What makes a good book for children on natural history? Margery Fisher answers the question by selecting some that offer
A Good Start for Young Naturalists
Small children, quick to see and hear, find their way into the world of nature by collecting an infinite number of random facts, whether from the reality of the mouse in the larder and the elephant on the television or in the contrived shapes of animals or plants on letter bricks, curtains or pull-along toys. Where do books come in?
First, they help in their own slow, private way the process of identification. The extraordinary variety of images which a small child accumulates in its mind sort themselves out gradually with the help of books. They soon notice the difference between Peter Rabbit’s mother with her shopping basket and a rabbit dressed in its own fur. I don’t belong to the school of thought that says animals must never wear jackets, but I am sure that it is essential that stories about humanised animals do not actually distort the facts or set up false ideas that may be hard to get rid of later. Peter Rabbit’s mother is true to nature: rabbits do look after their young. It is a different matter when you come to butterflies, frogs or fish, and the author or artist who offers children anecdotes about Mrs Bullfrog pushing a pram has a lot to answer for.
Stories, and pictures, in which animals are humanised can take small children beyond the first stage of identification to the stage of learning something about animal habitats or behaviour. The fact that owls are nocturnal must have filtered through to countless children by way of non-didactic picture books like Pat Hutchins’ Good-night, Owl! (Bodley Head/Picture Puffin). Recently the transition from fiction to fact has been pushed back, with many straight information series for the very young. Owl behaviour could be learned now, by a pre-school child, from a picture of startling eccentricity in a book from Spain, Funny Facts about the Owl by Nella Bosnia (Evans), ostensibly non-fiction, which shows a nightcapped bird poised to get out of bed, with gun and alarm clock close at hand. On the opposite page the text reads, ‘The owl is a bird which hunts for its food at night.’ Perhaps the joke is a little too sophisticated, and the juxtaposition of fact and fancy too abrupt, for the very young; certainly the biological fact seems too elementary for boys and girls old enough to feel flattered by such adult humour. This is an extreme example of the trend towards learning through fun which often seems directed more to grown-ups than to children.
Slapstick doesn’t suit everyone. All the same, it is heartening to see so many artists using the resources of graphic art in a light-hearted way to bring basic biological information to small children in unusual and arresting pictures. Accuracy is essential always, however young the reader, but it is no use offering accurate information if it is too dull or obscure to hold the attention of a child of three or four. The recent wave of experiment with graphic techniques is especially notable in books designed to introduce young readers to the invertebrates. The illustrations in Peter Curry’s The Caterpillar (World’s Work) could be described as ‘funny’ but they are also properly informative, showing a caterpillar feeding on leaves, shedding skins, finally spinning a cocoon and emerging `many days later’ as a butterfly. The fact that the caterpillar/butterfly is allowed an expressive eye and is shown in boldly mannered shapes and colours does not alter the accuracy of the elementary lesson.
There is an attractive and properly controlled element of fancy in a new series from France, of which The Caterpillar and three other stories (Moonlight Publishing) is one example. Anne van der Essen and her husband, the artist Etienne Delessert, have devised elegant, miniature books in which a quaint little Tom Thumb creature wanders through various country scenes; each encounter ends with one or two facts simply stated (for instance, that caterpillars turn into butterflies).
Eric Carle has chosen paper-engineering to give a lift to the facts in The Honeybee and the Robber (Julia MacRae Books). Pull a tab and you can watch a bee gathering nectar, another communicating details of a find in the bee-dance. The pictures are bold and fanciful but, again, perfectly accurate in the concepts they demonstrate, and at the back of the book a summary of biological fact should help parents to take the book beyond the popular pop-up technique.
Simplifying for the very young need not mean lapsing into dreary monosyllables. Althea’s Animals at your Feet (Dinosaur) has slightly romanticised pictures of earwig, millipede, earthworm, ladybird and other subjects, but they are described in easy, sensible words which show an appreciation of what pre-school children are willing and able to understand. It is clearly stated that ‘the animals in the pictures are larger than life so that you can see them better’ and scale is defined by a picture of an ant and a child’s shoe side by side. Books like this help children to associate animals with a particular environment and special characteristics, giving them a sound foundation on which they can build later through more specialised (but still simple) books like Michael Chinery’s reliable Guide to Insects (Piccolo) or John Paull’s The Story of the Ant (Ladybird).
A keen naturalist, however young, needs to get close to his subjects. One of the liveliest of recent series encourages children to catch insects in order to observe them properly. A title like It’s Easy to have a Caterpillar to Stay may sound whimsical, but Caroline O’Hagan in this entertaining book (Chatto and Windus; 3 books so far, more to come this year) is not implying that the guest arrives carrying matching luggage. The important point stressed in these gay, authoritative books is that there are right and wrong reasons for keeping ants, beetles and the like, and the right way is to observe them for a while and return them to their natural environment before captivity can harm them.
