Eleanor von Schweinitz considers the current state of Information Books for children.
Why is it that many of us find it difficult to name an outstanding information book for children or to list half a dozen outstanding information book writers? Would we have the same difficulty if the question related to children’s fiction? Why is there such a plethora of awards for children’s fiction and only one for information books? And why is so much more critical attention paid to imaginative literature for children?
The Series Format
First, it is only fair to acknowledge the very different talents involved in writing a successful novel and creating an information book. Very few authors have the subject knowledge and the ability both to write lucidly and entertainingly for children and to illustrate their own text. But when they have, a work of truly individual character can emerge with all elements completely integrated.
Most information books of the late 1980s are the product of a streamlined process. Under the control of an editor, the work of writer and illustrator is separately commissioned and brought together by the designer, who often creates a work of considerable impact and visual appeal. Nevertheless, many such books are highly ephemeral: within a short space of time they are out of print.
The reason for this state of affairs lies in the economics of information book publishing and marketing. Economies of scale have tended to concentrate output into series, imposing a standardisation of approach that may stifle individual creativity. This is not to deny that an experienced editor working with a closely-knit team can and does produce attractive series books which communicate effectively with their chosen audience. But too often the series format imposes unhelpful constraints, quality varies from book to book, and (perhaps most damaging) information, uniformly packaged, appears undifferentiated. Series publishing has undoubtedly been encouraged by the institutional buyer. Schools and public libraries make up over 80% of the information book market. The publisher consequently sees a large slice of the market defined in terms of educational needs and this may encourage the production of mere project fodder, especially if the consumer shows little discrimination in the selection of material.
For many hard-pressed teachers, information books are chosen from publishers’ catalogues, where emphasis is given to the series (indeed some catalogues omit all mention of the author or illustrator). This approach encourages many teachers to assume that a series guarantees a standard quality in all its titles, and time is often too short to re-examine this assumption once the book is acquired.
Range, Scope, Pace
A further assumption – and one that is reinforced by publishers’ catalogues – is that series books are suitable for a given age range. Similar page layout, type size and illustration style do suggest a certain uniformity, but closer examination can reveal some startling anomalies.
For example, a current book on money, in a series aimed at 7 to 10 year olds, confronts the young reader with the unfamiliar notions of a national economy, capitalism, socialism, inflation, share dealing and the stock exchange. All this in one double-page opening – four short paragraphs and three illustrations with captions.
Problems of this kind most frequently occur in those general catch-all series which include books on an indiscriminate range of subjects – historical, scientific, social, technological. Almost invariably targeted at the junior age group, such series lack any focus – and this can give rise to problems when defining the scope and approach of individual titles.
Thus a book on Bridges, in a well-established series for juniors, covers pre-historic times to the present day in a variety of countries around the globe. This in itself might seem ambitious in a book of 32 pages (of which only 24 are given over to the body of the text and where up to 50%, of each page is taken up by illustrations). But a closer look at those 24 pages reveals that bridges are not only considered from a technological standpoint (bridge building materials and their relation to construction methods and bridge design) but also from a social and economic standpoint (communications and settlement patterns, trade and economic development). There is simply not enough space to introduce the range of factual information involved or explain the many different concepts needed to understand the various topics touched upon. Problems of this kind are less likely to occur in series which concentrate all their titles within a subject area and have a clearly defined approach.
The pace at which information is introduced can be critical in the learning process. Some texts introduce facts with machine-gun rapidity – expecting the reader to grasp new concepts and immediately apply them in the understanding of yet more unfamiliar facts. A successful book will explain, expand, illustrate and reinforce key ideas, often through the close interaction of text and illustration.
Words and Pictures
The relative roles of text and illustration – describing, explaining, exemplifying – vary from subject to subject. Technology makes different demands from the social sciences, for example. The reader’s interest may be aroused and sustained by well-chosen illustrations in a book on animal rights, but an understanding of the subject is not dependent on them. Indeed such a notion as ‘rights’ cannot be directly explained by illustrations, whereas the workings of the internal combustion engine would be incomprehensible without the aid of well-labelled diagrams.
There is a high level of visual sophistication in the presentation of many new series, their initial impact depending on the dramatic use of illustration and graphics in the design of double-page openings.
The quality of illustrations can be impressive, with specially commissioned photographs and excellent artwork and diagrams. But however good their quality they must play an appropriate part in explaining the subject The requirements of page design and the placing of illustrative material on the page can sometimes be at odds with this, so that illustrations are used as mere space fillers at one point in a book, whereas elsewhere the text is labouring to explain a complex process that requires far more detailed illustrative treatment than the page design will allow.
