George Hunt reviews the latest batch of books that do things …
The magic book is a fictional motif with a long and varied history. In the last year I’ve read of books that write themselves, a book with no last page so that you can read it forever, a book whose pictures come to life, and another whose characters crawl out of the pages to pester its author.
Now the real life world of publishing seems to be striving to actualise such wonders. In the last month I’ve had delivered to my door books that give birth to other books, books that convert into ships, streets and dolls’ houses, a book that discloses human innards as gorily as an anatomy lab, a book blossoming into a garden, books concealing secret circuits and books that breed new characters at the turn of a page. Spread out open on the floor around my desk, they resemble a realm of fabulous cities and visionary landscapes. If this efflorescence of magic books is a response to the visual fecundity of the CD-Rom format, then the publishers have succeeded in demonstrating the limitless versatility of paper. What a pity, though, that none of the books used languages other than English, scripts other than Roman and none of the publishers have taken into account the multicultural nature of the intended audience.
In order to help me evaluate this haul, I enlisted a team of consultants: Anita (2), Lee (5), Katie (7), Catriona (8), Laura (8), Nick (10), Eleanor (12) and Chris (14).
Anita’s favourites were the puppet books, Jack in the Book and Giraffe in the Jungle, from David Bennett Books. In these, a glove puppet is tucked into the back of the book, and an aperture in each page allows the reader to turn the pages over the head of the puppet as the rhythmic and recurrent story is read. This, almost literally, brings the book to life for the listener, but is rather awkward for the reader.
Out of an abundance of ABCs and counting books, the most popular with the younger children were Paul Stickland’s Bouncy Boxes. These consist of two compact packages, one an ABC and the other a counting game, 123. When the packages are opened, six surprisingly large and brightly embellished cubes leap out of them, the flattened nets springing into three dimensions as the elastic bands stretched inside them contract. The cubes are accompanied by matching board books which were promptly incorporated into a variety of games, though adults had to help with the repackaging of the very lively cube afterwards.
Robert Edward Murdoch’s Zuzzlepuzzles also inspired a lot of activity. Each double spread of these books is devoted to a pair of words, numbers, colours or shapes, and shows appropriate pictures with their middles missing. In the corner of the spread, a wallet holds a pair of cards, each of which has been slit so they can be twisted together in two different ways to form the missing picture portions with the matching words on the obverse side. Although these are aimed at developing ‘hand eye co-ordination and early recognition skills’ they were more popular with the eight-year-olds than the younger children, who found them rather fidgetty. Eleanor pointed out disapprovingly that the ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ pictures show a housewife making a cake in the kitchen, and hubby doing a bit of DIY.
Honourable mention should also be made of John O’Leary’s Ten on a Train, which combines an amusing story with a counting down game, of Sian Tucker’s A is for Astronaut, and of Robert Crowther’s Pop-Up Animal Alphabet. These are brightly illustrated and uncomplicated tag and flap books which are far more sturdily constructed than some of the more elaborate confections described below. They were also successful at encouraging older and younger children to read together.
Several of the books are spin-offs from conventional originals. Thomas the Tank Engine appears in a seaside rescue adventure in Thomas and the Helicopter Rescue, where several words have been concealed under picture flaps, thus providing a kind of pictorial cloze game that Katie enjoyed playing with Lee. Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth’s Can’t You Sleep Little Bear? arrives in miniature format, tucked into the endpaper of a zig-zag book which concertinas out into a diorama of the bear cave and the moonlit wilderness outside it. Press-out figures allow the children to move the characters around as the story is read. This was one of Laura’s specials, and can again help an older child to share a favourite book with a younger sibling.
A more disagreeable vehicle for the conveyance of familiar characters is provided by the ‘Noisy Books’ series. Here, Winnie the Pooh, The Animals of Farthing Wood and Biker Mice are presented in diluted prose. The sentences are punctuated by picture prompts linked to particular characters, which cue the child to press the matching button on a control below the page. A speaker then emits inane cacophonies reminiscent of the din of a loutish personal stereo. For some reason, Katie considered these ‘brilliant’, and I actually had to confiscate them from Nick, he was enjoying them so much. His mum pointed out that this was the most enthusiastic response to a book he’d shown in weeks, and that he was being enjoyably enticed through the stories by the gimmickry, but I didn’t consider these benefits worth the noise pollution caused by this clear misapplication of technology to literature.
