Antidotes to fluffiness

16th January 2004 at 00:00
EARLY YEARS NON-FICTION. By Margaret Mallett. RoutledgeFalmer pound;17.99

There's something reassuring about a book on non-fiction for small children that cites with equal respect such authorities as Jerome Bruner, John Rowe (Can You Spot the Spotty Dog?), Leon Vygotsky, Dr Seuss, Gordon Wells and Beatrix Potter.

Margaret Mallett takes young learners seriously enough not to be solemn.

She brings together the findings of academic researchers, the observations of parents and teachers, the enthusiasms of boys and girls and her own shrewd sense of aptness and interest. The result is a study that is thoughtful and reflective, and can also be put to versatile and practical use.

It falls into two main sections. The first deals with materials appropriate for babies, toddlers and three-year-olds. It has a fitting breadth of interest, looking not merely at books, but at toys that can be read, bus posters and road signs. Illustrated alphabets are naturally found here, with wonderful examples such as Robert Crowther's Most Amazing Hide and Seek Alphabet Book, which is a masterpiece of paper engineering that has now sold nearly 250,000 copies. Board books and bath books are also featured.

She divides books for children aged three to six into two broad categories.

Some naturally fall into a narrative form. These include books about life-cycles or journeys, such as the superb Walk with a Wolf by Janni Howker. Others are shaped around topics or questions. A welcome piece of advice concerns the need for spicing fact with controversy. Reports of spiders eating their young and pictures of oil-contaminated birds are an antidote to fluffiness and sentimentality. Talking about such subjects leads to discussion and more complex kinds of writing.

There are inventories of dictionaries, thesauruses and encyclopedias.

Accounts of other media - television programmes, DVDs, e-books, CD-Roms and internet sites - complement those of books.

The author convincingly demonstrates her three essential principles: that learning is active, that it is social and collaborative, and that all adults can help children extend it into new areas with increasing pleasure.


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