Choice of illustrative style can be of crucial importance. Line drawings, diagrams, full-colour artwork and photographs each have their strengths and weaknesses in relation to different subjects. For example, a recent book on road building which uses only photographs would have been much more effective in clarifying its many technical aspects if diagrams and drawings had been used instead. And consider this page on Railways.
can transfer from one to the other without long delays.
The earliest trains consisted of passenger coaches or goods wagons pulled by a separate locomotive. Until about 1900 almost every locomotive was worked by steam.
Water in the boiler was heated by a very hot fire, fed with coal, oil or wood, and turned into steam at high pressure. This was piped to cylinders where the pressure pushed pistons to and fro. These were connected to pivoted rods which turned the wheels. Modern trains no longer run on steam, because
This above is from a recent (1987) book on Railways. It covers a very wide range of aspects and hops from one to the other without much coherence or logic. Among the hotchpotch is this piece of text on how steam engines work. If it is to be included (questionable in a book like this) then it needs a clear, well-labelled diagram to illustrate the process.
Captions and labels can both play an important part in linking text and illustrations. But when diagrams use labels which do not match the terminology of the text, is it any wonder that the reader, struggling, let us say, with the finer points of the four-stroke engine, soon gives up – as for example the following illustration all too clearly demonstrates.
Captions can serve a variety of purposes. They may merely identify, they may discuss, explain or question. In each case they can form a bridge between the illustration and the text, facilitating interaction and furthering understanding. However, in books where text and illustration are separately commissioned, they may be so used in the page design that illustrations and their captions have no organic relationship with the text.
Sometimes, in an attempt to make an illustration self-sufficient, the accompanying caption is so long that it becomes difficult to distinguish from the text (especially if a similar typeface and size is used for each). These illustrations with their bumper captions are especially demanding for the reader because they often present difficult concepts in a highly condensed form and in total isolation.
Writing Readable Text
The text of an information book presents a challenge to the writer who must often condense and simplify yet at the same time try to avoid distortion or inaccuracy. A further problem when writing for younger children is that some of them will still be inexperienced readers. Faced with these problems, writers often fail to convey any enthusiasm for their subject. Texts are frequently pedestrian. Vocabulary is restricted. And by deliberately seeking to avoid any structural complexity, sentences and whole paragraphs become stilted, lacking the normal flow of easy communication. The outcome can be a text that `reads’ easily but fails to communicate coherently with the reader. Some publishers have attempted to tackle this problem by adopting a narrative or first-person approach in books for younger children but here again there are immense difficulties in finding an easy and convincing style.
Publishers are only too aware of the pitfalls when producing books for younger readers and they have frequently sought the help of educationalists when editing series aimed at the early reader. But the imprimatur of the reading expert is often attached to the dullest texts.
Publishers have responded to the educational research done on readability formulae (with the attendant stress on the length and complexity of words or sentences). But they have neglected the growing number of equally important studies which show that the way a text is structured is more significant than the so-called `difficulty’ of individual words and sentences.
Structure, of course, includes the overall organisation of the information and ideas throughout the book. A really well-integrated structure is never easy to achieve – but it is clearly impossible when the content is as wide and multifarious as that of the example on bridges referred to earlier.
Structure can also refer to the organisation of material within short passages of the text. A simply worded paragraph may, in fact, present a formidable barrier to understanding if its content lacks structural coherence – as the following passage (from a series for 10+ year olds) demonstrates.
`The music of carnival in Rio is the Samba. The dance of the same name is performed to this music and is made up of tilting and rocking motions of the body. In the parade the samba is usually danced in groups, but can be danced in couples. Today, the parade is as much for the tourists as for the local people. Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world and after twenty-one years of military rule the people of Rio are poor. They see this as God’s will, but everyone is equal at carnival and judged only on their ability to parade. Points are given under headings including songs, choreography, floats and rhythm.’
In mainstream (rather than text book) publishing for the secondary-age reader, the uninhibited voice of the author can sometimes be heard. Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest’s enthusiasm for astronomy reverberates in their prose and, for once, the browser attracted by dramatic illustrations will not lose interest when turning to the text nor lack clear, accessible information.
`The Sun is now a middle-aged star, about half way through its life. In about 5,000 million years time the centre of the Sun will run out of the hydrogen gas that powers its nuclear reactions. The “ash” of helium from the nuclear reactions will then form into a small dense core at the Sun’s heart.