More successful at literature’s time-honoured role in keeping children quietly occupied were those books in which the page is divided horizontally into three or four zones. By turning these pagelets, the original illustrations can be shuffled into thousands of different permutations. The clear favourite here was Wayne Anderson’s The Perfect Match, which depicts over 8,000 elfin guests at a supernatural New Age wedding, and challenges the reader to reconstruct the bride and groom from their extravagantly fay descriptions in the appendix. Norman Messenger’s Famous Faces, where one is invited to shuffle the features of such luminaries as Jagger, Thatcher, and Chas and Di comes in the same format, but was less well received. Only Chris and Eleanor recognised more than a couple of the celebrities, and were disappointed at their scant resemblance to the real faces. ‘They aren’t famous because you can’t tell who they are,’ was Chris’ comment.
My own favourites in this format were a couple of re-issued little books by Helen Oxenbury, Puzzle People and Animal Allsorts. Here each pagelet is accompanied by a chunk of writing, so that children can play about with linguistic as well as pictorial rearrangements. In Puzzle People, the pagelets bear the heads, bodies and legs of sundry caricatures, together with phrases which can be permutated into surreal sentences. In Animal Allsorts, the spelling patterns of animals names are recombined into neologisms which identify the new creatures created by recombining the heads, bodies and legs of familiar creatures. These books have a bit of a dated feel to them (they were first published in 1980) but the format is a promising way of illustrating the playful generativeness of language.
The most visually dramatic of the books were those which unfolded into objects or landscapes. Everybody was impressed by Noah’s Ark (created by a team from Heinemann) and Bateson and Leile’s Victorian Market, both of which expand into large and meticulously intricate facsimiles of their subjects. Noah’s Ark is accompanied by a booklet retelling the story of the flood, while a somewhat idealised account of the Victorian market is set out on the rear of its stalls (I noticed there didn’t seem to be any evidence of poverty or squalor in this street scene.) Both books are accompanied by movable cardboard pieces which both Laura and Catriona were content to play with for ages, though retrieving a full complement of these flimsy items was difficult.
The clear winner in this category, and the most popular book amongst adults, was A Walk in Monet’s Garden by Francesca Crespi. A robust, elegant folder contains a mini biography of Monet and a tableau which opens into a resplendent 75cm x 47cm x 24cm replica of the gardens at Giverny, supported by an ingenious system of braced hinges. All the children found this fascinating, but after a few minutes of awed admiration, were unsure of what to do next with the beautiful thing. It would provide an excellent centrepiece for a classroom display, alongside some reproductions of the paintings inspired by the gardens.
At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, Robert Crowther’s The Most Amazing Night Book proved surprisingly popular. Depicting a train moving from a cityscape to the coast through a nocturnal phantasmagoria of mundane and unearthly events, its illustrations are almost entirely done in black and dark blue. Minute speech balloons and flecks of light from lit windows provide the only illumination. The train can be pulled through its journey on a sliding tag, and Anita was so eager for it to continue beyond the last page that she gave the tag an almighty tug and wrenched it clean out, a warning that the durability of these contraptions is in inverse proportion to the interest they excite in their readers.
The three most ambitious books shared a clearly didactic purpose. Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Pop-Up Cross Sections limits itself to three models: a fire engine, a space shuttle and a rescue helicopter. Chris and Nick, both great fans of Biesty’s 2D books, differed in their responses to these working versions. Nick was delighted, but was too busy providing rhapsodic sound effects for whirling rotors, blast-offs and high-pressure hoses to pay much attention to the information content. Chris pointed out that some of the moving parts actually obscured the captions, and that the 3D format didn’t provide much in the way of additional elucidation.
The Most Amazing Pop-Up Science Book, produced by Jay Young in association with the London Science Museum, shares the strengths and weaknesses of the interactive displays at that worthy institution. The working models of a record player, compass, microscope, camera obscura, sundial, kaleidoscope and periscope built into the pages of this book are excellent, but they’re surrounded by a patchwork of fact boxes that fail to provide a unified account of the relevant concepts. This book was Eleanor’s favourite, and all the children had great fun playing with the models, but I was reminded of the response given by one of my pupils when I asked what he’d learned from a working model of the water cycle he’d been subjecting to some vigorous interaction at the Science Museum. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘when you spin this handle round hard, the water goes squirting about all over the place.’
