As they get older, children’s natural curiosity about the world and thirst for information can be developed by including some reference books as part of their ‘home library’. Sue Unstead explains what kinds of books are important and recommends useful titles.
By the time a child reaches the age of four or five he or she will probably have acquired a collection of favourite books – picture books, storybooks, books with flaps and pop-ups, plus a few early learning books perhaps on the alphabet and numbers, or concepts like colours, size and shapes. There might also be the odd title to satisfy a particular passion for tractors, trains or trucks, but otherwise non-fiction will hardly make an appearance until a child starts school.
How can parents choose the right books to support their child’s learning, to answer questions and whet the appetite for finding out more? Guidance is often pretty thin on this shifting ground where the internet holds increasing sway. Schools are reluctant to advise, and many children’s bookshops have only a limited amount of shelving devoted to non-fiction. Hopefully the titles suggested here will offer some ideas to take a child through primary school and help support homework topics and project work.
For the youngest age group just starting school a single-volume encyclopedia such as Usborne’s Children’s Encyclopedia should help deal with the sort of things children ask, usually starting with the word ‘Why?’ (‘Why is the grass green, the sky blue, the rain wet etc?’) This colourful volume is available in hardback or in a reduced format flexibinding and should help to provide answers to a wide range of questions as well as proving a useful resource for the adult in the firing line. Artwork is combined with photographs, and text is broken up into manageable sections in a generous type size. Like most other encyclopedias aimed at this age group it is organised thematically rather than alphabetically, enabling a child to explore a topic of interest while still acquiring important literacy skills. Learning to negotiate a contents page, locate a word in a glossary, find a reference in an index are all vital steps in discovering how to access information, whether in a book or online.
First information series
If a single-volume reference book seems too daunting at this stage, an alternative is to pick titles from series such as Dorling Kindersley’s ‘Eye Wonder’, which covers topics ranging from natural history to science, including titles such as Shark, Weather and Pyramid. In these books photographs combine with simple informative text to provide a basic introduction to a subject. Another approach is taken by Walker Books’ ‘Read and Discover’ series with their narrative text which provides a useful stepping stone from storybooks to straight non-fiction. The enduring success of this series is undoubtedly due to the calibre of authors, many of whom are established fiction writers, matched with picture book illustrators. What is a Wall after All?, Think of an Eel and All Pigs are Beautiful are three particular favourites, the last two now reissued with a read-aloud version on an accompanying CD. Author-illustrator team Mick Manning and Brita Granström stand out too for their unusual and entertaining non-fiction titles that are always pitched perfectly at younger readers. Examples include My Body Book, Yuck! and Dino Dinners.
Reference encyclopedias and online resources
Moving up in age group, from KS1 to KS2, or from infants to juniors, a more comprehensive one-volume encyclopedia would be a sound investment to provide material for homework and school projects. Choosing one that is accessible, attractive and easy to use is all-important. And of course it must be up to date. It is here that the competition with the internet becomes intense. The internet is undoubtedly a fantastic resource, but it is, as one reference publisher describes it ‘unruly and difficult for children to navigate’. There is also the danger that children will simply cut and paste chunks of information, sometimes of dubious value, without really understanding the content of what they are assembling. Effective use of the internet requires research skills best acquired through using books. A librarian recently told me how she watched in dismay as a boy spent an hour cutting and pasting material gleaned online on the wives of Henry VIII, information he could have found on a single page of a suitable reference book.
Yet it is on the reference shelf that books and the internet can complement one another. A number of publishers have produced titles with internet links – a bank of websites that the publisher monitors for reliability and currency. DK’s Homework Encyclopedia, originally published in 2003 and reissued in 2011, fits the bill well here for a single volume with information that is likely to be relevant for project work. It claims to have more than 1000 e-links accessed via a dedicated website that is ‘constantly updated and managed’ to ensure that there are no frustrating dead links. A sample of the links reveals that these include real-time reports, data bases, satellite images and virtual tours. Many familiar websites are included such as museum sites and the BBC, but parents can feel reassured that the links are safe and age appropriate. A further boon of this encyclopedia is an image bank of 1000 pictures to download for projects. The book stands alone without the need for a computer, but the websites add a further dimension.
