31.Dec.2013 Lego Space: Building the Future by Peter Reid (No Starch Press)

Lego Space Cover

When I was a kid, two of my favourite things were my Space Lego and a book by Stewart Crowley, Spacecraft 2000 to 2100AD. Crowley’s book was notable mainly for its assortment of amazing early 1970s science fiction book cover illustrations that were repurposed/licensed to accompany Crowley’s history of the Terran Trade Authority and its space war with Alpha and Proxima Centauri. Covering different spacecraft – complete with engineering specifications – that were used to trade with and later battle, the book was the sort of thing that could quickly provide a backstory to a Space Lego build.

But now there’s this – Peter Reid’s Lego Space: Building the Future.

Peter Reid’s book reminds me a lot of Crowley’s, and it is done in Lego. Reid is one of those amazing ‘adult fans of Lego’ who has built an entire alternative universe of space themed Lego models and dioramas out of primarily first generation, late 70s Space Lego and the late 80s Blacktron Space Lego parts. Reid’s models are utterly amazing and show what is possible with Lego. Whilst building instructions are provided for a few of the smaller models you will probably have difficulty some of the necessary pieces, especially the all-black pieces. (I’m excited that his Exo Suit, featured in the book, made it through the Cusoo process and will be commercially available in 2014)

Reid’s storyline follows humankind’s exploration of space from Sputnik and the Moon landing, through to first alien contact on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Its quite a good story for a 6 to 10 year old, far better than any of the stories in those terrible ‘official’ Lego stories (avoid the Ninjago ones like the plague!). There’s also enough filmic references, to make you, as a parent, want to sit your kids down and watch Aliens, Dark Star, 2001, and the classics. And a bonus point for the Lovecraftian allusions to the vast unknowable terrors of the universe when Admiral Kazak first brain-melds with the worm discovered in the ice. Double bonus points for including female minifigs and characters in the story – especially given the (continuing) general dearth of them in the Lego portfolio (let’s not talk about Lego Friends).

Highly recommended.

Some of Reid’s Lego models in his Flickr stream.

Seb Chan

28.Apr.2013 Albertus Seba – Cabinet of Natural Curiosities (Tashchen)


It is probably the height of aspirational middle class parenting to buy your five year old a Taschen hardcover tome but hear me out.

Albertus Seba was an pharmacist and collector of specimens from around the globe in the early 1700s. Based in Amsterdam he amassed such an incredible collection both in breadth and depth, reknowned throughout Europe, that he commissioned artists of the time to draw illustrations of his specimens. This lead to the publication of a four volume ‘thesuarus’ of the natural world between 1734 and 1765 delayed by his death in 1735.

Art publisher Taschen has produced this fantastic set as a single book based on a hand-coloured original with about 400 plates. The detail and diversity is amazing and my son was immediately captivated by its intricacy and strange accumulation of snakes, frogs, lizards, plants, squid, shells, insects, spiders, and butterflies.

Excited flicking through the pages, “what is that?”, “is that really a . . ?”, “is that real?”.

Unlike modern ‘references’ books of the natural world – littered with saturated photography and didactic text – there is an immediate sense of ‘wonder’ that pops out from Seba’s arrangements and the intricately detailed hand drawn illustrations. Much like the ‘specimen drawers’ in natural history museums that are making a comeback, there is a certain type of inspiration that comes from seeing ‘everything at once’.

It is a lovely book and one that more children should be allowed to get their hands on.

12.Feb.2013 David Macaulay – Motel of the Mysteries


Macaulay is probably best known for his The Way Things Work, an illustrated guide to how everyday tools and machines work that came out in the late 1980s and then was remade as a CDROM (remember them?!). Big in North America, I hadn’t come across his books until Michael Edson brought a copy of Pyramid for my kids on a speaking trip to Sydney. Apparently it was Michael’s favourite book as a kid – and was a big influence on why he ended up working in museums. Pyramid is a wonderful exploration of how the pyramids were made, their secret rooms, and architecture. Macauley’s detailed line illustrations are what makes the book, along with quirky text.

But in fact the one that has, so far, resonated most with my kids has been Motel of the Mysteries.

