Eleanor von Schweinitz looks through the non-fiction books we received last year at Books for Keeps with half an eye on the emerging National Curriculum.
What strikes me first when browsing along the shelves of information books published in 1989 is just how many come from only two publishers. Of the 760 books we received at Books for Keeps, over 45% were published by Franklin Watts or Wayland, and I can’t help wondering whether this is a very healthy state of affairs for the consumer of children’s information books.
As usual the new titles from Watts showed a lively awareness of the gaps in current provision – Bullying, for instance, was recently added to the `Let’s talk about’ series. Watts’ market research is as professional as their products and they are prepared to chance their arm with books that tackle contentious issues and cater for special needs. It will be interesting to see how far this commitment can withstand the pressures generated by the National Curriculum as it starts to come on stream in 1990.
The National Curriculum has already had a huge impact on science in the primary school, and school library support services have been reporting an unprecedented demand from infant schools for books on such topics as light and electricity. Just how difficult it is to create successful science books for the top end of this age group was illustrated by Oxford’s `Into Science’ series and Watts’ `Science Starters’. Oxford’s weakness lay principally in a laboured `narrative’ text and Watts’ in glossy photographs which, despite their apparent clarity, too often failed to convey their message adequately. There was a wider choice published for the junior/middle years, ranging from Cherrytree’s `Secrets of Science’ series – a miscellaneous collection of activities and experiments which inadequately related to underlying principles – to the carefully structured blend of activity, experiment and explanation in Watts’ `Hands on Science’ series. All books placed a strong emphasis on experimentation but there was often a lack of clarity as to the purpose served. Means and ends were not always clearly distinguished – and doesn’t the experiment lose something of its essential purpose if the instructions spell out the `correct’ outcome?
Books on the life sciences were the largest single category of material in 1989. Books about animals outnumbered those on plants by 6 to 1, most of them relying very heavily on visual appeal. We have come to expect excellent colour photography in books about living things. A and C Black didn’t disappoint us in 1989 with six new `Stopwatch’ titles – but these books are so much more than mere collections of beautiful photographs; the careful interaction of text and image and the well-judged pacing of it all are the key to their success. Equally breathtaking colour photography came from Kim Taylor and Jane Burton in Belitha’s `Secret Worlds’ series. Too Fast to See and Too Slow to See in particular made excellent use of high-speed or time-lapse photography using magnified images of great clarity. But, despite chatty and informative texts, these books amounted to little more than collections of memorable gobbets of information.
A much more coherent use of the thematic approach for infants/juniors was made by the `Look at Nature’ series from Watts. Examples include Henry Pluckrose’s Paws and Claws and Skin, Shell and Scale and Ruth Thomson’s Teeth and Tusks. These link apparently dissimilar creatures through common characteristics, the text and illustrations posing questions about such crucial matters as why different animals have very different kinds of teeth. A pity that Watts have chosen to frame the photographs in brightly coloured borders – putting a visual emphasis on the irrelevant in a series where considerable attention seems to have been paid to the interaction of visual and verbal. For the junior/middle age group Hodder and Stoughton’s lively `Young Naturalist’ series added Animal Movement by Tony Seddon and Signals for Survival by Jill Bailey. The latter covered such fascinating matters as daily, lunar and seasonal rhythms, internal and biological clocks, migration and hibernation. Attractively presented, these books are imaginatively cross-referenced to encourage the follow up of related material – and they have good indexes too!
Environmental concern was the most obviously pervasive element to be found in 1989 – being the focus of a number of good titles (some of which were recommended by Ted Percy in our non-fiction review pages) and also featuring to a greater or lesser degree in books on plants, animals, health, food, technology, living in towns and cities, and peoples and countries of the world. But it was somewhat disappointing that Wayland’s `Let’s visit’ series on farming should remain impervious to environmental issues at a time when they were launching their `Conserving our World’ series for older children. Hamish Hamilton’s Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter on the Farm also passed over some obvious opportunities to touch on environmental questions.
Design and Technology
Infant teachers confronting Design and Technology will welcome Watts’ `Ways to’ series (Cut it!, join it!, and so on) by Henry Pluckrose. These titles are full of thought-provoking questions and challenging ideas. This is another Watts series in which a rather strident page design doesn’t always make the most of good photographs. For junior and middle age groups there was a range of craft books, the majority of which were concerned with `how to do it’. There was also a sprinkling of books using a thematic seasonal approach to practical activities and craft work – though these seemed a rather thin, glossy and expensive prompt for the tired junior school teacher who had run out of ideas for things to do. Better value for the Technology curriculum was Plastics in A and C Black’s admirable `Threads’ series – especially welcome because there is so little on this subject for juniors. For secondary schools Design in Wayland’s `The Arts’ series was concerned with social and aesthetic questions – and this was also true of Photography and Architecture.