Usborne publishes a range of subject-specific encyclopedias on Science, Geography and History with similarly monitored websites and internet links. Most are available in a range of formats – hardback, paperback or reduced format flexibinding – to help the budget go further.
Atlases and World Geography
An up to date Atlas is a vital resource throughout a child’s school years. The major cartographic publishers such as Philips, Oxford and Collins have a range of atlases for different age groups from pictorial maps for the youngest to more detailed curriculum-linked atlases for key stage 2 and upwards. Philips Junior School Atlas is a good example, including regional maps of the British Isles, features on reading maps and understanding symbols, as well as thematic maps on climate, vegetation, population and cities.
For broader information on world geography, climate and resources, Usborne’s Geography Encyclopedia is an accessible and attractive volume with information on continents and countries, trade and resources which also includes a complete world atlas. An alternative approach to world statistics is the unusual picture book If the World were a Village by David Smith which brings unmanageable statistics down to a human scale that children can grasp.
Animal lovers may want more information than a single-volume encyclopedia can provide, and there are a number of good reference books on the market of which The Kingfisher Animal Encyclopedia stands out for its excellent photography. For more local information on wildlife, a set of spotter’s guides could prove useful. A&C Black have produced four little guides recently in association with the RSPB for younger readers on Birds, Minibeasts, Flowers and Mammals. Two attractive volumes that are particular favourites in our household for their delicate artwork are Charlotte Voakes’ A Little Guide to Wild Flowers and A Little Guide to Trees to help identify and learn about species in the UK.
Science and Technology
In the field of Science, there can be no better or more inspiring teacher than Professor Robert Winston, whose series of books for DK includes What Makes Me Me? on genetics, Body, and Science Experiments for the practical scientist. One of the best volumes on technology and the principles of physics remains the quirky and amusing The Way Things Work by David Macaulay with text by Neil Ardley. And for the ultimate in new technology with high-tech photos and computer imagery there is DK’s How Things Work Encyclopedia.
Space and astronomy are covered well in both the encyclopedias mentioned earlier, but The Usborne Book of Astronomy & Space includes plenty of practical information for starwatching and identifying the night sky.
Information on the ancient world, Greece and Rome and some brief coverage of world history is included in the big encyclopedias, but for detailed information on kings and queens and British history you must look elsewhere. Patrick Dillon’s approach in The Story of Britain is to present our history in a series of stories told in chronological order from 1066 to the present day. A more pictorial alternative is the handsome Usborne History of Britain. For older children who have a taste for history and have perhaps outgrown Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories, Scholastic have a range of narrative histories based on real lives, two recent collections including War Stories for Boys and War Stories for Girls.
As a child I had a collection of postcards of favourite and famous paintings, a visual resource that stood me in good stead when I went on to study history of art. Phaidon’s The Art Book for Children offers a well chosen selection of paintings with simple text pointing out things to look for in each one. In Tell me a Picture Quentin Blake, former children’s laureate, chooses an alphabetical anthology of 26 pictures from the National Gallery to open children’s eyes to the wider world of art.
Good books on the performing arts are few and far between, but DK’s Children’s Book of Music covers a huge range of composers from classical to contemporary jazz, pop and rock with useful biographies and musical examples. It has the added bonus of an accompanying audio CD.
If I still had room on my shelf and the budget to spend, I would add in Whittaker’s World of Facts by Russell Ash for quick reference and quirky facts; The Great Grammar Book by creative duo Kate Petty and Jenny Maizels as the best guide to this tricky subject, The Usborne Dictionary of Maths for those difficult homework problems and The Lion Encyclopedia of World Religions as much for its illustrations as its coverage of different beliefs. And lastly, and chosen for the appropriate age group: A Dictionary, Spelling Dictionary, Rhyming Dictionary and a Thesaurus. (See ‘A Questions of Words’ by Sue Unstead in BfK No 175, March 2009 for advice on Dictionaries.)
