How Colour Works

Authored by Catherine Barr
Illustrated by Yuliya Gwilym
Published by Egmont

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Catherine Barr writes excellent nonfiction books for younger readers, making tricky concepts relatable while retaining scientific accuracy. Most of her books have been about the natural world, which is unsurprising as she graduated from university with a degree in ecology and went to be a wildlife and forestry campaigner for Greenpeace and then an editor at The Natural History Museum, where she researched and wrote material for two major summer exhibitions.  Her debut book, The Story of Life, was written because she was unable to find a book about evolution that was suitable for her daughters at that time. Catherine’s latest book, How Colour Works, is about the science of colour and light, and its uses in the natural world.

The first two spreads in the book are the most abstract and complex as they set out to explain light waves, absorption and reflection. The accompanying illustration shows how the spectrum colours are comprised of long flat waves (red) and short bumpy waves (violet). The following page shows white sunlight split (dispersed) into the spectrum colours.

Colour comes from light which speeds forwards until it hits something. Then it bends, bounces back or sinks in. This movement of light helps create the colours that we see.

Young readers might not fully understand the physics. Still, knowledge can be enhanced if they provided with opportunities to observe the way light behaves and encouraged to investigate using prisms, spectrographs and colour wheels. The text can be returned to as children build new knowledge, and their conceptual understanding develops.

A spread explaining how the eye converts light to colour using cone cells is clearly explained and supported by a useful labelled diagram. The illustrative device showing a magnified section could be discussed as it may not be immediately apparent how this should be read.

The remaining pages explain how colour is used in nature, and there are plenty of fascinating details to interest children. They will learn how animals perceive colours differently according to the physiology of their eyes and how this serves their survival. They will discover that while many animals have red blood like humans, some have blue, green or even clear blood and the reasons for these differences. And they will be enthralled by the bioluminescence of the glow-in-the-dark world.

A comprehensive supporting glossary is a useful addition, and the explanations are clear. However, I would like to have seen these words highlighted in the main text so that the reader is guided to check the glossary if they need a further explanation. There may have been design reasons for choosing not to do this, but it’s essential to think about the reading experience too and a glossary is best referred to at the point of reading.

Yuliya Gwilym’s are bold and bright. Pages contrast well to make the reading experience visually pleasing as well as informative. Personal favourites show a blue whale’s tail breaking the surface of the ocean and the wave it creates mirroring the movement of the tail. A snow-white page with details picked out in black conveys the vast expanse of white in the polar regions and surprises the reader on the turn of the page. A page about chlorophyll reminds us that nature has many different shades of green – it’s an implicit invitation to the reader to see how many shades they can find in their local environment.

Although the science covered in the book is more advanced than the statutory content in National Curriculum for lower KS2 (that’s not a negative), it will make a good accompaniment for classes studying light and its effects. It also sits well alongside a study of animals in their habitats and for exploring colour in Art. A welcome addition to the class library, particularly if accompanied with opportunities for discussion, experimentation and exploration.