Picture Book Perusal: The Hello Atlas!

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Today’s nonfiction picture book from Allen & Unwin – The Hello Atlas by Ben Handicott and Kenard Pak – is one to excite and amuse anyone, young or old, who is interested in language.  Or anyone who just wants to be friendly in foreign lands.  We Shelf-dwellers always like a good illustrated atlas-type book because there is something uber-fun about poring over different places and finding out about stuff.  And not only is the book huge and brightly illustrated and informative, it also comes with a handy app that allows readers to actually hear languages from around the world being spoken.  Enough of the teasers though; here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Look into the lives of children all over the world with this book that celebrates one of humanity’s greatest achievements: written and verbal language. Including fully illustrated word charts, featuring children depicted in their home country, doing ordinary things, this book features more than 100 languages, from well-known and lesser known indigenous languages that introduce us to some of the world’s most remote communities. With foreword by ethnobotanist and explorer, Professor Wade Davis. Comes with a free, downloadable app for iOS and Android that allows you to hear the phrases in the book, each recorded by a native speaker.

The Hello Atlas by Ben Handicott and Kenard Pak.  Published by Allen & Unwin, October 2016.

The Hello Atlas by Ben Handicott and Kenard Pak. Published by Allen & Unwin, October 2016.

As you can probably infer from the cover illustration, this book is all about people talking.  The understanding that people in different places communicate using different sound patterns will no doubt spur on motivated youngsters to find out more.  This is definitely the book for that youngster.  The atlas is divided into sections relating to different continents, and each section features a range of images of children doing everyday things – playing sport, taking a walk, going to school – captioned with the child’s name and the language they speak.  Each child is also accompanied by a phrase in their native language (and in some cases, alphabet) with an English translation.  Here’s an example:

hello-atlas-page-spread

While there is only a small amount of text for the plethora of images and languages, many of the children are pictured in some form of national dress, or performing an activity that is associated with their region of the world – ice hockey in North America, for instance – so there is plenty of visual information to flesh out the text.

The illustrations are done in attractive pastel tones and, happily, represent a range of skin colours for each continent.  On my initial flick through the book, I was a little overwhelmed with the number of children featured and I was worried that it might be a bit of information overload for younger readers.  Each section is preceded with a map of the particular continent that shows each of the children who will be showcased in the following section and where on the continent their language is spoken.  This provides readers with a chance to flick back and forth through the section to give a visual reminder of where each language group sits in the broader scheme of things:

hello-atlas-page-spread-2

I was quite interested to see whether any Australian Indigenous languages would be included and after a cursory inspection, I found three – Arrernte, Warlpiri, Yolngu – as well as Australian Kriol.  I wanted more, to be honest.  I realise that there has to be some kind of cut off point, but considering Australia had over 200 separate language groups once upon a time, it’s a bit of a shame that only three and a half made the cut here.

In a handy turn of events, The Hello Atlas also comes with a free app for smart devices that allows readers to actually hear the languages in the book being spoken.  I decided it would be remiss of me not to download it (even though it’s a pretty big app – you might need to clear some space first!) and I was pleasantly surprised that it is simple and streamlined in design and would be perfectly easy to master for anyone with even a basic knowledge of app-related pointy finger-jabbing.

The opening screen reflects a map of the world, and once you have chosen which continent you would like to explore, you can select from a list of languages and then click through to hear a native speaker intoning a few choice phrases such as “What’s your name?”, “How are you?” and the like.  Here are some screen shots of the menus and such:

hello-atlas-screenshot-1hello-atlas-screenshot-2  hello-atlas-screenshot-3

I had a bit of fun clicking through and listening to the different languages, especially the ones that use a different alphabet to English.  It was quite satisfying hearing how to correctly pronounce some words that I could make head nor tail of by reading the letters!  Being most interested in the Oceania region, I eagerly clicked through to listen to some indigenous Australian speakers and…..

…nothing.

Not one of the three indigenous Australian languages in the atlas was featured in the app.  Needless to say, I was more than a little disappointed.  And a bit cranky.  Surely it couldn’t be that hard to find one representative of one of the three groups to get a sound bite for the app?!

Although it was super easy to use, one aspect of the app did strike me as a bit strange and that was the fact that of all the languages I listened to, not one was spoken by a child.  All the male and female voices on the app belonged to adults, which is perfectly adequate for those who want to just hear how the language sounds, but I found it a bit strange that while children are pictured in the book, adults are doing the talking in the app.  Again, surely it couldn’t be that difficult to find child native speakers of a majority of these languages.

Overall, I found this to be a fun and informative book that is the perfect size to pop on a classroom or library shelf to entice budding linguists.  The large format of the atlas means that multiple readers can gather round it at the same time, which can only be a good thing for a book that is based on the topics of communication and personal interaction.

I’d definitely recommend this one to classroom teachers, as well as parents who want to inspire a love of language and diversity in their mini-fleshlings.

Until next time,

Bruce

A Non-Fiction Double-Dip Review: Those Cursed and Forgotten…

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Today you’ll have to reach right to the back of the pantry to find the dusty old snacks that have sat unnoticed for months untold, because today’s double-dip review is looking at non-fiction books that deal with the accursed and forgotten. Forgotten Bones: Uncovering a Slave Cemetery by Lois Miner Huey is a beautifully presented children’s non-fiction title, dealing with the accidental unearthing of the remains of slaves in New York in the 19th century, while The Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations by Olivier Le Carrer is the perfect book to place strategically on your coffee table to avoid having to listen to well-travelled friends who insist on sharing their exciting adventures with you.