Children’s Encyclopedia, Usborne, 320pp, 978 1 4095 3118 0, £19.99 hbk or 978 1 4095 3138 8, £9.99 reduced format flexibinding
DK ‘Eye Wonder’ series £4.99 pbk
Shark 978 1 4053 4128 8
Pyramid 978 1 4053 2381 9
Weather 978 1 4053 1522 7
‘Read and Discover’ series, Walker Books
What is a Wall, After All?, Judy Allen & Alan Baron, 978 1 4063 1856 2 £3.99 pbk
‘Nature Storybooks’ series, Walker Books, £6.99 pbk
Think of an Eel, Karen Wallace & Mike Bostock, 978 1 4063 1202 7
All Pigs are Beautiful Dick King-Smith & Anita Jeram, 978 1 4063 1195 2
Titles by Mick Manning & Brita Granström:
My Body Book, Watts, 978 0 7496 8262 0, £5.99 pbk
Yuck!, Frances Lincoln, 978 1 8450 7423 4, £5.99 pbk
Dino Dinners, Frances Lincoln, 978 1 8450 7689 4 £6.99
Homework Encyclopedia, Dorling Kindersley, 448pp, 978 1 4053 6385 3, £19.99 hbk
Usborne Internet-linked Encyclopedias – Geography, Science, History
Philip’s Junior Atlas, 9781 8490 7168 0, £8.99 pbk
Usborne Geography Encyclopedia, 400 pp, 978 1 4095 1906 5, £14.99 reduced format flexibinding
If the World were a Village, David Smith, ill. Shelagh Armstrong, A & C Black, 978 0 7136 6880 3, £6.99 pbk
The Kingfisher Animal Encyclopedia, David Burnie, 978 0 7534 3028 6, £19.99 hbk
RSPB ‘First Guides’ series:
Birds, Minibeasts, Wild Flowers, Mammals, £4.99 pbk
Eden Project Children’s Books by Charlotte Voake:
A Little Guide to Trees, 978 1 9039 1982 8, £7.99 pbk
A Little Guide to Wild Flowers, 978 1 9039 1911 8, £6.99 pbk
Robert Winston titles, Dorling Kindersley
What Makes Me Me? 978 1 4053 5803 3, £8.99 pbk
Science Experiments, 978 1 4053 6286 3, £14.99 hbk
Body, 978 1 4053 1042 0, £12.99 hbk
The Way Things Work, David Macaulay & Neil Ardley, Dorling Kindersley, 978 1 4053 0238 8, £18.99 pbk
How Things Work Encyclopedia, Dorling Kindersley, 978 1 4053 5012 9, £12.99
Usborne Book of Astronomy & Space, 978 1 4095 0843 4, £9.99 flexibinding
The Story of Britain, Patrick Dillon, ill PJ Lynch, Walker, 978 1 4063 1192 1, £18.99 hbk
The Usborne History of Britain, Ruth Brocklehurst, 512pp, 978 0 7460 8444 1, £25 hbk
Scholastic ‘My Story’ series:
War Stories for Boys, 978 1407 1086 8 1, £7.99 pbk
War Stories for Girls, 978 1407 11482 8, £7.99 pbk
The Art Book for Children, Phaidon, 978 0 7148 4511 1, £12.99 hbk
Tell Me a Picture, Quentin Blake, Frances Lincoln, 978 1 8450 7687 0, £12.99 hbk
Children’s Book of Music, Ann Marie Stanley & Richard Mallett, Dorling Kindersley, 978 1 4053 5685 5, £14.99 hbk
Whittaker’s World of Facts, Russell Ash, A&C Black, 978 1 4081 3007 0, £14.99 hbk
The Great Grammar Book, Jennie Maizels & Kate Petty, Bodley Head, 978 1 8983 0475 3, £14.99 hbk
The Lion Encyclopedia of World Religions, David Self, Lion, 978 0 7459 6245 0, £9.99
Junior Illustrated Maths Dictionary, Usborne, 978 0 7460 8879 1, £9.99 flexi
Sue Unstead was a publisher of children’s non-fiction for 25 years and is now a freelance editorial consultant and writer.