Eleanor von Schweinitz, BfK's Non-fiction Editor, assesses a new initiative in information books
Even the most attractive information books for children tend to lack the individual character of the best story books, so it's not surprising that amid all the outcry about omissions from the official SATs reading lists few questioned the absence of any non-fiction title.
We generally identify non-fiction by publisher's series and expect a certain uniformity in their approach, selection of content, visual presentation and design. (How often have you been prompted by the unmistakable voice of an enthusiast to turn back to the title page to discover who has written a series book?)
Walker Books, known for the quality of their picture books, have just launched the first six titles in the 'Read and Wonder' series. They challenge most of the stereotypes of current non-fiction publishing and, apart from their standard square format and twenty-six pages, each is a unique entity with a character all of its own. Designed to be read through at a sitting, their main aim is to share the excitement of discovery and sow the seeds of lasting curiosity; they are the antithesis of those children's information books that regiment their information into double-page spreads.
All but one of these books are about animals and yet each views its subject in a completely different way, conveying a great deal more 'real' information than might at first appear from the narrative style. After checking in a variety of sources I was impressed by just how much of the essential information about beavers, eels and caterpillars was to be found embedded in imaginative, readable narrative (unencumbered by the clumsy pedantry so often associated with non-fiction narrative texts).
What makes these books so different is the scope they give the authors to develop their own distinctive voice and vision. This can be demonstrated most clearly by some extracts. The first is in Dick King-Smith's familiar relaxed style as he reminisces about his favourite pig Monty:
'What he really loved, once he'd finished his grub, was to be scratched on the top of his head, between his great ears, and it always affected him in the same way. His eyes, with their long pale lashes, would close in ecstasy and slowly his hind quarters would sink down until he was sitting on his bottom like a huge dog.'
Another intensely remembered experience is expressed thus by Vivian French:
'Very gently, my grandfather lifted the stick and put it on the window-ledge in the sunshine. The creature crawled slowly up the stick, and stopped. Little by little it began to stretch out. It was just like watching a flower unfolding itself, only it had wings instead of petals.'
Contrast this with Karen Wallace's arresting opening words (impersonal, but just as strongly felt):
'Think of an eel.
He swims like a fish. He slides like a snake.'
and Karen Wallace, again, this time describing a beaver in a rhythmic, incantatory style reminiscent of Longfellow's 'Hiawatha':
'Beaver feet are webbed
like duck's feet,
push like paddles
through the water
past the slowly
down to where
the tangled roots
lie buried in
the reedy lake bed.'
Walker Books have done a splendid job in matching the spirit and atmosphere of each text with an appropriate illustrator; and by using illustrations in much the same way as they would in a picture story book they have achieved a symbiosis rare in non-fiction.
Anita Jeram's pigs are drawn with a liveliness and humour that exactly matches the tone of Dick King-Smith's enthusiastic text. If her pictures sometimes skate a thin line between anthropomorphism and nature so does the text. Pigs are domestic animals and our relationship with them is one of the strong threads in this book. The illustrations provide an opportunity to elaborate a point or provide further information. So we learn from the narrative that Monty 'liked to wallow' in a pond - and the caption to the accompanying illustration adds: 'A good coating of mud protects a pig from sunburn.' When the text tells us that 'Sows spend their lives having babies, loads of them… ' a graphic illustration of young pigs suckling is captioned: 'A sow has between eight and twelve piglets at a time. Each piglet chooses its own private teat and returns to it for every feed.'
In Caterpillar, Caterpillar the delicacy of Charlotte Voake's illustrations complement the intimacy of Vivian French's first-person narrative as she recollects a childhood summer when she watched with wonder the transformation of egg to caterpillar, to pupa, to butterfly - in the company of her grandfather (who used to grow nettles because 'Stinging nettles grow butterflies'). The narrative carries a great deal of closely observed information which is supplemented by further details in the captions, their conversational tone blending unobtrusively with the text.
The illustrations support and develop the narrative - they never dominate it - but why has Charlotte Voake chosen not to show us the climax?
'And the wings began to tremble, and to
shine in the sunlight, and then suddenly
there it was - a real butterfly, with
spidery legs and its wings spread wide open.
It was so lovely I couldn't say anything at all.'
Am I a mere literal-minded seeker after facts to want to see what it actually looked like at that moment? (Fortunately there is a full frontal portrait, underneath the dedications, facing the title page.)
Karen Wallace uses a much more detached style in her texts for Think of an Eel and Think of a Beaver. Not surprisingly, Beaver has a greater sense of familiarity.
