A few years ago, a county librarian challenged me to say what qualifications I had for judging children’s information books. Casting about in vain for something in my past on which I might base a claim to expertise, I heard myself asserting that, of the works I’d seen, the best were so good and the worst so bad, nobody could help noticing the difference. Neither is it difficult for the ‘non-expert’ eye to spot flaws in the presentation of otherwise excellent material: an enlightening preface to wonderful shots of penguins from Oxford Scientific Films gets printed in unreadably dense paragraphs which disappear into the spine so that you have to wrench the covers apart. That’s the sort of practicality your ‘common reader’ cares about.
On reflection, if I were facing a similar challenge today, I would make larger claims, on the democratic grounds that what passes for common knowledge is a matter for common concern. I might even argue for a continuous reappraisal by ‘uninitiated outsiders’ of what books tell the young: a grand free-for-all to scrutinize and discuss prevailing definitions of what is worth learning. Our adult experience serves to confirm or contradict the version of reality which we constructed in childhood. While adjusting our watches for Summer Time or for a transatlantic flight, we recall diagrams of the solar system. With luck, we visit places that were formerly just dots on a map. And, as we go about re-creating the printed pages of our childhood, it is legitimate to wonder about the blueprint that is on offer to succeeding generations. Are they being prepared for a changing planet? What, in the broadest sense, are for them the facts of life?
We inhabit a global village in which a transforming technology can make the exotic familiar and the familiar extraordinary. (It also furnishes proof, if proof were needed, that we are members one of another.) The effects are evident in both the content and form of children’s information books. The Computers in Action series from A & C Black demonstrates the intricacy of the communication systems behind routine transactions: shopping in a supermarket and booking a holiday through a travel agent. Our perceptions of macrocosm and microcosm are extended by the triumphs of the camera, encompassing visions of the Earth from space and of babies within the womb. The family life of gorillas and the armature of the greatly magnified head-louse are, in close-up, equally accessible and equally strange (Animals in the Wild series, Belitha Methuen, and Animals in Your Home, A & C Black).
Nevertheless, awesome technical powers of visual reproduction impress us only if their deployment makes sense. Too many picture editors and designers mix images together in a spirit of ‘Wotta lot I got!’ Paintings and photographs overlap, nothing is to scale, and the gesture which intended colourful abundance leaves only a confusing jumble. By contrast, the impact of a single process patiently and consistently documented is apparent in the inspired simplicity of the sequences in the Stopwatch series (A & C Black). Furthermore, in an age when the frantic fun-fantasies of many illustrators suggest that they would prefer to work in animation or advertising, there’s a reminder that page-turning has its own dynamism in Earthquakes and Volcanoes by Imelda and Robert Updegraff, Methuen (recognised by the TES awards five years ago and still a model of its kind) where scenes of ‘before’ and ‘after’ are ingeniously dovetailed.
The forced jollity and deliberate chaos of which I complain are particularly rife in alphabets and counting books for the very young. The producer tends to envisage his audience as a bunch of riotous tots and, figuratively, raises his voice above theirs. Other topics deemed ‘suitable’ for infants are The Seasons and The Weather. Here too boredom regularly seeps from the page. When the team from Blackwell Raintree declare: ‘Most people feel cheerful in spring’ it sounds a knell through the nursery…
Writers who begin with a definition frequently imply that they are suppressing a yawn as they settle down to a day’s graft at the typewriter. If you can’t do better than ‘Birds are animals with feathers’, why bother? Sometimes, towards the end, invention peters out and patience is exhausted, so the narrative simply stops dead or the reader is urged to run away and do something else. Terry Jennings’ injunction ‘Write a poem called “Fire”. Make some music to go with your poem’ appears at least twice in The Young Scientist Investigates (Oxford). The result perhaps of a somewhat desperate pursuit of the approved ‘integration’?