Written in 1979 it parodies the type of pop-archaeological narratives of that period- the ones that also resulted in the success of the Indiana Jones films.

Set in the distant future of 4022, archaeologist Howard Carson uncovers an ancient tomb in USA – a cheap motel room from 1985 when a great accident occurred. Of course, knowing little of this strange civilisation, Carson ‘interprets’ these found objects in amusing ways – a toilet seat becomes a ceremonial collar, the bowl is the urn, naturally.

”The most holy of relics was discovered in the Inner Chamber. It was carved froma singe piece of porcelain and then highly polished. The Urn was the focal point of the burial ceremony. The ranking celebrant, kneeling before the Urn, would chant into it while water from the sacred spring flowed in to mix with sheets of sacred parchment.”

An exhibition ensues and the latter part of the book is the ‘exhibition catalogue’.

Its a great read – and a useful reminder of our inevitable misinterpretations of the past. My kids love the notion that we could get it so wrong in the future. The pen and ink drawings are, naturally, amazing. And if you work in or around museums, then there is that extra layer of resonance.

Beware one of Macaulay’s other books, Underground, which takes the reader beneath a ‘typical city block’ and explores how buildings stand up and all the pipes and tunnels beneath the metropolis that supply crucial services. It is likely to make you children want to become urban explorers . . .

Either way, you need Macaulay’s prolific work in your children’s lives.

05.Nov.2012 Short glimpses of the future

New York City has flooded.

Already discussions (New York Times) are rising as to how to deal with increased flood activity and build resilent but malleable infrastructure to inhabit the lowlands in the future.

“New York became divided between wealthy, glittering Uptown and the struggling poor who remained in drowning Downtown because they had nowhere else to go. Instead of abandoning their homes, they adapted, closing off the flooded lower floors of structures that were otherwise still habitable and starting a strange, scavenger society in what remained … [snip] … Years passed. The sunken portion of Manhattan Island evolved. People Downtown tended to ignore the northern view, just as those Uptown liked to pretend the Drowning City did not exist just beyond their reach. Uptown continued to thrive, to flower with new business and gleaming, modern architecture, while Lower Manhattan canibalized itself, cobbling together a community of canals and bridges, of dangerous shadows and rebellious minds. The Drowning City, some of its older denizens called it.” (from Joe Golem and the Drowning City)

I’ve been reading Mike Mignola & Chrstopher Golden’s Joe Golem and the Drowning City which is set in a parallel New York where downtown has been flooded since “the great floods of the 1920s”.

Joe Golem and the Drowning City exists in that strange world of ‘young adult fiction’ most probably because of its connection to Mignola (Hellboy etc) and comics. With a strong 14 year old girl, Molly, as the heroine, It is a fun read, pulpy and fast paced, and not at all taxing.

It is hard to separate my mental image of the world of Molly with that of New York of the last few days – and also of Bioshock.

Video games shape so much of children’s reality at the moment – and their imaginative play. I’m excited by the best of this and fearful of the worst.

Just today my 8 year old daughter created a world in Minecraft and populated with a treasure hunt for her 5 year old brother’s birthday party. Staring into screens a squabble of children sat and hunted for the treasure buried deep inside a virtual cake. Whereas once we would have hidden treats around the house, the garden, and maybe the local park, today we’re doing these same activities in digital equivalents entirely of our own children’s construction. For them this is incredibly empowering – they’ve given their own imaginary worlds and dreams digital flesh. But I wonder what happens to the park – and when the park is the only malleable space available to other children.

In my grandchildren’s time I expect that what will be malleable will be actual flesh – if we can get bio-engineering to follow the same consumerisation path that 3D printing is. And that is exciting.

16.Jul.2012 Toys: Where are the roller derby fighting tops?

Here’s a small diversion into the world of children’s toys.

I’m just back from taking my daughter to the local toy shop. She was after some Beyblades – spinning tops that fight each other – to play with her brother. In one corner of the store were the Beyblades – with their metallic styling and jagged typography. And in the other were, as the young female sales assistant (un)helpfully pointed out, Dizzy Dancers. “Oh, they’re the Beyblades for girls. They’re exactly the same.”