'Beaver breath is hot and woody
he's grunting, puffing, dragging branches.'
We can almost imagine ourselves as a beaver, and Mick Manning's robust illustrations give, throughout the book, an appropriate solidity to Beaver's many ingenious activities. Because this text cries out to be read aloud it is disappointing that Karen Wallace has omitted Beaver's most spectacular engineering achievement from her resonant narrative - leaving us to learn about it through a panoramic illustration and the caption: 'Beavers dam the stream with sticks, stones, roots and mud to make a pond.'
Think of an Eel is the most ambitious and demanding of these books, its subject the most mysterious. The amazing story of the eel's migration from the Sargasso Sea, its strange metamorphosis and its return to the Sargasso to spawn and die, has an inherent shapeliness and inner tension that is perfectly expressed through the taut rhythms and vivid imagery of Karen Wallace's text. This is matched by striking, stylised illustrations by Mike Bostock (see our front cover) which provide a sinuous counterpoint to the patterns of the text.
'After eighty days swimming,
not eating, not sleeping,
eel's long, winding body
is worn out and wasted.'
As one might expect from Walker Books, immense care has gone into the design of each book. Not just the layout of the text and illustrations, but type faces have been thoughtfully chosen and captions hand-lettered - each making their visual contribution to the harmony of the page. And in Caterpillar, Caterpillar the paper has been gently tinted to provide a sympathetic background for Charlotte Voake's delicate watercolours.
Unlike most information series these 'Read and Wonder' books are not primarily designed to be dipped into (although they each have a skeletal index). They demand to be read aloud, right through, and in the case of Caterpillar, Caterpillar and Think of an Eel there is a compelling story that has its own dramatic impetus. Karen Wallace has given Think of a Beaver a well-structured narrative flow but Dick King-Smith relies on getting us hooked on sheer infectious exuberance to carry us through All Pigs are Beautiful.
A Piece of String is a Wonderful Thing is less coherent, more fragmented. Judy Hindley's breathless text raises a host of thought-provoking questions as to how this essential component of everyday life came to be 'invented':
'Was it an accident?
Was it a guess?
Did it emerge from a hideous mess?
Did it begin with
a sinuous twig,
a whippety willow,
a snaky vine…?’
(followed by all those uses we subsequently found for it!) Most of the hard information is carried in the captions to Margaret Chamberlain's witty thread of illustrations that wind their frenetic way across each page. But perhaps its most valuable message is that we just don't know the answer to every question and that speculative imagination is a legitimate tool of enquiry.
Peter Hansard's I like Monkeys Because... is a rather uneasy miscellany of fact and personal response, lacking any clear focus. The text veers between the conversational and bare descriptive statement, which makes its use much more problematic.
'This monkey is beautiful
and black and white and hairy.
This monkey has a bald head.
These monkeys have long noses.'
These three sentences constitute the text on one double-page opening. They would be unrewarding to read aloud and can hardly be said to excite interest or further understanding; and they tell us less than we can observe from Patricia Casey's accompanying illustrations.
The first six 'Read and Wonder' books, then, are not all equally successful but when read aloud by a committed teacher each should suggest a host of starting points, sparking off questions and providing a variety of exciting possibilities for discussion and follow-up. The texts don't lend themselves to mindless copying out into project folders - children will need to formulate what they have discovered in their own words and the experience could encourage a more imaginative and creative approach to learning.
The next six titles have already been announced. Walker Books have set themselves a challenging task: to discover talented creative writers with a real desire to communicate their enthusiasm to young children. They have already shown that they are prepared to encourage such writers to express their particular vision with a freshness and vitality rarely seen in non-fiction for children. It's to be hoped that they will never be tempted to reduce these books to a series formula of their own.
Caterpillar, Caterpillar, Vivian French, ill. Charlotte Voake, 0 7445 2275 7
I Like Monkeys Because ..., Peter Hansard, ill. Patricia Casey, 0 7445 1857 1
A Piece of String is a Wonderful Thing, Judy Hindley, ill. Margaret Chamberlain, 0 7445 2185 8
All Pigs are Beautiful, Dick King-Smith, ill. Anita Jeram, 0 7445 2517 9
Think of a Beaver, Karen Wallace, ill. Mick Manning, 0 7445 2269 2
Think of an Eel, Karen Wallace, ill. Mike Bostock, 0 7445 2250 1
Published by Walker Books, £6.99 each.