Also thinking globally, David Wright applies his criteria for selection to some recent titles.
Children’s books about countries are very important. If the UK is to break down its long-established insularity, we need to start with young children and persuade them that the rest of the world really exists and that it is exciting to find out more about it.
This is a popular area for publishers so there is lots of choice. How do we decide which to use? What makes a book about a particular country a ‘good book’?
I was briefed by the editor of Books for Keeps to make this article short, accessible and enjoyable to read. It’s excellent advice. But if we need those qualities in our reading, think how much more vital they are when the readers are children. Some other qualities need adding, too, for children. The books need to be simple in language and simple (but not simplistic) in content, in concepts and in choice of themes. (They will be used and read by all children – not just the keenest and brightest.) They need to be accurate, avoiding bias, and with empathy for and understanding of the country. These qualities are all vital – but they conflict with one another. And therein lies the problem for the writer.
If you are brief, you are not so likely to be interesting: the interesting topic has to stop just after it starts. If you are accurate you probably have lots of use for ‘usually’, ‘often’, ‘in general’ – and there’s no better way of killing interest and enjoyable reading! If you are simple, you have to miss out vital things about a country (‘too complicated’). If you make the book attractive, it will be labelled a tourist-eye view. If the warts show, you may be accused of lack of empathy. If you strive to get the balance exactly fair, it will be labelled bland or dull or lacking in enthusiasm.
So it is easy to criticise. And it is very hard to do well. If you don’t believe me, try! I have crossed out more words more times in writing children’s atlases and children’s books about countries than in any other writing. I’ve enjoyed it all (well, almost all), but it is the hardest thing I have ever done.
Books about countries will he used in a great variety of contexts. In schools, they will be used for ‘World Studies’ in one school; ‘Geography’ in another; and ‘Social Studies’ or ‘Topic’ in others. In libraries, they will be ‘for my project’, or for general interest, or maybe for a Brownie ‘Friendship Badge’ or because an overseas holiday is planned. So they need to be flexible and easy to explore. They all need indexes, but indexes that really work and have been well thought out from the point of view of the potential young user. So what can be said about this batch of recent ‘countries’ books? Let’s start with the generalisations.
They all have excellent printing – full colour and sharp definition of good photographs. ‘Black and White’ (i.e. ‘grey and grey’) has finally vanished, and not before time. The maps are all poor, except for the Macdonald books. (Maps deserve a whole article in their own right.)
None of these books are really bad – and that’s quite an achievement. But all could he so much better.
To get further than the generalisations, we need to look at each series in turn. I did so in the company of a group of 10-1 1 year olds who provided some devastatingly perceptive comments.
Let’s Go Series
General Editor-Henry Pluckrose, Franklin Watts, £4.50 each
Let’s Go to Cuba
Keith Lye, 0 86313 498 X
Let’s Go to East Germany
Keith Lye, 0 86313 497 1
Let’s Go to Sri Lanka
Dhanapala Samarasekara, O 86313 500 5
Let’s Go to Yugoslavia
Keith Lye, 0 86313 499 8
Do you remember ‘painting by numbers’ kits? This 52-volume series, of which these four are the latest titles, is ‘writing by numbers’. If it is page 10, it will say, ‘This picture shows some stamps and money used in X’-even if the picture doesn’t show any money (Cuba).
‘I like the picers (sic); I dislike the writing because it is babyish and dull’ (Alison).
Yes, the photographs are excellent: colourful, interesting, varied, up-to-date. The big print and short sentences may make the writing look babyish to Alison and others, but much of the text is abstract and difficult. We would love to know what the farmer is doing with his tractor and trailer; instead, we read, ‘Agriculture employs …’ (yawn). Elsewhere we read ‘Because of its varied population …’; ‘Leading industrial products include …’; ‘a major industrial and cultural city’. Andrew writes, ‘the information is a bit dusty’- a superb summary! Each book gives the feeling that it was written in a hurry, by a grown-up who has not chatted to children for a long time. The format is for very young children; the vocabulary is for adults. Even so: ‘If they were in the shop, I think a lot of people would buy them’ (Lisa). How true!
