Books for Keeps, like any good magazine, is constantly evolving – growing and changing, we hope, for the better. We’ve spent a lot of time lately talking about how we can improve our coverage of non-fiction, considering ways of dealing with this very large slice of publishing for children which will be of use and interest to all our readers. We know you look to us for good, reliable book information. So, for a start we will be increasing our non-fiction reviewing. But that’s not all – we want to focus attention on different aspects of this interesting and difficult area of publishing which gets so little serious critical attention. Why are so many information books indistinguishable from each other? Is the dominance of the series and the double-page spread really necessary’? Are non-fiction publishers producing the books that teachers and librarians really need? Where do information books come from’?
To help us consider these questions (and many others) we are delighted to welcome Eleanor von Schweinitz to the BfK team. Eleanor taught for many years at North London Polytechnic where her enthusiasm for children’s books infected many of her students – now established librarians. With Eleanor we are developing a policy for reviewing non-fiction and, at present, plan to give space to this three times a year. To clear the ground, we asked Eleanor to start by making some general comments about current non-fiction publishing (page 4). It’s thought-provoking stuff; especially the idea that if the overall impression is ‘could do better’, teachers and librarians who buy without discrimination are as much to blame as publishers.
The Way Things Work
One of the very few authors who, in Eleanor’s words, are able to produce ‘work of truly individual character, with all elements completely integrated’ is David Macaulay, the obvious choice for our Authorgraph in an’ issue featuring non-fiction (page 14). Since Cathedral in 1973, David Macaulay has been the creator of a string of highly distinctive (and distinguished) books, each of which has offered a unique slant on such things as the Roman city, the Egyptian pyramid, the medieval castle. Now, just in time for all of us still unsure about physics and wondering how well we’ll cope with the thirteen (or was it fourteen? wondered Pooh) attainment targets in the National Curriculum for Science. comes The Way Things Work – a comprehensive and (for the most part) utterly comprehensible account of every kind of machine and principle of physics from levers to computers. Four sections in the book cover The Mechanics of Movement, Harnessing the Elements. Working with Waves, and Electricity and Automation. David Macaulay collaborated with Neil Ardley on the text but the sheer brilliance of the book lies in its illustrations. Tin openers, tap (see our cover), zip fasteners, light bulbs are all drawn with wit and ingenuity in a way that makes us look twice and understand connections.
And there’s the woolly mammoth; a most engaging character who is levered, weighed, parachuted – in short involved in any number of experiments and exploits involving scientific principles. ‘I realised,’ said David Macaulay, ‘that the mammoth represents all victims of technology, which we let ourselves become by not taking time to ask a few questions and look a little harder.’
Picture Book Problems
‘Ask questions and look harder’: good advice for problem-solvers in primary science. It’s many months since I began to look at picture books for their problem-solving potential, passing on likely titles to Chris Ollerenshaw, then an Advisory Teacher for Science, who was keen to try out cross-curricular approaches. Christine Thomas, a colleague from the Mathematics Advisory Teacher team, was also interested and together they constructed a problem-solving workshop around The Lighthouse Keeper’s Catastrophe. Teachers (and children) they worked with warmed to the idea and other titles followed, developing the approach. (It was at this point that Ronda and David Armitage emerged so strongly.)
Faced ourselves with the problem-solving challenge of the National Curriculum – how to deliver it, how to fit it all in in the time, how to hold on to the best of current practice – it seemed that using picture books to help integrate the core curriculum subjects might be something other teachers would like to try (see page 23). We haven’t been able to cover everything in this brief feature; if you’d like to know more, let us know. We are actively considering a BfK Guide on the subject with lots of practical ideas and many more books included.
Teachers being innovative in Science with picture books means more ‘real’ books in the classroom, more opportunities for children to discover the very special pleasures of quality text and pictures in magical combination. It’s another example of how crucial teachers are to children’s publishing. It’s teachers who spend money on books for the curriculum; it’s teachers who run the school bookshops and book clubs which enable children to buy books for themselves. A few years ago at the Booksellers Association Annual Conference I attacked a large gathering of booksellers for not taking children’s books seriously; the most effective children’s booksellers, I claimed, were teachers. Not surprisingly (although I acknowledged the small number of outstanding exceptions to the dreary rule), I wasn’t popular. So I was intrigued to read a fascinating article in the Bookseller (27th January) by Liz Attenborough, editorial director of Puffin. Liz notes the ‘impressive increase’ in sales of children’s books but asks why so little of it was through retail bookshops. She acknowledges the enormous significance of schools in putting books into children’s bands. ‘They’ve created an appetite, an audience.’ But no-one is taking advantage of this. Children’s books, Liz suggests, are considered low status by booksellers and publishers (outside children’s departments) and herded into a special cultural ghetto by adults. ‘We have a massive public relations job to do for children’s books, she says. She also suggests that one move might be for publishers to raise their prices ‘to allow for enough money for larger advertising campaigns’. Any comment from the unpaid bookselling force in schools’?
It would be impossible to close this editorial without reference to the tragically early death of Errol Le Cain in January. Phyllis Hunt, Errol’s editor at Faber, recalls that relationship (page 13). He will be missed by many, not least the children of May Park Primary School in Bristol with whom he was working until he fell ill last year. May Park is just around the corner from where Errol lived. The children in this multi-racial, inner-city school are enthusiastic readers, writers and illustrators of books, and one class has been involved in a film animation project. Errol generously shared with them his expertise and enthusiasm in both art forms. The children’s book world is diminished by his loss.