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Inspirational Real Life Stories

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Zoë Armstrong, author of Find the Spy, has selected five books featuring inspirational real life stories.

Zoë says, “I have a huge soft spot for picture books that explore the lives of real people – especially those that inspire us or teach us something new. I’ve always been curious about other human beings – I think we all are. So in the week that Find the Spy (my real-life spy book with super-illustrator Shelly Laslo) is published, I’ve put together a list of five great books featuring fascinating real-life stories.”

Jennifer Berne
 & Vladimir Radunsky

On a Beam of Light celebrates curiosity and the powerful mind of a quiet little boy called Albert. Albert watched the world in silence – speaking at all as a young child. Then one day he is given a magnetic compass, and it sparks a lifetime of exploration.

This book is a glorious introduction to Einstein’s ideas about atoms and motion, and space and time. We learn too about Einstein’s creativity and sense of fun: his habit of playing the violin while wrestling with tricky ideas, his love of cycling and of walking barefoot through town, eating ice cream. The artwork seems to echo Einstein’s thoughts and calculations, and captures his sense of wonder about the universe. Possibly my favourite illustrated non-fiction book in the world!

Zoë Armstrong
 & Shelly Laslo

Find the Spy uncovers the stories of eight real-life secret agents, and the spy skills that made them great. One crawled across the rooftops of Paris, another hid secrets in her wooden leg, and there’s even a grandma-next-door who wasn’t quite what she seemed…

Shelly Laslo’s artwork is full of character, cunning and sneaky side glances that draw children into a world of invisible ink, cryptography and disguise. There are wonderfully illustrated spotting scenes to get lost in and top-secret spy skills to learn too.

Rashmi Sirdeshpande
 & Annabel Tempest
Non-fictionShort story collection

Fifteen extraordinary people from around the world and through history! This is a fabulous book for children to dip into and be inspired. One of the lovely things about this collection is it mixes up household names with less familiar but equally fascinating characters. There is a focus on tenacity, hard work and original thinking, and the stories are told in a warm and appealing way. The illustrations are bright, beautiful and full of energy to carry young readers along.

Fausto Gilberti

I love the title of this biography of artist Yayoi Kusama. It reflects the beautifully simple way that Kusama’s story is told in this lovely book. Unusually, it is written from Kusama’s point of view: ‘I painted hundreds and hundreds of dots onto large canvases. The dots often came off the pictures and ended up on my dress, tables and wall! But I wasn’t sorry.’

The bold illustrations are pared down but full of character and wit – like the prose.

This is the third title in a series of books introducing younger children to the lives and works of contemporary artists who broke the mould, and ‘weren’t sorry’. Jackson Pollack and Yves Klein are the other two – whole series is wonderful.

Patricia Valdez
 & Felicita Sala

As a child, Joan Proctor would walk a baby crocodile through Edwardian London on the end of a length of ribbon. Now if that doesn’t make you want to pick up this book, then I don’t know what will! This is a celebration of the life and work of a great pioneering women of science. Joan Procter’s childhood obsession with reptiles became an extraordinary career, taking in the Natural History Museum, the Zoological Society and London Zoo, where she was the first female Curator of Reptiles. This book is as fascinating as it is gorgeous to look at, with wonderfully expressive illustrations and a lovely earthy colour palette.

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