When this happens, the Sun’s outer layers of gas will swell up to compensate, and the Sun will grow to a hundred times its present size. Its surface will cool down, to glow a dull red colour. The Sun will then be a red giant star.
The outer layers of a red giant are not stable, however. They pulsate in and out; and eventually the Sun will puff off its outer gases in a ring-like cloud called a planetary nebula.
Left behind will the the Sun’s core, now exposed as a tiny, brilliant and very hot star called a white dwarf. The white dwarf will be very dense, and no larger than the Earth. But it will have no supplies of energy. Like an ember on a fire, it will gradually cool down, and eventually become a dark star invisible extent at very close quarters’
Some of the most lively writing can be found in books on controversial topics where publishers have been willing to tackle subjects that give rise to strong emotions and differences of view. The insistence in some quarters that an issue should be considered from all viewpoints and in a dispassionate manner is hardly a prescription for lively writing. And the dutiful drawing up of a balance sheet is unlikely to provoke interest, let alone thought, on the part of the reader. Fortunately there are one or two writers for older children who examine difficult social and political subjects by skilfully juxtaposing factual statements in a thought-provoking manner and challenging the reader’s attitudes by posing questions. Other writers have tackled contentious areas, such as the nuclear debate or green issues, with an open concern which comes through in refreshingly readable prose.
`Questions of morality. The moral issues surrounding terrorism are not always as clear as one might think. Is all human life equally sacred, or are there circumstances when murder is justifiable? On 20 July 1944, an attempt to blow up the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, failed. If the tyrant had been killed, how many innocent lives would have been saved?
Is there a moral difference between murdering an innocent bystander and murdering the soldier of an oppressive army of occupation? Is there a difference between a soldier killing an enemy and a terrorist killing an enemy? Or between the murder of a child and the murder of an adult? Is risking human life as evil as taking human life?’
Raising moral issues above in a book on Terrorism.
Questions of structure and meaning are especially pertinent for those packagers of information for whom `presentation’ would appear to be an end in itself. They are frequently in danger of sacrificing coherence and intelligibility to eye-catching page design.
Many information books divide up their material into standardised sections within double-page openings, each topped by a bold heading. It goes without saying that few subjects lend themselves to being chopped up into these uniform pieces. Different aspects of a subject may have to be condensed or padded out to fill the space available. Each page opening appears to be a self-contained package of information of equal weight to the one before. Any development or flow of ideas between them is obscured by the strident visual messages sent out by the page design.
These are books to catch the wandering eye of the child raised in an age of television advertisements. They are visually exciting and arouse interest but they do little to develop a real understanding of the subject. They may provide a handy sentence or two to copy into a project folder, but for the browser who gets hooked and wishes to learn bewilderment may follow. Where is the starting point? How does this illustration relate to that? How does it all add up?
Contents, Index: Retrieving Information
The headings used in these designer books are often catchy, alliterative, or allusive, requiring a certain level of verbal sophistication or prior knowledge of the subject for their interpretation. Some series reproduce a list of these headings on the contents page, to the mystification of anyone expecting to find a clearly structured outline of the subject.
4. What are the media?
6. What makes a good story?
8. All the news that’s ht to print
10. Subversive agents?
12 A threat to education?
14. ‘Full of sex and violence?
16. What about the kids?
18. Personality plus?
20. Performance rules OK?
22. What about the workers?
24. Villains to order?
26. Are we being (s)exploited?
28. Beautiful people?
30. Can journalists be trusted?
32. Matters of public concern?
34. New sports for old?
36. Window oil the world’?
38. Mass appeal?
40. Playing to the audience?
42. Whose freedom, anyway?
44. Star billing?
46. The price of the message?
48. Why don’t some things get said?
50 A showcase for your country?
52 The hardest sell of all?
54 The hand of friendship?
56 Finest in the world?
58. The media we deserve?
60. The development of the mass media
62. Reading and viewing
Catchy headings above for 28 double spreads on the media make for fairly unhelpful guidance for the information seeker consulting the list of contents.
The index, together with the contents page, is the main retrieval device of the information book. Educationalists now put considerable emphasis on the need for children to acquire the skills of information retrieval, whether it be to trace information through an automated electronic system or a printed book. Most information books for junior and secondary-age groups have an index but many of them are woefully inadequate. How can we expect our children to become independent learners if we give them useless tools?
There are real difficulties for the indexer of many junior information books. The wide range of subjects touched upon in the text without substantial development poses a problem. Too often an index is little more than an arbitrary selection of terms with no apparent reason for their inclusion or omission.
