Children like making and doing and so it is no wonder that activity books are a well established part of the non-fiction oeuvre for the under 11s. Margaret Mallett tracks down some of the best and suggests how they can be used at home and at school.
Recently, every surface in my kitchen has been covered with a pile of activity books. I had not realised there were so many on the market and I have space to mention only a selection. In choosing I have gone for obvious pluses like suitable content for the intended age group and clear, interesting language that links with appealing illustrations. But I’ve also looked for that spark of originality which makes for a star book.
The step-by-step organisation of procedures fits well with how children think and learn. Some books for the under 7s integrate simple recipes with an engaging story. Florentine and Pig Have a Very Lovely Picnic is a good example of the’ story with recipes’ sort of book. Two little characters have mislaid the apples to make their favourite muffins. Panic is soon over and they follow recipes to prepare their outdoor feast. Princess Poppy’s Cookbook has recipes and craft ideas ‘for the family to enjoy making together’. It is likely to appeal most to small girls: there are instructions for ‘Poppy’s Penne Pasta’ and ‘Easy lavender bags’. For sheer comprehensiveness and clarity, the hundred recipes organised under breakfast bites, light bites, main meals and sweet things in Cook it step by step is hard to better. Fine colour photographs complementing the instructions make this an attractive and useful family resource. Another book suitable for the whole family but particularly aimed at the 9-12 age range is The Brilliant Book of Easy Recipes. I like the generous spacing of the recipes and the information on cooking equipment is excellent. Foods from around the world are included. So, for example, the bread making section includes how to make Focaccia from Italy, Soda Bread from Ireland and Corn Bread from the United States. Do Try This At Home: Cook It! by the Science Museum’s Punk Science Team gives clear numbered steps for cooking savouries like soups, stir fries and casseroles and for deserts and treats. Information boxes- ‘The Science Bit’- suggest some simple experiments to find out things like : Why do onions make us cry? Why are eggs such an important ingredient? The zany style and teasing humour make the book likely to appeal to the over 9s. Professor Cook’s Fascinating Fruits has twelve ‘healthy’ recipes ; useful information is boxed and there is a jolly approach in pictures and written text .
Gardening and nature books
Gardening books can guide practical activities and help adult and child resavour the experiences of the day. If you are looking for a vibrant and entertaining first book about gardening for children around age 3 years Maisy Grows a Garden is worth tracking down . It shows the digging, planting and watering that young children so much enjoy . Lively pull-outs include a cross section of roots and a startled little worm. But for the under sevens you simply cannot do better than opt for a tried and tested favourite- Eddie’s Garden and How to Make Things Grow. An absorbing story – wonderfully illustrated with a good dollop of humour- shows how Eddie, his mother and his little sister create a garden. There’s information about how to plant and nurture seeds and about the creatures that live in the garden. After assembling sticks for his beans to grow up, at bedtime Eddie enjoys the magic of the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Notes at the end give detailed advice for a parent or nursery teacher to guide the gardening activities. For children towards 9 years, Grow Organic, Eat Organic explains how an organic garden, one which uses products like organic compost rather than chemical fertilizers and pesticides, ‘is in harmony with the natural world’. Distinctive design and detailed illustrations make this small book stand out. RHS Garden Projects is a huge book with some fine illustrations and diagrams, showing, for example, the structure of a plant and a cross section of a flower. Photographs help show how to make plant labels, seed-box organizers and interesting containers for plants. The ‘Create it’ section has some imagination- stretching ideas including creating a fairy ring with a circle of ornamental grasses and flowers. Green Fingers and Muddy Boots, a package containing a book, activity sheets and a CD, is recommended for families with children from about age seven to fourteen. The activity sheets provide instructions on, for example, sowing seeds, pricking-out and planting and growing spring bulbs. It is a nature book as well as an activity book and there is a treasure store of information about plants, flowers, weather and climate, tools and equipment. There’s advice on bird watching and the suggestion that young nature lovers keep a garden diary. Fine photographs and exquisite art work help give this book its distinctive character. It is hard to categorise My big world – a large, well designed and wonderfully comprehensive book introducing the under fives to scientific and geographical concepts in an age appropriate way. The gardening section gives instructions for making a bird feeder and a mini garden. Adult support is needed – probably one to one in the home setting and, at nursery school, a teacher would work with a small group.
Parents find sticker books handy to take on journeys as often only modest adult help is needed. The best can help children concentrate by including games and puzzles. What the Ladybird Heard has a ‘spot the difference’ , a farmhouse maze and a wordsearch, My Swashbuckling Pirate Activity and Sticker Book has codes to crack and an invitation to ‘design your pirate Wanted Poster’ and My ABC Sticker Activity Book helps children use stickers to make their own alphabet book. Older children interested in Art would appreciate The Usborne Famous Paintings Sticker Book; they place coloured stickers of beautiful paintings in the appropriate picture frames and read the interesting stories behind them.
