Life cycles, journeys and historical stories: learning from informational narratives
Children’s information books have tended to be organised under topic headings rather than as narrative. But facts, knowledge and ideas can also be powerfully communicated in ‘story’ form. Margaret Mallett discusses recent narrative non-fiction and how it can be used in the classroom both in and out of the literacy hour.
The new non-fiction titles considered here fit into three main categories – life cycles, journeys and historical stories. The life cycles of creatures and plants lend themselves naturally to a chronological or narrative account – from egg or seed through to maturity. Journeys, biography and autobiography are also set in a time sequence and good children’s books show us that narrative can analyse and evaluate information as well as recount it.
The best ‘life cycle’ books communicate a strong sense of how living things change and develop in particular environments. They do this by following the life history of one particular creature or family of creatures. The sharing of careful observations and the ability to awaken genuine interest are of course features of quality non-fiction. The first two information picture books in the new ‘Animal Lives’ series, The Otter and The Barn Owl, do well on these criteria. Bert Kitchen’s drawings capture the nature of each creature in its habitat perfectly. Younger children aged four to six would enjoy hearing the stories read out loud and talking about the pictures while seven to eight-year-olds could attempt reading the text themselves. Sandy Ransford has a natural feel for language and uses interesting and imaginative vocabulary to suggest the movements and characteristics of the otters – ‘moving clumsily’ and with ‘fumbling steps’ when on land but ‘lithe and graceful’ and ‘spiralling around’ when in water. Children can be helped to understand that it is sometimes the cumulative effect of words that increases our understanding. The required texts for Year 3, term 1 (7/8 year olds) are ‘information texts on topics of interest’ and these nature narratives would certainly fit here.
Accounts of processes also follow a sequence of events and the titles in ‘Sam’s Science’ series are structured by convincing child/parent conversations. In Jacqui Maynard’sI Know Where My Food Goes, for example, we get a down to earth account of what happens to our food. Kate Rowan’s I Know How We Fight Germs explains the body’s complicated system of defence well. Both titles have attractive, humorous and helpful illustrations and would be interesting books to read at home or share at school.
Walk with a Wolf by Janni Howker, for the early years, is structured round the journey of wolves to the far, wild north while the illustrations show a changing, harshening environment. This narrative brings alive the reality of a wolf’s existence – ‘a kick from a moose can break a wolf s ribs’ – more vividly than conventional informational prose could have. Young children will respond to the many powerful images – picture and text show the wolves at rest, their heads tucked behind their hind-legs and their noses covered by the fur of their tails. The waves of factual writing at the foot of many pages, a device first used to my knowledge in Walker Books’ ‘Read and Wonder’ series, works well here giving details about number of young and range of prey, but the index is rather slight to justify inclusion. Just reading and talking about the book will be satisfying for young children, while drama work and writing in role would be enjoyable extension activities.
A very different journey is the theme of Ted Dewan’s book The Weatherbirds. Five fictionalised bird characters on a mission to return an Amazonian parrot to Costa Rica are a device to set much information about weather in different countries within a travel narrative. Those who like their science in conventional format might deplore the mix of genres in the text and illustrations which range from wonderful drawings of the fantasy airship to carefully crafted and labelled diagrams. Able Year 5 and 6 children (9-11 year olds) would be entertained and able to cope with the sheer range of information – about how clouds are formed, what causes hurricanes and what conditions bring about raining fish. The literacy hour highlights the use of information books about processes for the second term of Year 5 (9/10 year olds).
The authors of historical picture books for the middle primary years often go to a great deal of trouble to base their work on primary as well as secondary sources. These ‘true stories’ from the lives of people in history are intended to both inform and entertain. Sarah Garland’s Seeing Red, for example, tells the story of the Cornish women who used their red petticoats to confuse Napoleon’s men who were arriving by sea. Thinking they were the jackets of redcoats, they turned back. Text and illustration in this picture book bring alive the clothes, objects and attitudes of people in the 18th century. The same book can be used in English work, both inside and outside the literacy hour, to consider how the author chooses to tell the story – the patterning of the events leading up to the major incident, the feelings of the characters and the language used.
Laurence Anholt’s picture book, Picasso and the Girl with a Ponytail, shares new information. Anholt tracked down Sylvette David, Picasso’s model during 1954, recorded her recollections of that year and looked at contemporary letters and photographs. In my experience children are fascinated by the detail of how information like this has been gathered. The story behind the big iron key in the hand of Picasso’s sculpture of Sylvette is told here for the first time.