I received both of these books from their respective publishers via Netgalley. Let’s start with the children’s fare. Here’s the blurb for Forgotten Bones from Goodreads:

Imagine you’re watching a backhoe dig up the ground for a construction project when a round object rolls down a pile of dirt and stops at your feet. You pick it up, brush off some dirt, and realize you’re holding a skull!

This is exactly what happened in Albany, New York, in 2005. Workers were putting in new sewer line when a backhoe driver dug up a skull. After police declared the skull wasn’t connected to any recent crimes, a team of archaeologists took a closer look. They determined the skull was from an African American who had died more than one hundred years earlier. Suddenly the construction site turned into an archaeological dig.

Scientists excavated more bones and realized that they had located a long-lost slave cemetery. Slavery had been legal in the northern United States, including in New York State, in colonial times, but the stories of these slaves are largely unknown. This site became just the third slave cemetery ever to be excavated in the North. See how archaeologists pieced together the truth about these once forgotten bones.

Dip into it for…forgotten bones

…a well-researched and highly engaging exploration of archaeology, anthropology and history all wrapped up in a visually enticing package. The easy-to-read text is accompanied by plenty of photographs and diagrams that bring the information to life (so to speak). The book follows the process of discovery from the initial acknowledgement that human remains have been found during routine maintenance, through to the identification and dating of the bones, to the recreation of the faces of some of the people whose bones had been unearthed. This is the kind of book that will draw young readers in from all over the place, simply for the excitement of the skull on the cover, and will keep them engaged with the accessible and fascinating information on the process and the people involved.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re not a fan of bones?? There’s not much to complain about with this book – it’s a quality production. The only thing that irked me as an adult reader was the slightly clunky writing style that provided a narrative at the beginning of each chapter. While I understand that this was probably intended to liven up the facts and give them a bit of context, it felt a bit contrived to me.

Overall Dip Factor:

If you’ve got upper middle-grade readers in your social circle who love a bit of history and getting their hands dirty (metaphorically), they will eat this book up (also metaphorically). As an adult I found it engaging and fascinating and there was so much visual information in the form of photos and drawings and diagrams that even the most reluctant reader will find something to grab their interest. Even though the book features specifically American history, it still should provide high appeal to readers in other countries, as the process itself and the lives of the people uncovered should promote much discussion and comparison with local contexts. I’d highly recommend this as an addition to classroom libraries – put it out on the shelf and watch the kiddies fight over it for silent reading time!

Now for the grown-ups, here’s the blurb for The Atlas of Cursed Places from Goodreads:

Oliver Le Carrer brings us a fascinating history and armchair journey to the world’s most dangerous and frightful places, complete with vintage maps and period illustrations in a handsome volume. 

This alluring read includes 40 locations that are rife with disaster, chaos, paranormal activity, and death. The locations gathered here include the dangerous Strait of Messina, home of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, where the ground burns constantly with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 8 million migrating bats darken the skies; the Nevada Triangle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where hundreds of aircraft have disappeared; and Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji in Japan, the world’s second most popular suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Dip into it for…atlas of cursed places

…bite-sized chunks of eyebrow-raising information focusing on a collection of locations that are plagued by natural, human-instigated or thoroughly mysterious misfortunes. Each location has one to two pages dedicated to its particular woes, which was too much for the places I wasn’t interested in, and not enough for those that I was. Many of the situations described prove the old adage that fact is stranger than fiction, such as the village in India where the ground could explode at any moment due to fiery mining pits beneath the earth, the mountain village where birds seem to go with the express purpose of dying and the ill-thought-out, surely-this-is-someone-else’s-problem nuclear submarine graveyard in the frozen north. This would be a great starting point for those looking to write a horror or fantasy story and needing an interesting setting. Or indeed, a great conversation starter for someone wishing to look worldly and mysterious at a dinner party.

Don’t dip if…

…you’ve booked a holiday to any of these places. Or perhaps if you are familiar with any of these places. The information given about each place is cursory for the most part and I found myself becoming annoyed with the slightly stereotypical depiction of Far North Queensland , where deadly creatures take shifts throughout the year to strike fear into the hearts of tourists (although this section was particularly amusing). Similarly, I was irritated to note that while the island of Nauru is mentioned, including a passing mention of Australia’s offshore detention facility for the “processing” of asylum seekers, the author neglected to mention the accursed experiences related by asylum seekers while detained there – experiences which include rape, self-harm, suicide and abuse – which surely qualify as the fodder for nightmares noted for other localities in the book.

Overall Dip Factor:

This is one of those books that you keep around for the “Oh, that’s interesting!” moments that you’ll experience while reading it. It would make a great gift for the travel enthusiast in your life, or for those teenaged readers who are looking for more grown-up books that focus on the real world in an accessible way. I quite enjoyed dipping into this one and discovering the mind-boggling situations attached to certain localities.

I am submitting both of these to the Non-fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader. Even though I’ve technically already completed the level that I was aiming for, I’m going to keep pushing and see how many non-fiction books I can get through this year.

Nonfiction 2015

Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge Goal: 16/10

Until next time,

Bruce