With school bookshops reporting big sales for non-fiction, we thought it was about time we took a closer look at what is currently available and got some consumer reaction.
We sent a batch of recent titles intended for pocket-money buying to Cathy Lister, David Bennett and Bill Boyle to try out in their schools.
The comments that came back from three very different schools reveal these particular bookshop users as having quite a lot in common when it comes to choosing non-fiction.
Am I interested? Do I need it? Is it useful? are the first questions. The answers are those of sophisticated book buyers.
‘I might buy this book if I was interested in the things inside, but I aren’t, so I wouldn’t.’ ‘This book is useful if you don’t know a lot about gardening. This book is not useful to me because I know a lot about it already.’ ‘If I could get a similar book in the library I’d still buy it because you can’t keep library books.’ ‘A Guide could give you this information and give you a more accurate view of what being a Girl Guide is like.’ ‘I don’t know anything about Chess. If I wanted to learn I think I could use this book.’
Presentation- layout, illustration, design – evokes a more varied response.
‘Too many pictures and diagrams’, ‘Very helpful, clear diagrams.’ (Beginners Guide to Playing Chess, Usborne)
‘If you looked at the cover you would think it was easy but there are too many complicated diagrams and some are hard to understand.’ ‘The pictures are easy to understand and it is clearly written.’ (Whizz Kids Chess, Macdonald)
They are wary of covers: ‘The front cover looks good, but it should be the same inside.’
The universal thumbs down is for ‘small print’; but even that is ignored if the enthusiasm is strong enough. ‘The print was quite small but with a magnifying glass I could see.’ (Playing Chess, Usborne)
Response to illustration is very personal. But if there is no interest or willingness to be interested no amount of colour, detailed illustrations, funny drawings or beautiful design can help a book escape the damning, ‘Boring’.
What they are prepared to be seen enjoying appears to be important for some who have an ‘image’ to keep up. On this evidence the new Carousel series may be dismissed by some over-elevens unless it gains acceptability or ‘cult’ status.
Value for money is clearly a concern.
But it is interesting that these new book buyers are free of the memory of much cheaper books four or five years ago. ‘It’s only 75p’, ‘It isn’t very much money’ (85p). Indeed compared to the current price of records (a pop single retails at £1-£1.20) books must look good value – if you really want to buy one.
To give a more detailed look at the reactions of the children and their teachers we’ve grouped some of the books they saw under three headings.
A new series
Amazing Facts about Prehistoric Animals
ill. Bobbie Craig, Carousel, 0 552 57046 X, 95p
Amazing Facts about Your Body
ill. Bobbie Craig, Carousel, 0 552 57045 1, 95p
Amazing Facts about Our Earth
ill. Penny Simon, Carousel, 0 552 57047 8, 95p
Amazing Facts about Animals
ill. Bobbie Craig, Carousel, 0 552 571 14 3, 95p
Bill Boyle: ‘I am sometimes suspicious of the ‘zappy’ approach; but there’s no doubt that in this case it appeals to the audience it’s aiming at. The kids thought it was marvellous – a hands down winner. Language is correctly aimed and explanations clear and exact. Illustrations are superb, especially in the prehistoric book – without them the considerable amount of ‘heavy’ data would have been indigestible.’
Cathy Lister: ‘The boys particularly were intrigued by these books. Although they were at times disparaging about the cartoony illustrations it was difficult to prise the books away from them. The 12-13 year olds dismissed them as “babyish” and “boring” but I think that was because they didn’t want to be seen taking seriously anything that looks like ‘kids’ stuff’. They were in fact much more interested than they were prepared to admit. Younger children were fascinated and truly “amazed”; they spent hours with the books. A great catalyst for talk.’
The children agree … mostly. ‘A serious subject looked at with a sense of humour, which made it interesting and enjoyable for me. I probably wouldn’t have read it if it had been too serious,’ (Joanne, 12). ‘This book is great. The illustrations help to make it so interesting that I could sit for hours reading it. Great value. (Helen, 11). ‘I love the brightness. I hate doctors, dentists and hospitals, but this book tells you about your body in a way that doesn’t frighten you,’ (Linda, 11). ‘This book is GREAT. It tells you all you want to know about animals. The pictures are ace. It is very cheap. It is worth it,’ (John, 11). ‘I thought it was great because it was funny. It is very easy to understand. I did not know many of those facts about the earth,’ (Andrew, 12). ‘I like the pictures but there is not enough writing. It is not worth 95p,’ (Peter, 11). ‘I like this book because it is easy to read and it’s a big book and it only costs 95p,’ (Stephen, 10). ‘I wouldn’t put this book on a shelf. I would look at it day and night. There is enough information in these books,’ (James, 10).
