatrice Hill Tinsley is a stunningly illustrated biography of one of Aotearoa’s greatest scientists, and Belinda Landsberry’s Anzac Ted is a creative non-fiction tale about a battered teddy bear that went to war.

Queen of the Cosmos: Beatrice Hill Tinsley, by Maria Gill & illustrated by Alistair Hughes (Upstart Press)

Picture book biographies have been all the rage in children’s publishing in recent years. Often children are fascinated by famous figures, but for a long time it was hard to find informational texts aimed at this younger age group, so this is a welcome change. The particularly great thing about this trend is that it has paved the way for biographies of lesser-known figures.

Queen of the Cosmos: Beatrice Hill Tinsley is a biography of UK-born cosmologist Beatrice Hill Tinsley, who was raised in Aotearoa New Zealand in the 50s and 60s before emigrating to the United States. Writer Maria Gill is an experienced picture book biography writer, having written a number of biographies in this genre, including one about Ernest Rutherord, also illustrated by Alistair Hughes. In Queen of the Cosmos, Gill does a good job of balancing some very complex subject matter (complex cosmological science, a bitter divorce, and a cancer diagnosis) with the needs of a picture book audience (simple vocabulary and short text).

Spread from Queen of the Cosmos

Hughes’s illustrations are largely in the realistic style that is common to many picture book biographies, but in a few instances he has created some extremely captivating images that break free of this realism. The glorious cover image is one of them, and I really hope that this translates into people purchasing this book based on it capturing their attention on a bookshop shelf.

The book itself is written largely as a story about Tinsley’s life, starting with her birth during World War Two and ending with her untimely death from cancer. There is also some backmatter (factual information at the end of the book that gives more detail or provides information that is beyond the scope of the story). The backmatter is quite fascinating, covering the expected role of women in Tinsley’s era, some extra information about her achievements and legacy, and a timeline.

Spread from Queen of the Cosmos

Unfortunately, the way the ending of the main story is written doesn’t make it completely clear that it’s the end, so the back matter feels a little disjointed, like it’s sort-of a part of the story and sort-of not. The layout doesn’t help, with no initial change in the illustration style, and a few other layout choices that make it a little discombobulating. However, given that this is a more sophisticated picture book I suspect it will largely be enjoyed with a teacher, parent or other adult, who will be able to smooth over any possible confusion that a younger audience might experience.

It was truly a pleasure to be introduced to this previously unknown (to me) scientist through the medium of a picture book, and I hope that many children will experience the same excitement upon learning about Tinsley’s life and work.

Queen of the Cosmos: Beatrice Hill Tinsley

By Maria Gill

Illustrated by Alistair Hughes

Published by Upstart Press

RRP: $25.00

Buy now

Anzac Ted, by Belinda Landsberry (Exisle Publishing)

At first I was surprised to not have heard of Anzac Ted, given that this is a special 10th Anniversary Edition of this book. As it turns out, the author, Belinda Landsberry, is Australian, and I suspect it may not have had the cut-through in the New Zealand market that Anzac books by Aotearoa-based authors do. However, as is befitting an Anzac book, this is a story that speaks to the shared experience of New Zealand and Australian soldiers. There are no Australia-specific references, so it works just as well here in Aotearoa. 

Spread from Anzac Ted

The book is a really nice early-years introduction to the basics of the Anzac story. The text is relatively short and told in rhyming verse, which Landsberry handles well, including a midline rhyme scheme on every third line, which can be hard to achieve. Anzac Ted belongs to the unnamed child narrator, who acknowledges that Ted is worse for wear, and then explains that Ted was handed down from his grandad, who took the bear to war with him. At the end, the story of the bear is neatly made into a metaphor for the Anzac soldiers themselves, through a final verse about Anzac Ted being a hero, and a final illustration of a silhouetted Anzac soldier. This subtlety will be lost on a younger audience but I think older children will be able to make the connection, and this could be a great introductory text for primary school teachers covering the Anzacs.

Spread from Anzac Ted

If I have one quibble with the writing it’s that the beginning presents Anzac as a ‘scary’ bear; the child spends a lot of time trying to get Ted clean, and talks about how other children don’t like Ted. This isn’t a connection I think a lot of children would make (surely it’s not just my children that have toys with an eye or ear missing and stains on their fake fur?). While the idea that Anzac Ted isn’t going to win any beauty awards makes sense, I do think that this part could have been edited down a bit without any loss to the emotional tenor of the story.

This is, however, a small price to pay for a book that finds a perfect entry point into the Anzac story for the smallest members of our society, who will hopefully be able to snuggle up with their own teddy bears as they enjoy this delightful offering.

Anzac Ted

By Belinda Landsberry

Published by Exisle Publishing

RRP: $29.99

Buy now

Annelies Judson
Website | + posts

Annelies Judson writes book reviews and poetry for children, among other things. Her many loves include cooking, cricket, science and the em-dash. She can be found on Twitter/X and BlueSky @babybookdel, and on Instagram @babybookdeltest.