‘…undoubtedly one of the most challenging areas for the information book publisher.’
Eleanor von Schweinitz takes a look at some recent material for nursery and infant schools
Four to six year olds are endlessly curious – they ask more questions than at any other stage in childhood. This is a critical time for learning, when so many foundations are being laid. Whether in the home, the playgroup, nursery or infant class, much of that learning takes place through the exploration of the immediate environment and through discussion of their discoveries. Language lies at the heart of this. What part can information books play?
Books can be a means of introducing new experiences, inviting consideration of the unfamiliar, reinforcing understanding of basic concepts, stimulating questions and encouraging experiment. They can inform and explain, suggest desirable behaviour patterns and, perhaps most important, they can direct observation, prompting recognition of pattern and meaning in things observed.
Librarians and teachers have long bemoaned the lack of adequate choice of information books for this crucial age group. But there have always been publishers with a few titles tucked away amongst their story books for the under-fives. These colourful little books are aimed at parents and introduce colour, size, shape, counting and other basic concepts. They are books to be shared and talked about. They rarely have any great ‘educational’ pretensions, but they are invariably jolly and occasionally feature familiar nursery favourites such as Spot. They range from board books to more fragile paperbacks and, although a few represent the work of some of the most gifted contemporary picture book artists, the style and quality of their artwork varies widely. Most of them are priced sufficiently keenly to be widely accessible in retail outlets ranging from W H Smith’s to Sainsbury’s.
But in the last year or so there have been signs that one or two of the specialist information book publishers are prepared to tackle this tricky area, designing books which are more closely geared to the needs of schools. Many of these new books are characterised by very high quality photographic illustrations, and it is significant that the names of some of the photographers are becoming as familiar as those of the authors.
Because this is the stage when reading skills are only just being developed, there are considerable problems for publishers designing information books for four to six year olds. Since texts will only be accessible to children who have started to read, books need to be considered from three complementary viewpoints. First, what messages and prompts can children get from the pictures, both viewed alone and in relation to each other? Second, what role does the text play in achieving the book’s objectives, and how do the illustrations and text interact? Third, how might both text and illustrations be used by an adult discussing the book with a child or a group of children?
It is obvious that such questions were considered when Henry Pluckrose and Ruth Thomson were writing and editing the Thinkabout and Knowabout series for Franklin Watts. Without being unduly solemn, these books have well-defined educational objectives and seek to prompt questions and discussion in a structured context. Together they explore the world of the senses, of shape and size, and basic mathematical notions such as weight and length. Using large colour photographs of familiar objects, they stimulate ideas about relationships focusing on such activities as matching, sorting and estimating. Here, as in all good information books, the implicit questions are just as important as the explicit.
An increasing number of information books introduce basic scientific ideas to young children. My Feather in a new Simple Science series from A & C Black uses very good studio photographs by Fiona Pragoff and a clear, simple text by Jane Mainwaring (When I bend my feather, it doesn’t break.’). The illustrations make their points so unambiguously that a child could grasp the characteristic properties of feathers without reading the text. A concluding feature for parents and teachers provides information to be used in discussion.
Photographs and a very simple interacting text are also the essence of Franklin Watts’ Talkabouts. Topics (Growing for example) are well chosen to match the needs of the infant stage and the text poses questions and makes brief factual statements. As an example of a book incorporating well thought-out suggestions for activities, take a look at Soil. But there is a price to be paid for the high quality photography and professional planning of all the Franklin Watts series – and with so ‘ little competition it’s not surprising that they cost £5.95.
Much more modestly priced at £3.50 is the Into Science series from Oxford. Topics range from the fundamentals of physics (Balancing) to living things (Spiders) and each book places a strong emphasis on things to do. They represent a rather old-fashioned and inflexible view of the way books are used by young children. Some titles are more successful than others, but all suffer from the dominance of the text which spells everything out with the repetitive tedium of the early reader. The illustrations are there to represent or amplify the text, not to stimulate or stir imaginative speculation. Anyone who has bought Balancing in this series should take a closer look at pages 12-15 and then read the notes for parents and teachers at the back. If you can’t spot the error – try it out … obviously the illustrator has a better grasp of the laws of physics than the author.
In a recently published series from Hamish Hamilton, Janet Fitzgerald uses the Seasons as a framework for a string of questions and related activities concerning plants, animals and farming. The choice of a new topic on each page opening can sometimes lend the proceedings a random air. Not all questions seem worth asking – some don’t have a sensible answer – and there is more than a suspicion that questions are being asked for questions’ sake. But used judiciously by teacher or parent, observation could be sharpened and thoughtful deductions encouraged. However, there seems no obvious reason why these quite modest little books should cost £6.50.
Because four to six year olds are beginning readers, teachers make considerable use of clear illustrations from books intended for older children. This is where the superbly produced Stopwatch books from A & C Black have proved invaluable. Each examines an aspect of the life cycle of a familiar plant or animal through a sequence of excellent high-definition colour photographs which show detail with absolute clarity. Texts are spare, addressing the reader directly, drawing attention to details in the illustrations so that text and illustrations are cleverly integrated. A simple statement heads each page and provides an accessible lead-in for beginning readers. Books in this series can supplement children’s direct observations – both by directing their attention to points to look for and by showing detail that it would be difficult or impossible to see with the naked eye. At £4.50 they are good value, comparing very favourably with Wayland’s Life Cycle series at £5.95.
Books on ‘ourselves’ are always in demand in infant classes and once again Franklin Watts have visually stimulating examples in the Look At series, with titles such as Faces, Feet and Teeth. Joan Solomon’s Everybody’s Hair, in A & C Black’s Friends series, has good colour photography and is especially valuable for its multicultural dimension. But there is a need for more books at a simple introductory level on such topics.
There are very few suitable books on everyday materials, products and services for this age group. Most books on food, for example, are too complex in subject matter and approach. Honourable exceptions are Finger Foods and Stir-fry (again in the Friends series) which use a friendly, accessible approach based on the everyday experiences of a multicultural classroom.
Books aimed at the home market often use a narrative test embodying information in a simple story – and the best of these books have a valuable place in the classroom library. There is a long-standing tradition of natural history books of this kind and, more recently, a growing number of books designed to prepare young children for new experiences. Some are simple narratives aimed at the very young – which take a lighthearted approach with amusing illustrations. A few strive for greater ‘realism’ with more extended narrative and photographic illustrations. The greatest choice exists in books about going to school, hospital, the dentist and so on. There are a growing number of books on aspects of safety, ranging from crossing the road, to taking care with strangers (Bob Gillham’s Play Safe is an especially robust and positive example of the latter). There is also an increasing willingness to tackle more complex emotional questions such as family break-up and death, as well as the problems of children with special needs. But however useful these books are, they must always seem somewhat didactic and contrived when looked at alongside ‘real’ books such as John Burningham’s Granpa or Shirley Hughes’s Lucy and Tom Go to School.
Viewed overall, this age group gets a poor deal when it comes to information books – especially when compared with the range of materials published for seven to twelve year olds. We have moved on from the days when an indiscriminate selection of Macdonald Starters dominated every classroom book corner, but we still have a long way to go. It will be interesting to see whether the new Firefly books, which are specialising in this end of the market, have anything new to offer. There are no simple prescriptions. The appropriate blend of information and stimulation, of text and illustration, of assertion, question, and activity, can be judged only against specific objectives and in specific contexts. This is undoubtedly one of the most challenging areas for the information book publisher.