• Rachel Moore

Book Reviews: Non-fiction books from Aotearoa

Reviewer Rachel Moore goes on a journey into her backyard, before shooting into space, then coming back to New Zealand for a history lesson of the canine kind.

The Nature Activity Book by Rachel Haydon and Pippa Keel (Te Papa Press)

Spoiler Alert. Under any circumstances I’d be recommending this book to you, for children of all ages, or curious adults. But in 2020, the year when we’ve had to stay at home more than we might have chosen, The Nature Activity Book is the perfect antidote to help you get through the days when home is feeling a bit claustrophobic.

The Nature Activity Book offers 99 nature-based activities to engage the reader in exploring the world around them. There’s so much in here that it could keep a family busy for months. Whether it’s exploring patterns in nature or digging holes to look at soil structure, making your own dyes or considering water pollution, there’s something in this book for anyone even remotely interested in the world around them.

A spread from The Nature Activity Book, by Rachel Haydon and Pippa Keel (Te Papa Press)

The tone of the book is friendly and informative, encouraging the reader to explore and think for themselves. There’s lots of room for readers to record their findings in drawings and words, and helpful photos and drawings to get you started. Activities such as making paper and beeswax wraps have step by step guides, and there are websites at the back of the book for the reader needing more information.

As you would expect from Te Papa Press, there is acknowledgement of, and activities that link to Te Ao Māori, such as learning about Atua (Māori Gods) and how they are represented in the natural environment. As well as celebrating the indigenous knowledge that makes Aotearoa New Zealand such a special place, ideas from other places such as India and Japan are included.

As well as celebrating the indigenous knowledge that makes Aotearoa New Zealand such a special place, ideas from other places such as India and Japan are included.

The Nature Activity Book is the perfect gift for children aged 5 and over, and would also be perfect to have on hand if we find ourselves back in another Covid lockdown. And given that our collective circumstances feel a bit unpredictable at present, pick up a copy of Te Papa Press’s Art Activity Book while you’re at it, as well. Lockdown or not, both books will provide hours and hours of engaging fun for the whole family.

the nature activity book

by Rachel Haydon, illustrated by Pippa Keel

Te Papa Press

RRP $34.99

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Space Maps: Your Tour of the Universe, by Lara Albanese and Tommaso Vidus Rosin (Oratia Books)

I knew I was in for something special when this book arrived. It was carefully wrapped up against the elements in tape and corrugated cardboard and it was LARGE. The covers are coffee-table-book sized—and even though the main audience of Space Maps is children, I wouldn’t ever suggest relegating it to the kids’ bookshelf.


. . . even though the main audience of Space Maps is children, I wouldn’t ever suggest relegating it to the kids’ bookshelf.

Written by an Italian physics professor and translated from Italian to English, this is a glorious big book so full of information that it is impossible to consume it in one sitting. It’s far reaching (no pun intended!)—maps of the night sky, explanations of our place in the universe, and how human innovation has made space exploration possible. The text is friendly and informative, there’s no dumbing down for a young audience, and the illustrations complement the text to help round out explanations.

I really liked that as well as scientific information, there is also room for an exploration of Greek, Chinese and San (a South African people) mythology in relation to the stars. If there’s ever a follow-up book, I hope it’s able to explore the mythology of more cultures—this was as interesting to me as the science.

A spread from Space Maps, by Lara Albanese and Tommaso Vidus Rosin (Oratia Books)

The illustrations are lovely (although you do have to hunt to find New Zealand on a world map). They have a modern-meets-50s feel that’s really engaging, with a muted colour palette. They don’t try to show too much—for example the map of Mercury shows some of the more interesting craters, but not everything. This makes it easier to focus on the detail that is being displayed. I’d buy some of them as posters if the publisher was to produce them.


They don’t try to show too much . . . the map of Mercury shows some of the more interesting craters, but not everything. This makes it easier to focus on the detail that is being displayed.

This would make an AMAZING gift for a child of any age, from 4–13—while much of the text would be hard for a 5-year-old to read on their own, I know many children this age who would spend ages just looking at the pictures and enjoying the beauty of the book. It’s the sort of book that will grow with a child. I can imagine Space Maps leading to families bundling up in jackets and scarves and heading outside to look at the night sky together, seeing what constellations they can spot—and what a fantastic result that would be.

space maps: your tour of the universe

by Lara Albanese

illustrated by Tommaso Vidus Rosin Published by Oratia Books RRP $39.99

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Our Incredible Dogs: The Stories Behind the Statues by Philippa Werry (New Holland)

To borrow (and mangle) a quote from The Muppet Show, this book has gone to the dogs! Apparently New Zealand has too, because I had no idea until I read Our Incredible Dogs that there were so many public art works dedicated to our canine companions.

The Tirau corrugated dog i-SITE, frolicking corgis in Christchurch, the Sheepdog Memorial at Lake Tekapo, the memorial plaque for Paddy the Wanderer on Wellington’s waterfront: New Zealand’s dogs have been commemorated just about everywhere. From our fictional favourites Hairy Maclary and Murray Ball’s Dog, to police and Antarctic working dogs, there is a statue for every type of dog lover. The stories behind the statues are told in some depth in Our Incredible Dog—along with details of the artwork creation process.

From our fictional favourites Hairy Maclary and Murray Ball’s Dog to police and Antarctic working dogs, there is a statute for every type of dog lover.

At times I was a bit unsure who the target audience for the book was. It has lots of photographs and breakout text boxes, but there’s also a lot of straight text. The look and feel of it is probably for children 8 years and older, particularly with the activity pages at the back. However the level of detail—while interesting to me as an adult reader—is likely to be too much for some younger readers. Older children may well enjoy the extra information, particularly about the artistic process.

A spread from Thank You For Feeding Freckle, by Cheyney McDonnell, Five Mile.

Our Incredible Dogs will be a valued addition to the bookshelves of dog lovers and school and public libraries.

Our incredible dogs: The Stories behind the statues

by Philippa Werry

Published by New Holland Press RRP $25.00

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rachel moore

Rachel Moore is a experienced primary school teacher who lives on the Kapiti Coast. Some of her earliest memories are of bed time stories read with her dad, and she has made it her mission to try to pass on her love of books to every child she meets. Her childhood literary heroes are Jo March, Lucy Pevensie, Matilda Wormwood and Elizabeth Bennet. When she grows up, Rachel hopes she'll be able to live in a house big enough for all her books.