As children collect facts about natural history, they need advice on how to sort these facts out. It is not enough to be able to recognise sparrows, beetles or badgers. They have to be related to particular places and life cycles, and even the simplest books are valuable if they give at least some indication of habitat, in words or pictures or both.
Parents who want to help their children to make intelligent use of the facts they have accumulated will do well to look at books that offer rather wider views of particular kinds of wild life environments, whether in town or country. One of the most recent books offering a simple view of a familiar setting has no text at all. The pictures in In My Garden by Ermanno Cristini and Luigi Puricelli (Neugebauer Press) certainly need no supporting words, for they are as clear and explanatory as they are fascinating to study. The effect of the dramatic, boldly coloured pictures in this Austrian picture-fact book is to give one the illusion of being insect size, almost of identifying with a caterpillar on a lettuce leaf, a fly on a horse’s hoof, a mantis crawling up a spinach plant.
The general concept of habitat and territory which underlies simple books like this one will be understood in a different way by older children when they come to take a more active interest in natural studies. One reliable and encouraging handbook for children from seven or so upwards, Jean Mellanby’s Wonder Why Book of Nature Fun (Carousel), gives advice on making plaster casts of animal tracks, collecting feathers, making a nature trail in the garden, and an even wider range of activities is allowed for in The Nature Trail Book of Garden Wild Life, edited by Su Swallow (Usborne). This book has that reassuring if crowded look of the ubiquitous compendium, with boxed pictures, tables and diagrams linked with captions and small patches of text. The general atmosphere of fun and ease does not hide the fact that pages on ‘The Lawn’, ‘Snails’, ‘Night’, ‘Visitors’ and so on are full of useful and practical information.
The more recent Back Garden Wild Life Sanctuary Book by Ron Wilson (Penguin) has a format that might be daunting to the young at first sight but this would be in fact an ideal book for a family (or class) wanting to explore the endless possibilities of amateur nature-watching together. Parents and teachers should certainly appreciate the way diagrams and lists alternate with pleasing drawings, Victorian-style nursery pictures and Bewick-type cuts, making a book of quiet elegance which is also precise in its aid to quick identification of birds, mammals, plants and so on, and clear in its advice on making hides, constructing and stocking a pond or choosing plants to attract butterflies.
Once children can read fluently, they often forge ahead surprisingly fast in pursuit of a special interest, and one of the virtues of Ron Wilson’s book is the useful book lists at the end of each section. Any intelligent child studying wild life will soon begin to ask questions that go beyond simple observation. He will want books that attach facts to particular scientific principles. For such children, a book from Switzerland could be the starting point for a serious scientific interest. Fin-Paw-Hand by Edi and Ruth Lanners (A & C Black) originated in a class of children ten or eleven years old, who tackled the subject of evolution in a most original way, comparing the shapes of their hands with the paws of certain animals, looking at bones, making models of primate skulls and so on. The cheerful, brief reports on each project come from the children themselves and make the whole enterprise seem happy as well as stimulating.
Natural structures are discussed and illustrated in Small Worlds Close Up by Lisa Grillone and Joseph Gennaro (Julia MacRae Books). Photographs taken by a scanning electron microscope show the diversity of natural forms – a bird’s feather, a peppercorn, a bee sting, for instance. The text provides clear explanations of scientific principles for older children, while their juniors can absorb information from the photographs.
Gale Cooper’s Inside Animals (Hodder and Stoughton) similarly leads readers to particular principles of structure and animal adaptation through paintings showing sex organs, digestive systems, bones and muscles and illustrating a few specialised objects like a giraffe’s backbone, a whale’s mouth and a butterfly’s tongue. The text is carefully related to the pictures so that a child of nine or ten could follow the conclusions without any misunderstanding.
I must mention here one admirable series which has been with us for several years, the Bodley Head Young Naturalist books. This series caters for readers from eight or so, who can later move to the more advanced Bodley Head Biologies. The junior series offers examples of various aspects of animal behaviour in simple sentences matched with very fine, accurate and attractive coloured pictures. The two latest volumes in the series. Animals that Store Food and Animals of the Dark, both by Gwynne Vevers. are models of their kind in offering accessible and accurate facts for the young to build on later with more detailed books.