During the past five years, the output of publishers has reflected an awareness of the difficulties and dangers faced by children and of the influence, for good and ill, of the written word. Suggestions for DIY scientific experiments invariably carry safety warnings nowadays, and there is no shortage of stories dealing with physical and emotional problems: disability, hospitalization, divorce, bereavement. How the body works is a recurrent topic, and, at the cheaper end of the market, bodies look quite nasty in cross-section (though the function of hinge and ball joints is deftly expounded by Joy Richardson in What Happens When You Run (Hamish Hamilton). Of late, squeamishness and euphemism have been cast aside; plain speaking about loos and poos is in vogue, so a certain scatological zest may attend the perusal of symptoms in Mum, I feel Funny: a family guide to common ailments by Ann McPherson and Aidan Macfarlane (Chatto & Windus) which won a TES Award in 1983.
It is possible to detect a growing recognition that the facts do not stand alone and ‘speak for themselves’, but are selected and arranged and accorded significance by human agency. Even the Mercator Projection which once afforded an apparently rock-solid and unassailable foundation for our notions of geography turns out to be a distorting convention that conveniently enlarges Europe, placing us on top and centre-stage. Neither the motives nor the methods governing our investigation of the natural world are objective and impersonal. Witness the perennial fascination of dinosaurs and horses, and the choice of ‘totem animals’ by individuals between the ages of about seven and twelve, who scour the shops for items to add to their cherished otter/mouse/squirrel or polar bear collection.
Any branch of knowledge worthy of the name will at some level engage the imagination and the emotions, and become associated with human purposes in a social context. Accordingly, children need practice in weighing evidence and evaluating argument. To simulate the process whereby the exercise of scientific logic is rewarded by the excitement of scientific discovery, a narrative of past events may be interspersed with archaeological observations from which the events have been plausibly deduced. This method has been successfully adopted by Beverly and Jenny Halstead in numerous tales of prehistory, and by Robin Place in The Vikings: Fact and Fiction (C.U.P.). Reasoning of a more subtle and sceptical kind will be required by readers of Exploring Africa (Longman) in which Ian Cameron eloquently describes the sacrifices of the Boer Voortrekkers in defence of their liberty to own slaves!
In a recent Guardian article (17 Dec 1985), Ted Nield deplored the prominence given to weapons systems in the Hamlyn Modern World Encyclopaedia. Should children take pride in the machinery of megadeath? Nurse the desire to make a career of it? Yet, in this ideological minefield, silence and suppression can be equally worrying. You could read The Soldier by Anne Stewart in Hamish Hamilton’s Cherrystones series from cover to cover without realising that the smiling corporal was training recruits for anything more belligerent than polishing boots and touring foreign parts. What can and should be uttered ‘devant les enfants’? Confess it: the grown ups have secrets so appalling that we haven’t the heart to divulge them.
It is no accident that most of our words for the attainment of understanding are etymologically connected with physical possession, mastery and control. We ‘seize on’ or ’embrace’ an idea; ‘get to grips’ with it. ‘Concept’ and ‘perception’ are cognate with ‘capture’; ‘comprehending and apprehending’ imply a firm grasp. By acts of intellectual prowess, the young appropriate their heritage. But suppose their prospects are such that, the more they find out, the more helpless and hopeless and vulnerable they feel? Mankind no longer boasts of ‘conquering Nature’; that would be a Pyrrhic victory indeed. But educators must somehow break the news that we are bequeathing to posterity a poisoned globe: polluted seas, eroded soil, dying forests, stockpiled armaments. No wonder books of pseudo-astronomy foster spurious dreams of escaping from Planet Earth to some safer Spaceship.
Four years ago, considering the subject matter of over a hundred information books, I felt some surprise at particular gaps in the annual provision for readers of ten and under: nothing on technology or engineering, no clues about social organization, no glimpses of how the world is run. (That was also the year in which we publicly demanded books on computing for juniors: a rash wish that was subsequently granted in folk-tale profusion: more than anyone can cope with, I suspect.) To interpret the present plight of the earth requires the study of complex economic and political institutions, the workings and influence of which are hard to demonstrate and still harder to dramatize. Nevertheless, some creditable attempts to tackle these topics have been produced recently for the upper end of this age-range and for secondary pupils.