Except they are not. Dizzy Dancers are obese soft toys on garish plastic rounded bodies – lurid pink to boot. They don’t have a ‘fighting arena’. Instead they have a ‘dance floor’.

To her credit, my daughter went with the Beyblades after some extended discussion about why the Dizzy Dancers wouldn’t be any good as fighting tops – physics and all that.

Market forces, yeah yeah. But really.

Having just taken my kids to Gotham Girls Roller Derby just yesterday, I think there’s a great opportunity for a Kickstarter project to make roller derby themed fighting tops.

06.May.2012 The Element Encyclopaedia of Magical Creatures by John & Caitlin Matthews (Sterling)

When I was growing up I used to dip in and out of Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary of Folklore, Myth and Legends. A hefty tome bereft of images, it used to sit on the shelf beside the other dictionaries and encyclopaedias. And I always thought Funk was a cool surname, even when one of my high school science teachers was also called Mr Funk.

I popped into Strand Books today with the children in tow, giving them an opportunity to spend their pocket money on something other than sweets laced with high fructose corn syrup. And there sitting amongst a frightfully small ‘mythology’ section, was this – The Element Encyclopaedia of Magical Creatures.

I am bit surprised that there aren’t more of these sorts of books around – especially in the wake of Harry Potter and the recent wave of teenage pulp undead fiction. Of course, there’s a lot of single species books designed to look like ‘faux-olde-worlde’ tomes with puffy covers (the -Ology series) or cheaply produced paperbacks full of badly Photoshopped stills from recent movies. But there’s certainly not the wealth of well-illustrated hardcovers that I had as a kid.

Anyway, back to The Element Encyclopaedia of Magical Creatures.

Pitched at upper-primary readers and beyond, I was pretty impressed by the diversity of creatures contained within, and their histories. There’s plenty of global beasts drawn from lesser known mythos, as well as the obvious choices. Some woodcuts keep the illustrations appropriately restrained, no 12 year old’s fantasy fiction drawings in this one fortunately. On the downside, it would have been good to have had a bibliography with at least a few of the entries for further mythological investigations.

Nevertheless it is a good go-to-book anytime you get asked “Dad, why is the basilisk in Harry Potter different to the basilisks in other stories?”.

10.Jan.2012 Kid Koala – Space Cadet (UNI Books)

Eric San/Kid Koala’s Space Cadet is his second illustrated book – and, like the first, Nufonia Must Fall, comes accompanied by a soundtrack CD – that is meant to be played whilst the book is read. The story of a guardian robot and a young girl who grows up and becomes an ‘extraterrestrial botanist’, Space Cadet is told entirely without words. Although the story flips between the two main characters and the present and the past without the more obvious comic book traits, it is very easy for children to follow and become engrossed in.

The musical accompaniment is fantastic also – although to read it at the pace of the music (roughly half an hour) would require at least three times the length of story. Composed by Kid Koala with turntables and a piano, it keeps the turntabilism to a minimum, whilst recalling the contemporary classical work of Max Richter and the slightly off-kilter atmospherics of The Caretaker/Leyland Kirby.

Poignant without being overly sentimental – it made both my children cry – the whole package comes highly recommended. As an added bonus, for regular readers who have girls, it is great to have another story of a successful scientist who is a girl!

You can buy it direct from Kid Koala. So, what are you waiting for?!

15.Nov.2011 The Adventures of Doctor Duffer by John Marshall

As you may now know, I’m in the midst of moving to New York. And with this has come the necessary cleaning out of books.

Many from my own childhood have gone to new homes where they’ll be appreciated by children other than my own. But I have kept a select stash of my own which are being shipped to a future tiny apartment somewhere in Manhattan.

One that is coming with us, and that I’ve just started reading to my vehicle-obsessed son, is The Adventures of Doctor Duffer.

Written by a former prime minister of New Zealand (my copy signed even!), Doctor Duffer is a quaint story of adventures with a smart parrot with a ‘West Indian accent’, a trusty terrier, and a Polynesian boy who accompany the Doctor as he travels the world. The best thing about the series is the Aeronaut, Duffer’s vessel that can fly, sail, drive and even dive underwater. It is an easy hook and even though some of the adventures themselves show their age (the stories were written by Marshall when he was a student in the late 1930s), they also capture a particular New Zealand-ness which I hope will be useful when my kids struggle to distinguish ‘colour’ from ‘color’.