History and Geography
Several publishers added titles to their lists of countries of the world. Watts with nearly 80 countries already covered in their series for juniors had the misfortune to publish Let’s go to Panama (an invitation that George Bush and the Pentagon found impossible to resist). More serious problems could arise with titles looking at the Eastern Bloc countries, where change is momentous, on-going and unpredictable. Just what risks an enterprising publisher can face when tackling a rapidly changing situation is demonstrated by John Bradley’s Soviet Union – will perestroika work? (Watts/Gloucester Press, ‘Hotspot’ series). Published in August, it included a page identifying the main centres of `potentially explosive’ nationalist tensions – with a separate double-page spread at the back listing the fifteen republics in the Soviet Union with a few lines of useful information about each. But for those who want to understand the situation in the Soviet Union now, a much more detailed explanation of the historical background of the republics is needed, together with an explanation of their distinctive ethnic, religious and economic roots. However, I hope this experience won’t deter Watts/ Gloucester Press from venturing onto more thin ice – even when overtaken by events such books can provide invaluable background to our understanding; indeed, John Bradley’s discussion of perestroika and glasnost remains informative and thought-provoking.
Publishers are on safer ground when dealing with more distant historical events. We had a small spate of books about the First and Second World Wars. Childhood reminiscences of 1939-45 in an international collection Children at War from the BBC (to accompany their Landmark series on TV) were especially interesting because they included the perspectives of children far from the battle front (South Africa) or living in countries whose viewpoint is rarely considered here such as Finland and Eire (a hilarious piece this!). But Michael Foreman’s Warboy was in a different league and served to remind us of the gulf between competent documentary recording and vivid creative writing. Two well produced volumes originally published in France were edited for Wayland by Stewart Ross. They were very much more immediate and readable than most of the British products – and had the additional benefit of providing an unusual perspective on events in World Wars I and II. Well chosen imports of this kind might make a valuable contribution to `understanding points of view’ – which is one of the attainment targets of the History Working Group. Of course, if the National Curriculum persists in excluding the two World Wars, far fewer schools will decide that they can afford to purchase these stimulating books. The same fate may befall Nathaniel Harris’ Hitler in Batsford’s `Reputations’ series. This is one of those rare (and welcome) books that will stretch able 15-17 year olds, constantly challenging them to consider the evidence behind different interpretations of Hitler’s career.
The value of archaeological source materials was the focus of a number of books in 1989 – notably the `History in Evidence’ series from Wayland. The use of such materials was superbly demonstrated in Dorling Kindersley’s Early People, one of the `Eyewitness’ guides which continue to be in a class of their own – the ultimate in coffee-table information books for browsers of all ages. If the National Curriculum continues to stress the analysis and evaluation of source materials in history then authors will need to be far more meticulous in their treatment of sources, both in the way source materials are used in the text and illustrations, as well as in their proper identification. Nor will the hotchpotch of undifferentiated primary and secondary sources listed in bibliographies be acceptable any longer. Wayland’s worthy `Witness History’ series have generally been quite responsible in their use and citation of sources – and this is where Batsford, otherwise noteworthy for the consistent drabness of their production standards, could teach most other publishers a thing or two.
The new Firefly list (aimed at 3-8 year olds) got off to a prolific but rather disappointing start in 1989 – perhaps we should defer judgement in the hope of greater variety and individuality in the coming year.
The Shape of Things to Come …
If we glance briefly ahead to 1990 there are some ominous clouds on the horizon. LMS seriously threatens to cut support for centralised library support services – which account for a very high proportion of purchases of school library books (especially in the primary sector). Publishers whose information books have been targeted at this market are bound to feel the draught. And then there is the inexorably emerging National Curriculum and the long-anticipated details of assessment and testing. We can expect to find the new jargon creeping into publishers’ catalogues – some of it no more than emperor’s clothing for the old backlist titles but some of it heralding material that really has been designed with specific attainment targets in mind. We are constantly being told that the National Curriculum will raise educational standards – let us hope that it will effect a similar miracle in the world of information book publishing in the 1990s.
Ideas for this article were contributed by Geoff Brown, Veronica Holliday and Ted Percy – who all regularly review for us.
Eleanor von Schweinitz is Non-fiction Editor of Books for Keeps. She has specialised in School Librarianship and was one of the founder judges of the TES Junior Information Book Award. Currently, she’s engaged on a research project which she calls `thesaurus construction’.