This article began with a defence of a degree of anthropomorphism in children’s books. To write ‘biographies’ of animals inevitably involves a certain humanising, if only that we have to expect words associated with humans (fear, protection, care, for instance) to be used in connection with the instincts and biological drives in an animal’s life. There has to be a biographical shape, too, to guide the young readers, and yet there must be as little suggestion as possible that this is anything like the conscious structures of a human ‘life’. One series that can be confidently given to children from eight or nine shows specialists using narrative-form to set squirrel, mole and deer in appropriate scenes. Philip Wayre’s Lutra: The Story of an Otter (Collins), is based on the author’s experience in the wild and with his own wildlife sanctuary in Norfolk: reading the book, you have the impression of an individual animal while learning a great deal about the species in a pleasurable way; the author’s enthusiasm is as evident in the way he writes as his first-hand knowledge. John Andrews’ Year of the Barn Owl (Dent) also has a narrative pattern, through which facts about breeding behaviour and territory are inserted. I still prefer Glyn Frewer’s Tyto: The Odyssey of an Owl (Dent) for its well-knit story and its beautifully observed country background. Books like this can wake an enthusiasm for the mysteries and beauties of wild life while by their special qualities of accuracy and personal alertness they can convey to children in an indirect way that it is better to be precise than sloppy, consistent than wayward, if their interest in nature is to give them the best kind of pleasure and satisfaction. Start-Rite is a slogan as suitable for books as it is for shoes.
Details of books mentioned
Pat Hutchins, Bodley Head, O 370 02016 2, £3.50, 1973;
Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.121 5. 80p, 1975
Funny Facts about the Owl,
Nella Bosnia, Evans, 0 237 45565 X, £2.95, 1981
Peter Curry, World’s Work, 0 437 32934 8, £2.50, 1979
The Caterpillar and three other stories,
Anne van der Essen and Etienne Delessert, Moonlight Publishing, 0 907144 20 9, 99p, 1981
The Honeybee and the Robber,
Eric Carle, Julia MacRae Books, 0 86203 013 7, £4.95, 1981
Animals at your Feet,
Althea, Dinosaur, 0 85122 230 7, £1.85 hb, 0 85122 223 4, 70p pb, 1980
Guide to Insects,
Michael Chinery, Piccolo, 0 330 26002 2, 75p, 1980
The Story of the Ant,
John Paull, Ladybird, 0 7214 0630 0, 50p, 1980
It’s Easy to have a Caterpillar to Stay,
Caroline O’Hagan, Chatto and Windus, 0 7011 2501 2, £1.50, 1980
In My Garden,
Ermanno Cristini and Luigi Puricelli, Neugebauer Press, distributed by A & C Black,0 907234 05 4, £3.50. 1981
Wonder Why Book of Nature Fun,
Jean Mellanby, Carousel, 0 552 98086 2, £1.75 hb,
0 552 57028 1, 75p pb, 1978
The Nature Trail Book of Garden Wild Life,
ed. Su Swallow, Usborne, 0 860 20259 3, £1.50. 1980
Back Garden Wild Life Sanctuary Book,
Ron Wilson, Penguin, 0 14 046.915 X, £2.95, 1981
Edi and Ruth Lanners, A & C Black, 0 7136 1922 8, £2.95, 1980
Small Worlds Close Up,
Lisa Grillone and Joseph Gennaro, Julia MacRae Books,0 86203 003 X, £4.25, 1980
Gale Cooper, Hodder and Stoughton, 0 340 25872 1, £3.95, 1981
Animals that Store Food,
Gwynne Vevers, Bodley Head, 0 370 30330 X, £2.75, 1980
Animals of the Dark,
Gwynne Vevers, Bodley Head, 0 370 30331 8, £2.75, 1980
Lutra: The Story of an Otter,
Philip Wayre, Collins, 0 00 195611 6, 1979 (out of print)
Year of the Barn Owl,
John Andrews, Dent, 0 460 06958 6, £3.95, 1981
Tyto: The Odyssey of an Owl,
Glyn Frewer, Dent, 0 460 06865 2, £3.50, 1978
Meet Margery Fisher
According to Margery Fisher there have been only two brief periods in her life when she was not reading some books for children – the first eighteen months and her four years at Oxford which ‘had to be kept for other kinds of reading’. The first to benefit from her enthusiasm were her six children. Later through magazines, books, newspapers and her own reviewing journal, Growing Point, started in May 1962, she shared and continues to share her pleasure and discriminating response with a much wider audience. Her approach to reviewing is serious but not solemn. ‘The real motive for criticism,’ she says, ‘should be the exchange of favourites: “Try this, it’s good.”‘ Keeping in touch with the likes and dislikes of the young she sees as essential for any critic of their literature and she has certainly done that not least through her own children and grandchildren. Intent Upon Reading (Brockhampton), although not revised since 1964, is still an excellent introduction to modern children’s fiction and Matters of Fact (Brockhampton, 1972) is essential reading for anyone concerned with making judgements about non-fiction; its sense and intelligence make it an invaluable guide in an area where few have cared (or dared) to venture. In 1966 she was the first to receive the Eleanor Farjeon Award.
Growing Point appears six times a year and is available from Margery Fisher. Ashton Manor, Northampton NN7 2JL. £3.00 for six issues or 60p for a single copy.