Puppies and Dogs
Sheila Alcock, Macdonald Whizz Kids, 0 356 06332 1, 95p
Learn about Training Your Dog
Wynter Weston, Ladybird, 0 7214 0644 0, 40p
Kittens and Cats
Michael Findlay, Macdonald Whizz Kids, 0 356 06331 3, 85p
Cats in Fact and Legend
Adele Millard, Piccolo, 0 330 25816, 90p
The two Whizz Kids titles (and others in the series we tried out as well) were well received. ‘Very interesting’ was the most frequent phrase and the children liked the design and layout: ‘clear and helpful diagrams’, ‘good illustrations’, ‘the cover made we want to read the book.’ The two books appealed particularly to pet owners or would-be pet owners. ‘Jam packed with advice. All the information you need to know on keeping your own pet,’ (Joanne, 12). ‘My dog has just had a litter of eight puppies and it gives me a lot of information,’ (Stephen, 11). ‘Our dog is ready for pups so it would be useful to me,’ (Robert, 10). ‘A super book for someone who has just had a dog. It is very helpful,’ (Susan. 11).
Value for pocket money? ‘Worth every penny,’ (Susan). ‘A great buy for not a lot of money,’ (Joanne).
Bill Boyle could see a place for this series in the classroom too. ‘The books are visually quite attractive and the readability level is about right for average 10+ children. There are no large areas of text to encourage the pointless exercise of copying huge chunks of verbiage without the faintest idea of meaning. Plenty of practical suggestions for activities with some point and relevance to the subject. Useful reference sections: glossary, booklist, places to visit, useful addresses and open-ended suggestions for continuing the project. Good value (especially compared to some of the worthless fiction we are asked to pay almost £1 for).
The Ladybird learnabout was also commended.
‘I think the pictures are beautiful enough to make anyone buy the book. Well worth the money,’ (Joanna, 11).
David Bennett agrees. ‘Well illustrated with photographs and not those rather lack-lustre drawings that used to characterise Ladybirds. I’m going to pass this one to my wife who is doing battle with our own dog of very little brain.’
Cats in Fact and Legend goes beyond ‘practical hints for pet owners’ and aims to be of general interest.
David Bennett: ‘I’m a cat addict but it didn’t do much for me. The child giving a talk or doing a project will find less common information here than in more standard books.’
‘Interesting and unusual. But 90p is quite a lot of money compared with other ‘fact’ books you can get on cats. I’d put it at about 75p. There are some words I don’t think anyone younger than eleven would understand,’ (Michelle, 12).
Ghosts and Horror
David Lambert, Piccolo Explorer (Mystery Series), 0 330 26356 0, 75p
Devils and Demons
Eric Maple, Piccolo Explorer (Mystery Series), 0 330 26357 9, 75p
The Beaver Book of Horror
Daniel Farson, Beaver, 0 600 31395 6, £1
I’ve Seen a Ghost
Richard Davis (ed), Granada, 0 583 30426 5, 95p
David Bennett: ‘Kids relish horror and there are a vast number of titles that cater for this. I’ve Seen a Ghost trades on the “personalities” ticket – the famous or near-famous have been invited to relate their chilling experiences. Fortunately most of the contributors are introduced. The Beaver Book of Horror will probably sell better. There are some good photographs and it is set out in a methodical way. For the older child who wants information rather than a vicarious scare this would be a good buy. Relatively little information is contained in Devils and Demons but the illustrations are suitably horrific to raise bad dreams. I can never be sure what age-group Piccolo Explorers are aimed at. The appearance and format suggest a picture book, yet the content and language indicate that an older audience is intended.’
Bill Boyle agrees. ‘The Piccolo Explorers left me feeling like saying, “So what?”. The text was lifeless and the one-dimensional illustrations failed to “lift” the pages at all. Readability is 11-12 at least (and I’m probably being generous) for the text is quite demanding of concentration and the print is small. We know that colour printing is expensive – but 24 pages for 75p? Lack of value for money is made all the more obvious by the minimal amount of information on some of the pages.’
Do the children agree?
Ghosts. ‘The glossy pictures make the stories more exciting,’ (Joanne, 12). ‘I thought the words were too small and I could not understand some of them,’ (Robbie, 10). ‘I would have liked stories better. These are more like bits and pieces of information,’ (Melanie, 11). ‘I liked the scary cover,’ (Debbie, 11).
‘Are ghosts really true or is it the mind playing tricks? The book didn’t really answer that question for me. It tells a lot about what happened in houses and left me with a lot of questions,’ (Helen. 11).
Devils and Demons ‘Good pictures, really weird. It doesn’t take long to read though because it doesn’t cover things thoroughly enough. The cover is misleading because the pictures inside are not as horrific,’ (Jonathon and Anthony. 12).
Beaver Book of Horror ‘The front cover was very impressive and well thought out. The stories were exciting and some weird. The quiz was good, but I hadn’t heard of some of the people like Bela Lugosi and Edgar Allan Poe. My mum liked it too. A good book for the price,’ (Jennifer, 12).
I’ve Seen a Ghost ‘The cover was very impressive. It’s so interesting. I think any boy or girl would enjoy it,’ (Andrew, 12).