Science, fact and fiction, is the theme for this issue of Books for Keeps.
In our first feature Margery Fisher, whom we are especially pleased to have writing for us, focuses on the science of natural history and in particular on books to get young naturalists off on the right foot. Margery Fisher once wrote, ‘An information book is a teacher, and the role of the teacher is to lead his pupils towards a considered independence of thought and action.’ How many of the heaps of non-fiction books we looked at for this issue could be called good teachers? Most were professionally put together, slick jobs with lots of pictures, but sadly lacking in personality. Too many looked what they were: books assembled by a committee, and a committee who for the most part believed that readers can absorb information only in two page gobbets. The double spread rules. What is missing is the voice and character of an individual offering to engage in an exploration of ideas with the reader. It’s all too neat, too confined, predigested.
A book written by an enthusiast who is good at getting it across leaps out from the surrounding colourful mediocrity. David Attenborough is such an enthusiast (see page 16), so is Isaac Asimov. After reading his About Black Holes (Piccolo 0 330 26099 5, 75p) a paperback without a coloured picture in sight, I and the twelve year olds I was sharing it with began to grasp some of the mysteries of astronomy. In a different way Michael Collins’ autobiographical account, Flying to the Moon (Piccolo, 0 330 26212 2, £1.25) gave us a real sense of what it is like to be in space.
Another star communicator is Carl Sagan whose 13 part series Cosmos is currently on BBC television. There’s a book of the series, Cosmos, Macdonald, 0 354 04531 8, £12.50. It was conceived and written in much the same way as Life on Earth, and it’s interesting that the comments Sagan makes about turning a TV series into a book in the introduction are very similar to David Attenborough’s. You really need the book to reflect on all the ideas that bombard you in the programmes which together amount to a scientific Civilisation.
A Package Deal
Most of the information books jostling for a place in our libraries and classrooms are ‘packaged’; that is put together for a publisher by an outside agency. That doesn’t necessarily make them inferior – good writers like Robin Kerrod or Ian Ridpath (their specialities are science and space) can rise above the limitations of the format – in fact the books are rarely less than competent, But if you look at several on one subject from the same packaging outfit you’re likely to see the same pictures over and over again. The space shuttle drawing on our cover this issue, for instance appears in Secrets of Space (Piccolo Explorer), Space Flight (Piccolo Factbooks) and The World of Tomorrow (Longmans) all packaged by Grisewood and Dempsey Ltd. It’s a good dramatic picture – that’s why it’s on our cover. But a young reader or buyer might well feel a little cheated at the same illustration appearing too often in his collection of books. A sharp-eyed twelve year old has already spotted lots of similarities between his Explorers and the new Piccolo Factbooks.
The designer of that series is David Jefferis who is also credited for ‘Art and Editorial Direction’ on The Usborne Book of the Future (0 86020 290 9, £3.50, a hardback combined volume of three titles: Robots, Future Cities and Star Travel. £1.25 each in paperback). I had difficulty prising this one away from the SBA’s director, Richard Hill.
It uses the ‘one double spread on each topic’ convention but in this case it’s not limiting. The lively design and busy look beloved of Peter Usborne (see page 24) are very evident. It’s certainly a formula which creates brand loyalty among young book buyers, especially boys, in my experience.
If you are interested in speculation about the future look out for a series of books coming soon from Franklin Watts under the general title World of Tomorrow. Each book is on a different aspect of life after 2000. So far we’ve only seen the page proofs but Richard thinks the pictures are ‘fantastic’ – and not just literally. For Sandie Dram’s views on looks into the future see page 20.
Twenty-first Century Fashion?
To judge from the illustrations in books making a guess at what life will be like in the next century, the future will find us all dressed for the ski slopes or the athletics track. Is this fondness for close-fitting all-in-ones an educated guess, I wonder. Or is it a case of life imitating art? If so the costume designers of Star Trek, Blake’s Seven and the like will have a lot to answer for. It wasn’t always like that, though. Colonel Dan Dare went adventuring with the Spacefleet dressed like a British Officer, gold braid, collar and tie and all, It was only those troublesome aliens who went in for stretch nylon and sock boots. For those who think things have never been the same since the Eagle disappeared, or who would like to know what all the fuss is over a comic strip, two volumes of Dan Dare adventures in full colour are now in print. Volume two, Rogue Planet finds Dan helping the Crypts against the Phants, the Kruels, the robot brain Orak, and Gogol, the dreaded High Priest. (Dragon’s Dream 90 6332 541 X, £4.95)
We have lift off – maybe
For years Douglas Hill has been pressing the cause of SF for kids with publishers. In the end he sat down and wrote some himself. But why is he so keen to get kids reading SF, I wondered. ‘Because it’s splendidly mind-stretching, an antidote to mental blinkers and the narrowing of awareness’, he says. ‘And it’s a way of making kids more interested in books. It shows them that their appetites, stimulated by TV, films and comics, can also be fed – often better fed – by books. But they are going to want to see books fairly akin to what they are used to.’ That’s why his three book sequence about Keill Rancor (written before Star Wars) is, he says, ‘slam-bang, action-packed space adventure; intended to be – brace yourself – FUN.’
In Books for Keeps No.5 Steve Bowles called Douglas Hill’s books ‘the best kids SF of the last decade.’ Steve is a SF enthusiast so we asked him for his ideas on how to follow up the Star Wars fever. You can see what he came up with in our special SF feature. (Pages 10-12)
Winners All the Way
Aside from Science, fact or fiction. Congratulations to Quentin Blake on being given the Kate Greenaway award from Mr Magnolia. In the May issue we reported that Mr Magnolia had won the first Children’s Book Award, given by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups. How very nice to see children and librarians in agreement about this super book.
Congratulations too to Anne Harvey, who wrote about Eleanor Farjeon in the May issue. Anne, who is a writer, broadcaster and teacher of drama has been given a Leverhulme Trust Fund research award which will enable her to concentrate for the next year on a biography of Eleanor Farjeon. She is working on it at the moment with Annabel Farjeon, Eleanor’s niece, whose selection of Farjeon poems Invitation to a Mouse (Pelham 0 7207 1322 6, £4.95) has just come out. The illustrations for the poems by Antony Maitland are a delight.
Be Our Guest
More congratulations to Beaver Books who were five years old in May. To mark the occasion we invited Sally Floyer, editor of the Beaver list, to make her selection of holiday books for this issue. Non-fiction is Sally’s special interest and she decided to concentrate on books for getting out and about and doing things. (See page 18. We said she could include some Beaver titles!)
One she didn’t include is the Beaver Book of Lists, compiled by Hunter Davies to celebrate the birthday. It’s a ragbag of totally useless information that’s kept my family and their friends amused for some time. (Royalties go to the Inter-Action Trust.) Sally should be making some lists of her own about now. Just as the birthday celebrations were getting going she discovered that her third baby, due later this year, is twins. ‘That’s nothing’ I told her, ‘we’ve just had quins in our family: our two ‘female’ gerbils have just produced a healthy litter’. What we need is a better book on gerbil sexing. Any suggestions? Have a happy holiday.