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A light touch with weighty matters

When in Rome, only eat in clean snack bars, keep an eye on your cash and avoid the gridlocks by walking as much as possible. It was good advice in the Caesars' time and it's good advice now. A Visitor's Guide to Ancient Rome, from Usborne Timetours, a clear winner among the 57 entries, equips the explorer, whether stay-at-home or in situ.

The panel praised the Usborne team for "an ingenious idea well carried through and a good twist on a familiar format."

Like the Junior Information Book Award winner, this book was commended because it "lets you learn things without realising you're learning them". The same "freshness of approach" was welcomed in the runner-up, Fast Forward: Rainforest, by Kathryn Senior and Carolyn Scrace (Macdonald Young Books), which employs a split-page design to balance day against night and the rain forest against human destructiveness. "A very focused, well presented and informative book, without being evangelical, presenting facts that you can't ignore. In an area where there is no shortage of material, this adds a fresh dimension."

Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest, veterans of outer space publishing, took the other runner-up slot with their Space Encyclopedia for Dorling Kindersley. "A very professional job which combines considerable depth with a lot of detail," said the judges. "It's challenging but reachable, with human interest to lighten the scientific explanations. The writing is clear, steers away from jargon, and is well structured and presented."

The winner and runners-up met the panel's requirements for "innovative books that have a wide appeal and will still be around in three years' time", offering breadth and depth of information in a well-written text as well as an engaging design and structure. "The double-page-spread-per-topic treatment is still prevalent, and it causes compression and confusion," according to the panel.

The Usborne Encyclopedia of Planet Earth was hailed as "visually sumptuous with superb photographs and satisfying text" and, back in the ancient wold, Usborne scored again with its Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece. "The books which do one identifiable thing in depth often offer the most fulfilment and this does an extremely good job on one society in an attractive, meaty volume."

High Kicks, A amp; C Black's handbook about careers in the world of dance, had a similarly specific focus. "It's a good example of continuous prose writing and absolutely right for its purpose - it doesn't play up the glamour and there are safeguards and cautions." They said, however, that boys should be better catered for in revised editions.

The judges sensed the same "impression of gender bias" in the Hodder Wise Guide on Eating. "This needs to take into account the boys who suffer from eating disorders. But there's a lot of merit in it."

Pachamama: Our Earth, Our Future (Evans) generated some discussion of its strong environmentalist thrust in a book that features young people's writing alongside campaigning text. "It's got an agenda and the distinction between different types of writing is not clear enough. It's visually cluttered in places and superficial in others. Its strength is that it asks something of the reader."

Anne Geldart's Islam in the Heinemann Exploring Religions series was considered to be the better of two books on Islam among the entries. "It challenges stereotypes subtly. A clear, thorough introduction to the culture, with the feel of a reference book, very well written with respect."

Jay Young's pop-up treatment of The Art of Science (Walker) was applauded for making links between disciplines. "This is a very good idea, written with tremendous enthusiasm, but I'd have foregone some of the special effects for bigger pictures and more analysis," said one judge.


Roger Carter, president of The Geographical Association Sean Lang, head of history at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, and honorary secretary of the Historical Association Mary Ratcliffe, senior lecturer in science education at the University of Southampton

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