People Then and Now, a new series from Macdonald, uses photographic and statistical data, comment and a set of fictional representatives to trace the origins of existing arrangements which are currently taken for granted or under threat. Anna Sproule’s lively presentation of A Fair Deal in Britain juxtaposes free and private health care and education as contrasting alternatives, but stops short of analysing their interrelation and far-reaching effects.
Brian Haigh’s companion volume A New Community in Europe assumes an understanding of market forces that would link the depiction of acres of crushed peaches with the caption stating that it is done to save farmers money. This is not self-explanatory. By the same token, Adam Hopkins’ substantial and well-illustrated contribution on Law and Order to the Debates series defines ‘bail’ and ‘solicitor’ which are easy to define but offers no gloss at all on the Marxist paradigm of the apparatus of the State, which is confidently mentioned in the first chapter.
The most impressive of these new departures, Issues from Franklin Watts, will communicate something of value to readers of widely divergent ages. Acid Rain by John McCormick and Famine in Africa by Lloyd Timberlake are lucidly written. The diagrams of man-made change within eco-systems are models of clarity and they harmonize remarkably well with stunningly photographed landscapes. It may seem frivolous to dwell on the design features of these publications, but they do prompt a new reading of Keats’ aphorism about truth and beauty. If the formulation of these tragic situations were not rendered searingly beautiful, we probably could not bear to contemplate them. I personally find plenty to disagree with in these books, but I feel certain that it is to these conflicts and controversies we must turn for a replenishment of what every schoolboy and every schoolgirl knows.
Details of books mentioned
Computers in Action series, Pamela Fiddy and Dick Fox-Davies, A & C Black, £3.95 each
Travel Agent’s Computer, 0 7136 2653 4
Supermarket Computer, 0 7136 2652 6
Animals in the Wild series, Mary Hoffman, Belitha Methuen, £2.50 each
Zebra, 0 416 53340 X
Lion, 0 416 53330 2
Gorilla, 0 416 53310 8
Hippo, 0 416 53320 5
Animals in Your Home, Pat and Helen Clay, A & C Black, 0 7136 2590 2, £3.95
Stopwatch series, A & C Black
Chicken and Egg, Christine Back and Jens Olesen, 0 7136 2425 6, £3.50
Tadpole and Frog, Christine Back, 0 7136 2426 4, £3.50
Spider’s Web, Christine Back, 0 7136 2428 0, £3.50
Broad Bean, Christine Back, 0 7136 2427 2, £3.50
Snail, Jens Olesen, 0 7136 2708 5, £3.95
Butterfly and Caterpillar, Barrie Watts, 0 7136 2709 3, £3.95
Earthquakes and Volcanoes, Imelda and Robert Updegraff, Methuen, 0 416 88120 3, £1.25 pbk
What Happens When You Run, Joy Richardson, Hamish Hamilton, 0241 11228 1, £2.95
Mum, I feel Funny: a family guide to common ailments, Ann McPherson and Aidan Macfarlane, Chatto & Windus, 0 7011 2631 0, £3.50
A Brontosaur: the Life Story Unearthed, 0 00 104111 8
A Pterodactyl: the Story of a Flying Reptile, 0 00 104124 X
A Sea Serpent: the Story of a Nothosaur, 0 00 104123 1
Terrible Claw: the Story of a Carnivorous Dinosaur, 0 00 104112 6 Beverly and Jenny Halstead, Collins, £4.50 each
The Vikings: Fact and Fiction (Adventures of Young Vikings in Jorvik), Robin Place, C.U.P., 0 521 30855 0, £4.25 hbk; 0 521 31572 7, £2.25 pbk
People Then & Now series, Macdonald Educational, £5.95 each
A Fair deal? … in Britain, Anna Sproule, 0 356 11227 6
A New Community … in Europe, Brian Haigh, 0 356 11226 8
Issues series, Franklin Watts, £5.25 each
Acid Rain, John McCormick, 0 86313 369 X
Famine in Africa, Lloyd Timberlake, 0 86313 370 3