Celebrating National Non-Fiction Day with a family science book

posted in: David McKean, Richard Dawkins | 12

Today National Non-Fiction Day is being celebrated across the UK, highlighting all that is brilliant about non fiction and showing that it’s not just fiction that can be read and enjoyed for pleasure.

My small contribution is a review of a family science book, The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins.

In this ambitious book, richly and imaginatively illustrated throughout by Dave McKean, Dawkins sets himself the task of answering some of the really big question of life, exactly the sort of questions you hear from the mouths of children including “Are we alone?” and “Why do bad things happen?”

Over the course of 12 chapters Dawkins tackles these questions head on, also exploring key aspects of space, time and evolution along the way. He begins almost every chapter with examples of myths (from all over the world, from all different sorts of traditions) about the topic in question before moving on to explore the scientific explanation for the phenomenon under discussion.

This video gives a great summary of the book from Dawkins himself:

The Magic of Reality is no dry academic tract. Rather Dawkins takes on the role (almost) of intimate storyteller. He adopts an informal, colloquial manner focusing throughout the book on showing us what he calls the “poetic magic” of science, that which is “deeply moving, exhilarating: something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more alive.

Dawkins’ friendly tone and his inclusion of stories about rainbows, earthquakes and the seasons make The Magic of Reality an eminently readable book, especially for readers with no or little background knowledge. There’s a lot of the pace, suspense and beauty you might associate with a great novel in Dawkins’ book. Indeed, Dawkins really seems to me to be trying to tell a story (albeit a true one) rather than simply sharing and contextualising a lot of scientific facts.

Perhaps a conscious decision to make the book read like a story is behind the decision not to include any footnotes, suggested further reading or bibliography. This I found frustrating; Dawkins’ succeeded in getting me curious, getting me asking questions about the issues he discusses, and although I would have liked to know more, he doesn’t provide any suggestion for where to go next. That said, the lack of references does help the book flow and feel quite unlike a hard hitting science book (though that is exactly what it is).

As a result of reading The Magic of Reality I got out our prisms and made rainbows with M and J - for them it really was magic to see the colours appear "from nowhere"

Dawkins’ storytelling approach also means that The Magic of Reality is not so much as reference book to dip in and out of, but rather a book that benefits from reading cover to cover. This left me feeling that whilst it is being marketed as a family science book, it doesn’t particularly work as a reference book for help with homework, or a book you might pull out and randomly look at together with your children on a rainy day.

Rather I think it is excellent for parents (including those who homeschool) who want an engaging read that will help prepared them to answer the questions their children have. Teenagers are also likely to enjoy this book – I hope Secondary School teachers of science will use it in class, not least because Dawkins and McKean have come up with some brilliant metaphors, both textual and visual for explaining some complex scientific issues, such as genetic variation over time, or the truly mindboggling distances between stars. And by juxtaposing the science with fictional stories this book becomes a great discussion in the round for all curious minds everywhere.

The Magic of Reality is definitely a non fiction book that shows it’s not just fiction that can be read and enjoyed for pleasure. It made me curious, got me intrigued, did indeed give me goosebumps, and left me rather a lot wiser. What more could you ask for from a book? Really, a must-read for 10, 20, 30, 50, 80 year olds who like not only to be entranced, but also to understand.

National Non-Fiction Day is an annual celebration, initiated by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups in partnership with Scholastic Children’s Books.

Disclosure: I received my copy of The Magic of Reality free from the publisher. This review, however, reflect my own and honest opinion.

12 Responses

  1. sandhya

    Wow! We have experienced David McKean’s illustrations with the Neil Gaiman books, so that in itself is a pull-worthy factor here. But Richard Dawkins? As in Richard Dawkins of ‘The Selfish Gene’ and ‘The God Delusion’? For children? Now this is a book I must get my hands on.

    Thanks for the recco, Zoe. You must also try ‘A really short history of nearly everything’ by Bill Bryson.

    • Zoe

      hi Sandya, yes, the same Richard Dawkins – I hope you can get hold of a copy!

  2. Zoe

    It is isn’t it Kailana! I know I don’t read as much nonfiction with my girls as I would like to, so it’s great to have the prompt to do so with days like this.

  3. choxbox

    Was going to reco Bill Bryson but the amazing Sandhya has beat me to it! That one is truly awesome, even for curious 6-year olds 🙂

    Was just reading a review of The Magic of Reality on the Guardian site and hopped here and what do I find! Taking it as a sign and off to order a copy.

  4. choxbox

    @Sandhya: This is our book-finding day eh?!

    Zoe, Sandhya is a pal IRL and I bumped into her today at (where else?!) a book sale!

    Btw, was wondering – what do you think of Milly-Molly-Mandy?

  5. Zoe

    Hi Choxbox,

    I haven’t read Milly Molly mandy since i was very little. I enjoyed it then but can’t remember much of it now. Are you reading it?

  6. choxbox

    Aunty Pat, our (then) 83-year old neighbour in London, had given *her* copy of a Milly Molly Mandy collection (has 20 stories) to my older daughter who was then just getting into proper reading. Aunty Pat had had the book when she was a child and it was a very big deal for me that she gave the book to us 🙂 and I was even more thrilled to find my younger daughter curled up with it the other day and thoroughly relishing it 🙂

    Aunty Pat had a lovely friendship with my older daughter – she had literally seen her from the time she was a few months old till she was 8, when we moved out of the UK. They’d both talk endlessly about books and authors. She had literally thousands of books in bookcases that lined every single wall in her house. Miss her hugely..

  7. Zoe

    Aunty Pat sounds amazing Choxobox! Glad to hear her copy of Milly Molly Mandy is still being loved 🙂 A new edition came out here maybe last year.

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