Reviews /

Santiago Saw Things Differently

Authored by Christine Iverson
Illustrated by Luciano Lozano
Published by Walker Books Ltd

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Picture book biographies are popular at the moment. There are lots to choose from about famous and notable figures from the past and present who have contributed to the world in extraordinary ways. Despite the achievements of some, they still remain relatively unknown. Well, from where I’m writing from at least. As the first Spaniard to win a Nobel Prize and known as the father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramon y Cajal is going to be very well known to a lot of people.

Books such as Santiago Saw Things Differently ensure more people get to learn about someone so fascinating. As you would expect from a biography, it starts when Santiago is a young boy growing up in Spain. Always curious about the world, he was also a naturally talented artist. However, his father decided medicine would be a more suitable career. His love and interest in nature, and his medical training, lead him to discoveries in how nerve cells in the brain formed, grew, connected and transmitted signals. It was groundbreaking and led to a whole new branch of science.

As I was reading, it was easy to put myself into the mind of a child reader: I had never heard of Santiago Ramon y Cajal and knew next to nothing about neuroscience. I do think, though, this book should be read as a lesson in the importance of curiosity as well as one about neuroscience. One reason for this is the language used. When Santiago is growing up, the illustrations and text work wonderfully and capture his playfulness and imagination perfectly. When the same language was used to write about the science, it felt forced. Extended metaphors of ‘seeds, seedlings and saplings’ and ‘fibres grew into trees with trunks, branches and leaves’ to describe nerve structures for example. The illustrations came across in the same way. 

On the other hand, the text was overloaded with very specific terms and words only neuroscientists will know – or need to know. Nerve cells in the brain is such a specific area. I think the level of detail just isn’t needed in a book aimed at KS1 children. I have learnt about Santiago and his achievements, but I feel more confused about how the brain works. Read this book for celebrating curiosity and being interested in the world. Readers could then go on to pick up a dedicated nonfiction book about the brain to find out more. 

This is a picture book biography with too much science condensed into too small a space (there’s a singularity metaphor there somewhere). I did enjoy it. It just felt like it was written by a scientist first and a writer for children second. Half of this book is wonderful and perfect for primary children needing to know how important it is to be curious. The other half is perfect for those studying for their A Levels.