Passport to … Series
Franklin Watts, £6.95 each
Passport to Australia
Susan Pepper, O 86313 439 4
Passport to Mexico
Carmen Irizarry, 0 86313 440 8
This series has an inspired title and the basic concept is excellent. Four ‘Factfile’ spreads complement the 17 ‘text and picture’ spreads. The books feel cheerful – until you start reading them: ‘the writing is too small and too confusing’ (Richard)-this is putting it mildly. For example, ‘The distribution of Mexico’s economic activity’ (map title page 36). Why not ‘Mexico: farming, mines and factories?!
‘The supply of adequate amounts of fresh water is a continual problem’ is heavy, verbose, unnecessarily difficult and very dull. Why not ‘Water is the biggest problem in Australia’?
I don’t entirely trust these books. Mexico seems as middle-class, suburban and prosperous as Australia. And I don’t trust the blurb: ‘. . . photographs have been especially commissioned . . .’ looks 80%, untrue. ‘I dislike the photographs because you can see the people are posing for the cameras’ (Richard again), though at least there are people in most of the photographs. The series could have been so good – it is one of the great might- have-beens in children’s non-fiction which might yet improve as many more books are promised.
Macdonald Countries Series
Macdonald Educational, £5.95 each hbk, £4.95 non-net pbk (all new revised editions)
China: The Land and its People
Anna Merton and Shio-Yun Kan, 0 356 11510 0 hbk, 0 356 11511 9 pbk
France: The Land and its People
Chantal Tunnacliffe, 0 356 11512 7 hbk, 0 356 11513 5 pbk
Great Britain: The Land and its People
Anna Sproule, 0 356 11532 1 hbk, 0 356 11533 X pbk
United States of America: The Land and its People
Valerie Schloredt, 0 356 11534 8 hbk, 0 356 11535 6 pbk
In 1974, this series broke new ground and had many excellent features. Some of the books in the series have now been revised and relaunched, with a 35% cut in length and a higher price. The worst elements – the stereotypes and cartoons – have gone. The new text is difficult: strong on complex history but weak on motivation (‘A balanced and stable society depended on subordination’-wow!).
‘I don’t think that children would understand the writing’ (Lisa).
‘I hate this book because the writing is so small’ (Catherine).
On the other hand, there are plenty of good, detailed photographs; ‘I like the big beautiful colourful picture in the inside cover’ (Emma).
‘I like the pieces of writing under the pictures because you can get the whole idea of the pictures’ (Leo).
The emphasis is on the urban middle-class: ‘I dislike the way they put (a photo of) people at their dinner, because if you are unemployed you would feel that you were being treated unfairly’ (Joanna).
The books are worthy and good for reference; but I wonder whether a new series with flair and creativity would have been a better bet. By contrast, Living at the Poles by Bernard Stonehouse (0 356 11187 3, £5.50) in the Just Look at … series by the same publisher, has a lively, fresh and positive feel about the whole book.
Focus on Series
Hamish Hamilton, £5.95 each
Focus on Holland
Christopher Hunt, 0 241 11829 8
Focus on India
Shahrukh A. Husain, 0 241 11823 9
These two books exude quite a cheerful view of the countries concerned. The format is safe and unadventurous, but the two-column layout produces a feeling of variety, nevertheless.
Focus on Holland (why not ‘The Netherlands’?) has good air photos: ‘I like the pictures because they are taken from above’ (Debbie). It is a pity that the captions are so brief. The text is much closer to what 7-11s can cope with and enjoy: ‘I like what it says because it helps you to lern (sic)’ (Debbie again). There are only a few lapses, e.g. ‘Indian thought and philosophy has (sic) also influenced Western attitudes.
The coverage emphasises positive achievement. Focus on India ducks the problem of how to discuss poverty. The Calcutta photograph shows a huge slogan ‘Life Assurance for Security’; Mother Theresa seems a million miles away.
The blurb claims the books are a perfect introduction. Perfection is too much to hope for, but these two books would be a useful addition to a library.
None of these books is a disaster – they are all worthy. All are worth having in a library and – if funds permit – in a classroom. But none of them is really exciting or creative. There is still scope for a publisher to do much better – and to cut the price as well. That would be a winning series, without any doubt at all.
To return to the criteria at the start of the article, the books get good marks for brevity and attractiveness. But the text of most of them fails on accessibility, and they all fail on the vital criterion `enjoyable to read’. We should listen to the children more.
David Wright teaches in the School of Education at the university of East Anglia. He is involved regularly with middle and secondary schools and has himself written several information books for chIidren.