There have always been colourfully illustrated, rather less literary short novels based on an historical period and historical characters which introduce a fictional person, often a child, as a device to make history accessible. Macdonald Young Books’ historical storybooks: Tom’s Lady of the Lamp; Drake and the Devon Boy; Mission Underground: The Making of Mr Brunel’s Splendid Tunnel, have the sort of light touch which often appeals to struggling young readers. Is the mixture of fact and fiction confusing? Children seem to catch on to the status of the information in this kind of text quite quickly and these books are particularly good at helping them grasp the impact of direct speech. They may encourage children to seek out conventional information books to further whatever interest they have inspired but they tend to serve as forerunners of mature historical fiction rather than as biography.
Two tellings of the Mary Anning story
As a girl, Mary Anning discovered the first complete fossil lchthyosaur in the cliffs near her home in Lyme Regis in 1810. These bare bones underpin the tellings in two recent picture books. Both authors end with a short account and assessment of Mary Anning’s life and achievements but each has a different way of using the power of story to weave historical facts into a lively narrative. A golden opportunity thus presents itself to compare two versions with young readers. The differences between style of illustrations, use of language and selection of facts to emphasise would all be aspects to discuss. Rather than just saying which version they like best, children, from about nine upwards, could be encouraged to pinpoint the strengths and limitations of each approach.
Catherine Brighton tells the story skilfully in comic strip form inThe Fossil Girl. The direct speech gives the account both energy and immediacy contrasting with the third person text boxed at the top of most pages. Text and pictures give a strong sense of the excitement of Mary’s discovery. A dramatic double spread illustration shows the young palaeontologist on a specially constructed platform easing the huge fossil from the cliffs.
Stone Girl, Bone Girl emphasises different aspects of the story. The Philpot sisters are the inspirers of Mary’s scientific interests and the little dog (actually shown in a portrait in the other book) is Mary’s companion here rather than her brother. The text is poetic – Mary’s fossil finds were of ‘every shape and size…marble ones as big as mill stones, others straight as stone fingers, or delicate like plants’. This helps young readers make visual images from the words. Sheila Moxley’s vivid and highly individual illustrations complement the text perfectly.
I have spent a little time on these two books as I think teachers could use them in a number of ways to inspire children’s thinking and writing. The scientific and historical aspects link with the National Curriculum themes at key stage 1. The books would also help meet the National Literacy Strategy objective for Year 4, term 3 (8/9 year olds) – that children should learn about ‘texts linked to other learning areas’. Interesting English work art key stage 2 might also be inspired: children could write part of the story in the first and then third person and discuss how the reader is affected by the choice of voice. There is welcome news that the role of drama as a major means of bringing literature alive is to be confirmed in the 2000 National Curriculum English. Children could be helped to improvise round parts of the story and/or to develop a script from their preferred picture book.
Some younger non-fiction picture books use devices associated with fiction – talking animals and magic machines, for example. (These titles are sometimes described by the rather charmless word ‘faction’.) Some teachers may worry that this mixture of fact and fiction will be confusing just when children are building expectations of what they will find in particular kinds of books and software.
My experience, however, is that children are able to move from different ways of looking quite easily. The Drop Goes Plop and A Seed in Need are, for example, information picture books in which talking seagulls introduce concepts about the water cycle and the plant cycle – and I have lost count of the number of children and teachers who have praised them.
Autobiography, letters and diary entries
Many books for younger children contain letters, anecdotes and diary entries but autobiographical kinds of writing become increasingly important in the later primary years, not least as a primary source in history lessons.
Letters to Henrietta is a most interesting history book for the over-nines which includes many different kinds of writing: first and third person narrative, diary entries and, most importantly, the letters Henrietta wrote and received from her brothers during the First World War. Structured chronologically, it takes us through one family’s life experiences, beginning with childhood activities and adventures, schooldays and then each family member’s fortunes in the war. Neil Marshall, a member of the family by marriage, used the Jefferson Family Diary 1850-1950 to help structure her account. But it is the letters which show the power of the first person ‘voice’ in bringing alive events and feelings. The small details and little touches of humour even though the situation is grim come through in a letter from Jack in the battlefields to Henrietta asking for his left handed scissors. ‘…I have not been able to cut my nails yet, and my fingers are so dirty in trenches I can’t bite them, so get a move on’. I cannot think of anything better to help children appreciate the effect on readers of text written in the first as compared with the third person – a National Literacy Strategy objectives for Year 6, term 1 (10-11 year olds).
