Glowing in the dark

posted in: Anita Ganeri, Obin, Peter Sarson, Roger Stewart | 20

As I wrote last week, our local library is closed for the foreseeable future and we now have to take a bus journey to get our library books. Although this is time consuming, it’s not entirely without silver linings – next to the new library is a lovely little playground, and just round the corner is the best second-hand book shop I know of in our city. Last week M and J discovered Creatures that glow by Anita Ganeri, illustrated by Obin, Roger Stewart and Peter Sarson at this book shop and I’m so glad they did as it is an utterly brilliant book we’ve already read many times since we brought it home!

Photo: Marcus Meissner

Ever since they first saw Finding Nemo, both girls have been fascinated with angler fish and fish that glow in the dark more in general. Thus, reading Creatures that glow transported M and J to seventh heaven. Each double page spread is given over to a different creature that glows in the dark, starting with angler fish but also looking at glow-worms, firefly squid, comb jellies and even luminescent fungi. There are large (and eerie!) illustrations of the creatures in question and no end of fascinating facts, such as how the male angler fish attaches himself by his teeth ot the female when mating and then his body fuses into hers – all that is left of the male is a small pouch on the female’s side.

There is a clear, engaging introduction which sets the scene well by explaining what is meant by “bioluminescence”, the different ways it can be produced, and some of the reasons why creatures glow in the dark. The language is simple enough for my 5 year old to understand and enjoy it, but enough information is included to keep even adults wanting to read more!

The entire book is printed on glossy black paper (with white text) adding to the atmosphere as you read the book and although the book illustrations don’t themselves glow, the book comes with a fantastic wall poster (longer than J is tall) that does glow in the dark – one side features lots of sea creatures as if deep in the ocean, whilst on the reverse there is a well illustrated key and pertinent information about the depths of the worlds’ oceans, classification of layers in sea water and the consequences of dropping light levels, temperatures and rising pressure.

This book is an absolute winner on many fronts – the subject is spooky and exciting, the creatures are like aliens and the outsized illustrations leave you feeling repulsed and amazed in equal measure, the book is produced brilliantly with its large size and expansive black pages that literally suck you down to the depths of the sea, and it feels jam-packed with astonishing facts, without ever feeling wordy or too dense to enjoy. I’m certain we’ll be dipping in and out of this book for a long time to come!

Photo: Charles & Clint

What else could we do, having read this book but do some of our own investigations into things that glow in the dark. Rather than using luminous paint we decided to find out what household item would glow under UV light.

First of all we had to get hold of a UV lightbulb. This was actually surprisingly easy – they are sold on the highstreet for people to use at parties! (For those of you in the UK who might want to track down a UV bulb we got ours from Maplins). We then set up a laboratory in M’s bedroom. A tip – this would be a great project to do in winter rather than in high summer when the sun is shining brightly as we had to spend some time making M’s room as dark as possible by putting up extra sheets over the curtains and doors to stop any outside light coming in.

M lined up the various items we wanted to test for their luminescence, including vaseline, whitening toothpaste, tonic water, fluorescent pens, vitamin B12 tablets, turmeric and a selection of rocks. First up, M used the vaseline to paint a picture of an angler fish, using a cotton bud. NB it is important to use black paper as most white paper will glow under UV light.

We turned off the normal light in M’s room and switched on the UV light and WOW! M (and I) were very excited to see her angler fish (and her “lab coat” {actually some chefs’ whites I happened to have!}) glowing brightly.

Next M tried the flourescent pens. These worked brilliantly – when she drew on the black paper under normal light they just left wet looking traces, but once we turned off the celing light and switched on the UV light the different colours showed up brightly. M could happily have spent the entire afternoon drawing this way.

Next we investigated tonic water – a colourless liquid under normal light, but hey presto it glows bluey-green under UV light, thanks to the quinine it contains.

M then took some vitamin B capsules and smashed them up as best we could in our pestle and mortar (this might be a job for grown ups ahead of time because the plasticky coatings on the vitamins were surprisingly difficult to break). We then added a bit of vodka to create a vitamin B solution. Again both M and I were amazed – the vitamin solution glowed a really bright yellow under UV light, which contrasted brilliantly with the tonic water. The smell of the vitamins wasn’t so pleasant but the sight was honestly thrilling!

We moved onto the whitening toothpaste with mixed results. I was surprised by how much M enjoyed “drawing” with the toothpaste (she doesn’t normally enjoy things that are sticky or smelly), but the actual toothpaste didn’t particularly dazzle us. Yes, it was bright white under the UV light, but it didn’t change colour or shine strongly like our other materials had done.