The re-issued The Facts of Life by Jonathan Miller and David Pelham was the most controversial of the books. Chris considered it X certificate, and his parents were grateful at the heroic restraint shown by the designers in eschewing some of the lewder possibilities of pop-up technology in their depiction of genitalia and copulation. The illustrations are almost frighteningly vivid, the most striking being a picture of the moment of fertilisation which resembles a giant medusoid harried by cobras. The writing is warm and lucid, but conceptually dense.
These three books, in conjunction with more conventional resources and the guidance of a teacher, are excellent education resources, but perhaps they also demonstrate the dangers of what Margaret Meek has referred to as the tyranny of the double-page spread. A plethora of facts and graphics, compressed into too small a space, can break down into a gaudy turmoil of text and imagery that is both as alluring as a skyful of fireworks, and as ephemerally illuminating.
My own favourite amongst all of the books has little to do with education. Jerome Fletcher’s Escape from the Temple of Laughter is a collection of bizarre adventures, scintillating with the play of words and ideas, claiming to be episodes from the life of an eccentric inventor. The stories could stand without embellishment, but they come in a folder containing a lavish compendium of maps, games and mini-books, all entertainingly cross-referenced to the narrative.
In striking contrast to this extravagant publication, the book which inspired the most laughter and affection amongst my team of helpers was also the least complicated. The hero of Ruth Tilden’s Keep Fit with Froggy is an irresistible amphibian who demonstrates a set of elementary exercises, powered by basic paper engineering that children could be taught to construct themselves. Froggy hasn’t had much rest since he arrived, because everybody who’s picked up this book has had difficulty in putting it down again, and as he goes through his interminable regime of push-ups and star jumps, he reminds me of the enduring strength of a nice, simple idea.
Jack in the Book by Andy Ellis, 1 85602 200 5; Giraffe in the Jungle by Stuart Trotter, 1 85602 239 0, David Bennett Books, £6.99 each
Bouncy Boxes: ABC, 1 87514 082 6; 123, 1 87514 083 4, Ragged Bears, £8.99 each
Zuzzlepuzzles: Shapes, 0 00 136014 0; Numbers, 0 00 936016 7; Words, 0 00 136013 2, Collins at £4.99 each
Ten on a Train, 0 7112 0944 8, Frances Lincoln, £8.99
A is for Astronaut, 1 85213 819 X, Orchard, £8.99
Pop-Up Animal Alphabet, 0 7445 2583 7, Walker, £10.99
Thomas and the Helicopter Rescue, 0 434 96794 7, Heinemann, £7.99
Can’t You Sleep Little Bear?, 0 7445 3798 3, Walker, £9.99
Noisy Books: Winnie the Pooh, 0 416 19116 9; The Animals of Farthing Wood, 0 434 96796 3; Biker Mice, 0 434 96797 1, Reed Books, £9.99 each
The Perfect Match, 0 7513 5329 9, Dorling Kindersley, £8.99
Famous Faces, 0 7513 5273 X, Dorling Kindersley, £9.99
Puzzle People, 0 7445 3706 1; Animal Allsorts, 0 7445 3705 3, Walker, £2.99 each
Noah’s Ark, 0 434 96702 5, Heinemann, £10.99
Victorian Market, 0 434 96807 2, Heinemann, £12.99
A Walk in Monet’s Garden, 0 7112 0961 8, Frances Lincoln, £14.99
The Most Amazing Night Book, 0 670 85074 8, Viking, £9.99
Incredible Pop-Up Cross-Sections, 0 7513 5342 6, Dorling Kindersley, £9.99
The Most Amazing Pop-Up Science Book, 0 7496 1481 1, Watts, £14.99
The Facts of Life, 0 224 04680 2, Cape, £12.99
Escape from the Temple of Laughter, 0 590 54061 0, Scholastic, £19.99; book only, 0 590 54207 9, £6.99
Keep Fit with Froggy, re-printing 1996
George Hunt is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Reading. Before that he taught primary age children in south-east London.