Interactive art books
Press here shows that a print book can triumph in a digital age! Press the yellow dot and follow the instructions to experience a magical journey that shows the dots multiplying and changing colour and position. Another book with appeal for young imaginations is The Stick Book for children from about age 7 upward. This helps develop new skills to increase enjoyment of the outdoors. Activities include making ‘fairy sticks’ – a fairy house or elf palace for example, ‘creative sticks’ like a woody crown and ‘sunny sticks’ to arrange shadow pictures . Have you come across the Mega Mash-up series? These titles have unusual pairings, for example Mega Mash-Up Romans v Dinosaurs on Mars. The Romans and dinosaurs who live together in a large glass dome called Romasauria are in danger from a giant asteroid. Young readers from about 5+ are invited to draw and colour additions to the pictures – for example to ‘draw a puppysaurus’. The language play, amusing art work which often borrows from comic book traditions like speech bubbles and ‘sound’ words like ‘Wham!’ and ‘Crunch!’ makes them likely to be attractive even to those boys who are reluctant readers. For its sheer creative inspiration I applaud Let’s Draw with Oscar. The holes and folds in the book encourage young artists to experiment. Each double spread in The Interactive Art Book is a masterpiece of paper engineering with lift-the flaps and three dimensional structures that spring up as the pages are opened. It would be an excellent resource for lessons on light and colour, pattern and composition and perspective. The ‘Stories and Puzzles’ spread would be a good starting point for group discussion about interpreting the meanings artists want to communicate . What do we make of Salvador Dali’s ‘Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach’ ?. The book provides a stimulating visual experience and this is mediated by excellent annotation. A separate activity book gives ideas for ‘creating your own artworks’ for example prints, collages and sculptures.
Doodle with Maisy not only offers interesting drawing ideas but also teaches about colour, pattern, seasons and the alphabet. It’s perfect for the under sevens. Out of a large number of fine doodling books for older children the one that stands out for me is The Usborne Big Book of Drawing, Doodling and Colouring. There are so many interesting prompts: ‘add to this audience’, ‘‘scribble on the clouds’ and ‘doodle more lanes and vehicles to create a traffic jam’. This like all the best activity books encourages children to let their imaginations roam.
Jean-Claude Aquesbi (ill.) & Anton Poitier (author), Let’s Draw with Oscar, Thames and Hudson, 94 pp, 978-1-4095-5007-5, £6.99 pbk
Susannah Blake, The Brilliant Book of Easy Recipes, Wayland, 104pp, 978-0-7502-7760-0, £12.99 hbk
Lorna Bush & Debbie Foy, Professor Cook’s Fascinating Fruits, Wayland, 32pp, 978-0750-2688 44, £12.99 hbk
Nikalas Catlow, Tim Wesson and – you, Mega Mash-Up Romans v Dinosaurs on Mars, Nosy Crow, 94pp, 978-0-85763-001-8, £4.99 pbk
Cook it step by step , Dorling Kindersley, 128pp, 978-1-4093-6622-5, £12.99 hbk
Lucy Cousins, Maisy Grows a Garden, Walker Books, 14pp, 978-1-4063-4086-0, £8.99 hbk
Lucy Cousins, Doodle with Maisie, Candlewick Press, 80pp, 978-076366-4909, £5.99 pbk
Megan Cullis & Mark Beech (ill.) The Usborne Famous Paintings Sticker Book, Usborne in association with The National Gallery, 31pp, 978-1-4095-5007-5, £6.99 pbk
Sophie Dauvois and Alex Barrow, My Big World: Facts and fun, questions and answers, things to make and do, Thames and Hudson, 64pp, 978-0-500-65016-5, £12.95 hbk
Julia Donadson and Lydia Monks (ill.) What the Ladybird Heard: Sticker Activity Book, 12 pp, 978-1-4472-2584-3, £3.99 pbk
Sarah Garland, Eddie’s Garden and How to Make Things Grow, Frances Lincoln, 34pp, 978-1-84507-089-2, £6.99 pbk
Janey Louise Jones & Veronica Vasylenko (ill.) & Dynamo (ill.) , Princess Poppy’s Cookbook and Other Special Gifts to Make and Share, Picture Corgi, 64pp, 978 1 849 418812, £6.99 pbk
Eva Katzler and Jess Mikhail (ill.) Florentine and Pig; Have a Very Lovely Picnic, Bloomsbury, 978-1-4088-2437-5, £6.99 pbk
Ron Van Der Meer and Frank Whitford, The Interactive Art Book, Tango Books, 14pp with additional 14 page activity book. 98-1-909142-02-2, £20 hbk
John Milton and Stuart Cox (ill.), Do Try This at Home –COOK IT!, Macmillan, 90 pp, 978-1-4472-0553-1, £9.99 pbk
Lone Morton and Martin Ursell (ill.) Grow Organic, Eat Organic- A practical activity book for beginners, b small publishing Itd. , 47pp., 978-1-908164-65-0, £5.99 pbk
My ABC Sticker Activity Book, 16pp, Bloomsbury, 978-1-4088-3647-7, £3.99 pbk
My Swashbuckling Pirate Activity and Sticker Book, Bloomsbury Activity Book, 32 pp, 978-1-40088-3648-4, £4.99 pbk
Ivor Santer, Green Fingers and Muddy Boots: A Year in the Garden for Children and Families, 111 pp, 978-086315-692-2, Floris Books, £14.99 pbk
Jo Schofield and Fiona Danks, The Stick Book: Loads of things you can do or make with a stick, Frances Lincoln, 128 pp, 978-0-7112-3241-9, £9.99 pbk
The Usborne Big Book of Drawing, doodling and colouring, Usborne Publishing Ltd., 256pp, 978-1-4095-6232-0, £14.99 pbk
Tullet, Herve, Press Here, Chronicle Books, 56pp, 978-0311-879545, £9.99
Sonia Whillock-Moore (designer), RHS Garden Projects, Dorling Kindersley, 79 pp, 978-1-4093-2494-2, £9.99 hbk
Margaret Mallett is a team editor for the English Association’s journal English 4-11 and author of What Shall We Do Next?: A Creative Play and Story Guide for parents, grandparents and carers of pre-school Children, Authorhouse.