Finally we had a look at turmeric under UV light. Certainly something happened as we could see it under UV light but when the UV light was off and the room was dark we couldn’t see it, but it didn’t glow in the same exciting way the tonic water or vitamin solution had. A similar result was had with the rocks, to our disappointment.

My little scientist and I had an absolutely brilliant afternoon together doing this activity – even if you can’t get hold of Creatures that glow I’d wholeheartedly encourage you to find a UV lamp and do some investigations of your own!

Creatures that glow: *** (3 stars)

Glow-in-the-dark music we’ve been enjoying includes:

  • Glow in the dark by The Flashcards
  • Firefly Lullaby by Recess Monkey
  • Ultra Violet by U2

  • Other glow-in-the-dark activities we’d like to try include:

  • Making glow in the dark cakes, inspired by this post from the fantastic blog Eat their words
  • Painting a glow in the dark wall or playing with light sabres a la Filthwizardry
  • Setting off a glow in the dark fountain, from the chemistry pages at
  • Taking part in the UK Glow worm survey – glow worms are not very common in the UK

  • Have you done any glow in the dark projects you could recommend? Or have you seen any creatures that glow in the dark?

    This week’s Nonfiction Monday host is Anamaria at Bookstogther. Why not head over to Anamaria’s blog and discover some new nonfiction books for you and your kids?

    20 Responses

    1. amandab

      WoW! What an exciting and interesting time you seemed to have had. I will have to keep it in mind for when Princess is a little older. She loves things that glow in the dark. She wears a glow bracelet to bed every night.

    2. Choxbox


      Zoe, you surpass yourself every time! Your girls are the luckiest!

      Wanted suggestions for children’s books about Venice and Rome – please suggest. For a newly turned 5 yr old and a newly turned 10 yr old.

    3. Zoe

      Thanks amandab and Choxbox – I tell you, we had SO much fun doing this – lots of “Wows” as we moved things under the UV light!

      I’ll have a think about Venice and Rome… I know that Silly Eagle Books went to Italy and did a post or two about books
      and in the comments of an old Fantastic Fiction for kids post Tania McCartney left some suggestions for Italian book
      but I’ll keep thinking…

    4. sandhya

      Wow! This is certainly something I would love to do with A, who by the way, is asking after you.
      And what a co-incidence. I picked up Horrible Geography- Planet in Peril by Anita Ganeri just today, and it has already been read by A. I still have to, but it seems to be wonderful book.

    5. maggy, red ted art

      What an AWESOME project to do with your daughter – I bet she felt VERY GROWN UP and all scientific doing that! Well done Zoe! When Red Ted is bigger, I am SOOOO coming back for this project πŸ™‚ XX

    6. Zoe

      Oh Maggy, I always have big ideas and then only about 0.1% of them come to fruition – I wanted to do something on robots for ManMade Crafty but it hasn’t happened yet… we’ll keep our fingers crossed πŸ™‚

    7. Katie Fries

      Thank you for the link–glad we were able to inspire you! The book sounds great and I’m sure my boys would enjoy experimenting with other things to test for luminescence. Interestingly, when we set up a UV light in a darkened room we didn’t get nearly as good results as you did. We ended up getting better results using our small UV pen.

      Ultra Violet by U2–such a great song. : ) The album it’s from (Achtung Baby) is one of my favorite CDs of all time.

    8. Natalie

      Very fascinating – it’s the first time I stumble upon UV experiments. I will bookmark this post “for the future” and keep my eyes open for a UV lamp πŸ™‚

    9. Zoe

      Hi Natalie

      I *think* the “crayola glow station” comes with a UV pen so that might be an easy option for getting hold of something that will do the job for this activity.

    10. Choxbox

      Thanks Zoe for the pointers. Have noted them down. We have Sasek’s This is London and like it, so I guess This is Venice will be a good buy as well.

    11. Sarah N.

      What fantastic activities! I know my girls would love an afternoon of experimenting with things that glow. We’re hoping to make it to a museum exhibit about bioluminescence later this summer while visiting friends. This book and project would be a great accompaniment!

    12. Zoe

      Hi Sarah, Definitely think your girls would enjoy this! And wow, it’s a great subject for a museum exhibition – I can’t wait to hear more about your trip later in the summer!

    13. Janelle

      Wow, I’m definitely intrigued. My kids love playing with glow sticks so I know they’d also love to experiment under a UV lightbulb. How did you decide what items to test?

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    CommentLuv badge

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.