The science behind getting kids excited about things they can’t see

posted in: Emily Sutton, Nicola Davies | 13

51dseWGtRUL._SX385_I don’t know about you, but in our family, 99% of bedtime reading involves fiction.

Non fiction, or information books, rarely get chosen to share a cosy cuddle just before the kids go to sleep. But Tiny: The Invisible World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton has recently helped us break the mould.

You want to share an amazing journey with your kids? You want stunning illustrations to enjoy pouring over together? You want to finish the book with a sigh of satisfaction, a sense of coming full circle and feeling that your world and understanding of it just got a little bit richer? Well, Tiny has been doing all of that for us, and more.

An exploration of life so small you need a microscope to see it, Davies and Sutton take a few clever hooks, and quickly reel you in. Through a perfect fusion of words and images they explain the scale and scope of microscopic life, not only powerfully, but also with real beauty. Judicious use of mind boggling facts (for example, how many microbes you might find in a teaspoon of soil) leaves lots of space for awe, wonder and curiosity, without ever overloading a young reader/listener.

Click to be taken to a photo of the same microbe illustrated here by Emily Sutton so you can see how beautifully she has picked up the details.
Click to be taken to a photo of the same microbe illustrated here by Emily Sutton so you can see how beautifully she has picked up the details.

Davies has composed a beautiful “story” in the sense that there is a beginning, middle and end, with a dramatic turn at one point (what bad microbes can do to you) and a reassuring, rewarding ending where different strands come together. Sutton’s detailed, earthy-toned illustrations are clever and sprinkled with humour. She can pull of both minutia and epic vistas with equal skill.

A glorious introduction to the variety of microbes, and the impact they have on our lives, this stunning book is not only a delight to read and look at, it will leave parents and children asking each other more questions, and wanting to further explore the unseen world around them.

To “see” microbes at work we decided to give making compost in a bottle a try. Here’s the recipe we followed:


  • Clear 2ltr plastic bottle with lid
  • Fruit and vegetable peelings
  • Grass clippings/leaves
  • Garden soil
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Water
  • Tape
  • Scissors
  • Permanent marker

  • compost2

    1. Cut around the bottle neck to form a flip top lid (the bottle neck alone will not be large enough to pour the ingredients into the bottle)
    2. Layer the ingredients in a repeating pattern until you reach the flip top lid level. The pattern we followed was soil, fruit/vegetable scraps, soil, newspaper, soil, grass clippings, soil, fruit vegetable scraps etc. Each layer was 3-5 cm deep.
    3. Moisten the contents of the bottle with a little bit of water.
    4. Tape the top of the bottle closed.
    5. Mark the top of the compost on the side of the bottle.

    6. Place your mini composters in a sunny spot.
    7. Once a week observe any changes eg in the level or appearance of compost. Depending on local conditions in 3-6 weeks you’ll see a marked change in the contents of the bottle.


    After 5 weeks we decided to open up our bottles, the level of compost having dropped by about 10 cm.


    The newspaper was nowhere to be seen, many of the vegetable scraps had disappeared (only the larger chunks of carrot were still visible), and whilst the grass was still visible, it had clearly changed.


    I tried to convince my girls that what they had just observed was a magic trick: leftover kitchen and garden waste along with our daily newspaper went in, and out came (something well on its way to being) nutrient-rich fertilizer..

    I have to admit, this magic trick didn’t have the instant wow factor of some magic tricks they’ve seen in their life times, but the potion making aspect of the original layering of ingredients, and the clearly changed form of the bottle contents did pique their curiosity.

    We didn’t have music on whilst making our compost, but here are some fun songs that go well with a book all about microbes:

  • Germs by Ozomatli (listen for free here on YouTube)
  • Microbe Hunter by Monty Harper (listen for free here on Harper’s website)
  • Bacteria Party (you can listen to this very funky song for free here on Richard Quarle’s website)
  • Virus Bug Blues (again, available to listen to for free here on Richard Quarle’s website)

  • If I were based in a school doing this compost activity, I’d definitely look into making this Compost Musical with my class.

    Other activities which would go well with reading Tiny: The Invisible World of Microbes include:

  • Making your own yoghurt. Microbes are used to ferment milk from which yoghurt is made. Here’s one set of instructions that you could follow to get some microbes working on your behalf in your kitchen.
  • Learning more about microbes from some great online sites designed for kids. We particularly like this video and this mini-site from the Children’s University of Manchester.
  • Cuddling up to some microbes. We own a few of these lovely soft toys made by
  • Investigating how yeast works. The microbes in yeast react to different environments, and this experiment from shows you how you could investigate what yeast microbes like and dislike.

  • What non fiction books have you shared recently with your kids?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publishers.

    nonfiction.mondayEvery Monday is a celebration of all things non-fiction in the online children’s book world. If you’d like to read more reviews of children’s non-fiction books, do take a look at the dedicated children’s non-fiction blog:

    13 Responses

    1. Zoe

      Hi catherine – do let me know how you get on. The kids loved preparing the compost – the different ingredients and layering it up like cooking.

    2. Katherine

      That looks fascinating, and the illustrations are beautiful, I love Emily Sutton’s work, think she’s one of the St Jude’s people along with Mark Hearld?

      Bagl has been enjoying toddler-friendly non-fiction in the shape of Noisy Farm from Little Tiger Press.
      Katherine recently posted..20/52

    3. choxbox

      Lovely! Will look it up. Thanks!

      My favourite non-fiction book (my 9 yo is the opposite – she reads non-fiction 99% of the time, well almost!) – stumbled upon it in the Rizzoli bookshop in Somerset House – Architecture according to Pigeons. FAB. You’d love it Zoe.

    4. Chris

      Hi there! I have seen a couple of these soda bottle composting experiments on pinterest and I am wondering why some say to put the cap back on the bottle and some say to leave it off. I was under the assumption that you need air to help things biodegrade. Thanks for any help you can provide!

      • Zoe

        Hi Chris, I can’t really answer your question with any knowledge, other than to say we put the lid on ours and it worked. The bottle wasn’t tightly sealed – the tape around the cut on the bottle let in bits of air. But I have a feeling that by mostly sealing the bottle it acted more like a greenhouse – the stuff inside the bottle got warmer than it otherwise would have done with the lid off, facilitating the composting process. But this is just my best educated guess! Sounds like you’ve a science experiment on your hands – do it both ways and see what happens! If you do, I’d love it if you were to report back.

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