When it comes to children’s own writing there are rich opportunities here for writing in role and for scripting parts of the story. Children need extended stretches of time outside the literacy hour for such writing tasks. In their final term in the primary school children focus on the options that face a writer and the reasons for choosing particular text types. Book based work across the curriculum and focused work in the literacy hour need to be mutually enriching.
The National Literacy Strategy and Informational Narratives
The National Literacy Strategy requires teachers and children to consider texts at three levels: text, sentence and word. So far as informational narratives are concerned, some of the things to keep in mind are as follows:
The global structure of most informational narratives follows a story pattern – setting the scene, covering the main events and then drawing things together at the end. Some feature indexes, with varying degrees of success. More useful are the ‘fact files’ included at the end of many nature and wildlife narratives and the added biographical details which put historical events in history stories in context. All this provides the basis for a class discussion of the different kinds of writing found within the same book or software item. Children will enjoy finding out how the illustrations in a book identify it with a particular genre – for example, photographs, timelines and paintings all feature in biographical and autobiographical kinds of writing. Talking and reflecting on illustrations has a place in class based elements of the literacy hour and in group and independent work.
The use of tense is of interest here. Some informational narratives use the continuous present. In Sandy Ransford’sThe Otter, for example, we have: ‘The cubs flounder around at first, but soon they are doggy-paddling along the surface’. Historical narratives like Catherine Brighton’s The Fossil Girl and Laurence Anholt’s Picasso and the Girl with a Ponytail use the past tense but also include a lot of direct speech to capture the vitality and flavour of a particular moment. In this respect they mirror fiction. Often such texts have a literary flavour and use imagery to help understanding and clarity. As they dance their mating ritual in The Barn Owl, the creatures ‘twist and turn in the air, calling to each other and playing catch in the dark, like ghostly acrobats’. The effects on the reader of tense, voice, punctuation and syntax are worth discussing. Attention is best drawn to them after the children have enjoyed the texts in their entirety perhaps outside the literacy hour.
Any kind of text for children can be used to develop phonological awareness, graphic knowledge and spelling. New words are usually well contextualised in informational narratives, making them good texts to support the ‘vocabulary extension’ National Literacy Strategy objective. The new Kingfisher ‘Animal Lives’ series imparts technical vocabulary with a light touch – The Otter, for example, brings in words like ‘holt’, ‘prey’ and ‘forepaws’.
The Otter, Sandy Ransford, 0 7534 0316 1, and The Barn Owl, Sally Tagholm, 0 7534 0315 3, ill. Bert Kitchen, Kingfisher ‘Animal Lives’ (1999), £6.99 each hbk
I Know How We Fight Germs, Kate Rowan, 0 7445 6217 1, and I Know Where My Food Goes, Jacqui Maynard, 0 7445 6216 3, ill. Katharine McEwen, Walker ‘Sam’s Science’ (1998), £6.99 each
Walk with a Wolf, Janni Howker, ill. Sarah Fox-Davies, Walker (1997), 0 7445 6334 8, £4.99 pbk
The Weatherbirds: An Incredible Journey Through the Weather of the World, Ted Dewan, Viking (1999), 0 670 87048 X, £12.99 hbk
Seeing Red, Sarah Garland, ill. Tony Ross, Andersen Press (1996), 0 86264 623 5, £9.99 hbk
Picasso and the Girl with a Ponytail, Laurence Anholt, Frances Lincoln (1989), 0 7112 1176 0, £9.99 hbk
Tom’s Lady of the Lamp, Jean Willis, ill. Amy Burch (1995), 0 7500 4708 2, Mission Underground: The Making of Mr Brunel’s Splendid Tunnel, Margaret Nash, ill. Jim Eldridge (1998), 0 7500 2384 8, andDrake and the Devon Boy, Rob Childs, ill. Gini Wade (1997), 0 7500 2115 2, Macdonald Young Books, Historical Storybooks, £4.50 each pbk
The Fossil Girl: Mary Anning’s Dinosaur Discovery, Catherine Brighton, Frances Lincoln (1999), 0 7112 1324 0, £9.99 hbk
Stone Girl, Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning, Laurence Anholt, ill. Sheila Moxley, Doubleday (1998), 0 385 40984 2, £9.99 hbk
Letters to Henrietta, Neil Marshall, Cambridge University Press Cambridge Reading, Extended Reading: B (1998), 0 521 47625 9, £4.95 pbk
Margaret Mallett is Visiting Tutor in Primary English at Goldsmiths’ College and author ofYoung Researchers: Informational Reading and Writing in the Early and Primary Years, published by Routledge, Summer 1999.