The reader is often directed to a word in the text but finds no real ‘information’ there or, alternatively, he looks for an expected term in vain. A recent book on the secret service which fails to index the word ‘spy’ is hardly likely to inspire confidence in the reader.
There is less excuse when this happens in a book for older readers, which is likely to have a far more meaty text. For example, a current book on the media fails to index such key concepts as ‘bias’ and ‘censorship’. It omits important legislation such as the Official Secrets Act, and even significant personalities such as Mary Whitehouse. In fact, of the 65 terms in the index 21 are the names of newspapers, although the text deals far less substantively with most of these than it does with the terms that have been omitted.
Even more perverse is the index which includes important terms but conceals them. Subjects arc not entered directly in the alphabetical sequence but classified as sub-divisions of broader terms. In a book on the environment the reader will look in vain at G for greenhouse effect or W for whale. With perseverance they may be discovered: the whale at H (under hunting) and the greenhouse effect at W (under weather).
Yet another fault in many indexes is to list up to 20 or more undifferentiated page references following an entry term. A supreme example of this is in a 48-page book called Lifeboat – in which the index has the term ‘lifeboat’ followed by a string of 48 separate page references. To add insult to injury a further 9 entry terms are subordinated to lifeboat (including the term ‘crew’).
Many books now include a glossary and this can provide useful support to the text. But an entry in the glossary cannot make up for fundamental deficiencies in the text. It is not the place to define key concepts. If their meaning is not made clear in the body of the text with all the means at the writer’s disposal (extended explanation, illustration and exemplification), it is hardly likely that all will he revealed through a glossary definition. Nor is the glossary the place to introduce new information which should have been included in the text. In a recent new edition of a book on South African society, in which considerable attention is given to apartheid, the only account of the ANC appears in a brief glossary entry.
Lists of further readings can provide useful suggestions for the reader whose interest has been aroused, perhaps by some aspect of the subject. Some of the titles in a well established series for older readers provide a model of how this should be done. The selection is imaginative and the succinct appraisals of content, viewpoint, authority, and so on, are sufficiently skilful to whet the appetite. But this is an honourable exception to the usual bare bibliographical listing of half-a-dozen to a dozen books, arranged in author order. It is hard to imagine even the most enthusiastic reader being inspired to visit a library and ask for one of these faceless objects, with no clue but the title to indicate what the book is about, and no indication of the particular features which have led to its being recommended.
A recent book on carnival (in a series for 10+ year olds) lists nine items for further reading. About halfway through the list appears: Frazer, Sir J.G. The Golden Bough, Macmillan, 1936. The young reader who enquires for this at the local branch library is likely to be referred to the central reference library – to be confronted with this 13-volume classic (originally published between 1890 and 1915). The compiler of the reading list might at least have had the heart to recommend the abridged one-volume edition.
Much more imagination is shown when it comes to recommending organisations to contact for further information (or to join) and places to visit. These are usually briefly and often temptingly described. Why can’t the same be done for the books that are recommended?
Could Do Better?
In recent years many publishers have responded to the wide concern over social attitudes in materials for young people. Though initially slow to react, they have shown a growing awareness of these issues, in both the subject matter and approach of their information books. In particular, the number of books which support a multi-cultural view of society is increasing.
Publishers have also shown courage in tackling a range of controversial and tricky subjects – such as drugs and AIDS. There is an evident sincerity of purpose in some of these books which is very heartening.
In another welcome development, a few publishers are venturing into the relatively uncharted waters of information books for the nursery/infant age group.
But, overall, the picture is rather a dispiriting one. So many bright and attractive books are fundamentally incoherent; texts are mundane; words and illustrations fail to achieve their full potential because they fail to interact; retrieval devices are seriously deficient.
It is only when teachers and librarians exert pressure through greater discrimination in their selection of information books that publishers will be encouraged to confront some of these questions.
We have deliberately not identified the books referred to in this article. They are mentioned as illustrations of trends evident in many books from a wide range of publishers.
A regular series of articles to follow on this subject will review and recommend specific titles.
Eleanor von Schweinitz was a Senior Lecturer at the Polytechnic of North London in the School of Librarianship and Information Studies for just over 22 years. Before that she worked in a London comprehensive and in the Somerset Schools Library Service. She is currently engaged on a research project (she calls it `thesaurus construction’) and, when she can find the time, does freelance lecturing and consultancy work. Her interest in children’s non-fiction grew from her activities as one of the founder judges of the TES Junior Information Book Award. In 1987-88 Eleanor spent five months at Book Trust, after a break in her professional life, making an in-depth study of current information book publishing.