Come to think of it, the Aeronaut was probably why I also have kept Jan Wahl’s SOS Bobomobile to read. But that will be another post.

Another useless fact. I’ve actually got another book from a New Zealand Prime Minister. Geoffrey Palmer gave my daughter her first copy of Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy shortly after she was born!

12.Jul.2011 The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore by William Joyce (Moonbot Studios)

Hey, what’s this? An iPad App in a blog about children’s books?


No, in fact The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore is the kind of e-book both my kids and I had been waiting for. What’s more (and somewhat ironically) it itself is an ode to the pleasure of books.

We’ve had a number of the ‘interactive books’ in the house since the iPad set foot in our abode. First the Dr Seuss titles from Oceanmedia – really just early readers with a ‘read-it-to-me’ mode. Then those interactive ‘reference titles’ like the Solar System.

But none, until now, have really started to show the potential of the medium in terms of storytelling. No doubt Lessmore’s richness is a result of its parallel life as a short film, and the talents of Pixar-quality illustration and animation (Joyce used to do character design for Pixar). But the first thing that struck me about this title was that the interactive elements were so well integrated into the story itself. Whereas other titles intersperse a classic story with an interactive scene (Alice in Wonderland being the first example of this), every scene in Morris Lessmore is ‘interactive’ – but not to the point where it takes over from the story itself.

Apart from the illustrations, animation and interactivity, what matters most is that it’s a worthwhile story too – a man who gets lost in books – with the same wistful quality that Pixar’s Up did.

Being a well designed App, the sound effects, music and voiceovers can all be toggled as well as the text itself – so you can go completely ‘book-like’ or completely ‘film-like’ depending on your preferences.

At US$4.99 The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore is a complete bargain – you’d be paying $20 if it was a hardcover picture book. And it’d be half as fun. Highly recommended.

19.Feb.2011 At The Mountains of Madness: A Graphic Novel – HP Lovecraft & INJ Culbard (Self Made Hero Press)

I was in lower secondary school when I came across HP Lovecraft and I remember raiding the local public library for several months, trying to read every possible story and associated work. They weren’t popular titles at the library and I got onto other writers like Ambrose Bierce and August Derleth as I went on. Pulp was good for the teenage imagination – and the historical atmospheres had far more resonance with me than a lot of contemporary pulp of the 80s.

It wasn’t until many years later in the mid 1990s that I realised that I wasn’t alone in my interest in Lovecraft – and as it turned out the whole Cthulhu mythos is deeply ingrained in much of nerd culture.

As part of Self Made Hero’s series of INJ Culbard’s re-visioning of genre classics (notably several Sherlock Holmes titles), comes one of my favourite Lovecraft stories – At The Mountains Of Madness.

Set in Antarctica in 1930, a group of explorers discover remnants of an ancient civilisation beyond the ice . . . It is a great short story and in graphic novel form it works particularly well, simultaneously prizing open the difficulties of the archaic-ness of much of Lovecraft’s writing style, and emphasising the pace and oddness of the original. The way in which the story unfolds graphically is done beautifully with fantastic angles and frames whilst also paying homage to Tintin’s classic adventure comic visual style.

This isn’t one for small children – but for younger teens it is a great introduction to one of the more interesting pulp writers of the early 20th century whose alternative universes are well worth exploration, especially for those with an interest in speculative science. The graphic novel form is a much easier proposition that Lovecraft’s dense text and should whet the appetite for the other stories related to the Cthulhu mythos.

You can buy direct from Self Made Hero Press.

Bonus: the original short story was the basis of one of my favourite 1980s horror films – John Carpenter’s version of The Thing (1982). I even did a live remix of the soundtrack at the club night I used to run in Sydney. Carpenter’s film was billed as a remake of the 50s classic The Thing, but in many ways it is truer to Lovecraft’s short story combining it with elements of Alien.