Dead or Alive? Discover the Most Amazing Animal Survivors

posted in: Clive Gifford, Sarah Horne | 7

deadoralivecoverDead or Alive? by Clive Gifford, illustrated by Sarah Horne is a book packed with oohs and aahs, eurghs and arghs.

It is most definitely my kind of book.

If you’re looking for a book that will get your kids curious, disgusted, delighted, amazed, and astonished all in the space of a few pages, it will also be your kind of book.

An exploration of the greatest animal survivors, how they defy death and keep alive against the odds, Dead or Alive? shares stories of many extraordinary animals. From frogs who can freeze to catatonic opossums via zombie crabs and animals which have survived in space without spacesuits, this book is packed with unusual, engaging and remarkable facts.

The importance of playing dead, the huge range in animal life spans, the discovery of creatures which have come back from (apparent) extinction, and cloning are amongst other topics which feature. All are backed up by a really useful further reading list, web resources, glossary and even a fun quiz to take (or make your parents take). Exciting, engaging and the start for many more questions – what more could you want from a book?

Great illustrations?

Well you’ve got that too in Dead or Alive?.

Horne’s illustrations are funny and full of energy. Her cartoon style characters show a terrific range of emotions, surreptitiously encouraging readers to feel really involved with the bizarre and fascinating stories being told. Judicious use of animal photos in amongst the brightly coloured, zany illustrations add another richness to the visuals.

Click to see a larger image.
Click to see a larger image.

Dead or Alive? is an example of kids’ non-fiction par excellence.

Amazing information, brilliantly presented in a way which is bound to get young readers wanting to know more (and providing them with some starting points to do so). This is the sort of book kids will return to time and time again, to discover new facts as they dip in and out of the book, to re-live thrills when reading about particularly disgusting animal behaviour, to think about the very essence of what it means to be dead or alive.

This book has ‘lived’ by our dinner table for most of the summer. It’s been read and returned to many times, with lots of it being read out by the kids, desperate to share something they’ve found revolting or surprising. It has inspired all sorts of play and exploration, starting with a hunt for a bit of dead or alive action in our own back garden.

On one occasion we stumbled upon this Garden Spider and wasp:

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Maybe it was a bit gruesome watching the spider prepare its prey (the wasp was wriggling when we started watching), but it gave us plenty of opportunities to talk about wildlife, food chains, and even a little bit about how death is very much part of life.

Next we scoured under rocks and in neglected corners of the garden for any dead bugs we could find so that we could look at them under our microscope. We stored the spiders, woodlice and bees we found in small makeup containers (from our local chemist, but you can get them online too).

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This is a field microscope which works really well for us as we can look at 3D objects (ie not slivers on slides), and the kids can look through two eyepieces (which is easier than looking through just the one). We got ours from here and can highly recommend it. It’s super simple to use, and yet packs quite a punch; Dr Who monsters have nothing on close-up views of pincers and scales and eyes of everyday garden bugs!

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After examining our dead subjects we added them to our own Natural History Museum (here’s the post explaining how we started it) and this led to a conversation about a different Natural History Museum we had visited earlier this summer which was packed with specimen jars. Spooky and intriguing, mesmerising and slightly frightening, we then decided our museum needed specimen jars too.

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We made our “specimens” out of plasticine and wax, put them in jam jars with water stained brown with the swish of a tea bag, and then wrote labels explaining what strange creatures we’d found, when and where.

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The one specimen that was made from plant matter (shhh! It’s a secret – of course, this is really a slice of alien brain) we put in a jar of vinegar stained with a little bit of brown sugar.

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I think these could provide great prompts for storywriting, or as props come Halloween time… (if you want to create EDIBLE specimen jars for a spooky party, do take a look at this!).

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Whilst making our specimen jars we listened to:

  • You Spin Me Round by Dead Or Alive
  • Dead Or Alive by Lonnie Donegan
  • Dead Chicken Joe by John Hadfield


  • Other ways to bring the pages of this book “to life” include:

  • Making clones. Choose your favourite animal cookie cutter and make a trayful of genetically identical biscuits you can munch on.
    Image: fdecomite
    Image: fdecomite
  • Visit a butchers and talk about the different animals (some) humans eat, and the different parts of the different animals. Can you identify the different parts? Why does meat from one animal look different to meat from another animal?
  • Find a museum or stately home to visit and hunt stuffed animals. Our experience is that kids are fascinated by the results of taxidermy. Mummified animals are also always a hit.

  • Were you fascinated by dead animals as a child? Are you kids curious when they see a dead animal?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Dead or Alive? from the publisher.

    7 Responses

    1. Just love your jars full of alien specimens and my daughter would rather like to visit your garden!

    2. This looks incredible, JUST our kind of book!!! And that cookie cutter… well we may just have to find ourselves one of those!!! Hope you have a fabulous week!!!
      se7en recently posted..Saturday Spot: A Family Friendly Hike in Cape Point Nature Reserve…

    3. The jam jars on the window cill reminded me of my youngest daughter who was always mixing ‘potions’ – she would fill jam jars with water and use felt pens to colour the water and then line them up on the window to catch the light. Happy days…

    4. This post is fantastic Zoe. Your kids’ creations look so creepy! Hilarious that you listened to Dead or Alive while making the jars! Love it 🙂
      caroline@learningparade recently posted..The Singing Mermaid

    5. He he Caroline – it’s called education in the round 😉 Girls quite like Dead or Alive the song.
      Zoe recently posted..Dead or Alive? Discover the Most Amazing Animal Survivors

    6. OMG! I need this cookie cutter! 🙂 \o/
      kidsindoors recently posted..Bienal do livro de São Paulo! Resumo dos meus momentos!

    7. Thanks Zoe – this book looks awesome!

      Love your creativity – will never tire of saying this!

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