The art of gentle persuasion

10th March 2000 at 00:00
With 234 books to consider, less must be more. The "faultless picture book" that snapped up the Junior Information Book Award opens by focusing on a tiny dot in an empty landscape. The dot turns out to be 1.3 metres tall - a male emperor penguin braced for a winter of egg-sitting in Antarctica.

The Emperor's Egg (Walker), is illustrated by Jane Chapman with text by Martin Jenkins. It tells a story of endurance - "two whole months with an egg on your feet and no supper," writes Jenkins, "or breakfast or lunch or tea" - and monitors the growth of the penguin chick in the shell.

The judges praised the subtle variations in Chapman's palette of grey, blue, purple and white, and "a text that talks to and not at the reader". "This is information with a light touch. You learn without trying," said one judge.

There's more hustle and bustle in Castle Diary: the Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page (also published by Walker), one of two enthusiastically-received runners-up.

Richard Platt's diary and Chris Riddell's illustrations ("with a touch of Breueghel") follow 11-year-old Tobias through a year in service in the 13th century. "As well as the big showpiece scenes of the hunt, the harvest and the banquet, there's the child's experiences of being bitten by harvest mites and chased by big kids.

"The impact comes through the pictures. You could look at a single day and build work around it, or children can read it straight through." The "pastiche of olde-worlde English" did not detract from it.

Movers and Shapers, the "muscles and bones" volume in Belitha Press's series on The Human Machine by Sarah Angliss, is the other runner-up, with special praise for the illustrator, Tom Connell. "The science content is well broken down, with the joints and repair system well handled. The text is not overbearing and the illustrations add to the explanation. " This book and Ted Dewan's The Weatherbirds (Viking) were both admired for their use of "a strong illuminating metaphor to de-familiarise familiar concepts and make children look again at what they know".

The Weatherbirds explains weather through the Jules Verne-style adventures of Professor Stork, Captain Goose and crew in the balloon Mercury. "Science integrated into a bizarre, eccentric tale and great aerial views."

Despite the large entry, the judes found that relatively few stood out from the crowd and lamented the "formulaic" approach of many series titles. "There's a feeling that we've been here before on innumerable occasions, a lack of big ideas."

Some books struggled to appeal to both key stages 2 and 3, with the result being too challenging for most primary pupils. One judge noted: "There's a lot of dreary factual present tense. You notice the difference when someone's wanted to write a book."

Great White Sharks in the WildWorld series from A amp; C Black, for example, benefited from an author (Marie Levine) whose enthusiasm shone through. "A good reference book for upper primary children."

Among others well received were Starting Computers, an Usborne Computer Guide: "Good activities with clear instructions".

Inline Skating, in the Heinemann Radical Sports series, had "clearly been put together by people who know their sport, with up-to-date references to websites and magazines". Hazel Richardson and Andy Cooke's How to Clone a Sheep (Oxford University Press) was appreciated for its "demystifing" approach. "A cheap, accessible book which a child can read in bed, trying hard to bring relevant science into the public domain."

Dad's In Prison (A amp; C Black) was also thought to be a bold but flawed attempt at an important subject. "Essential information - such as what Dad did - is missing and the photographs are obviously posed."

They spotted Chomp! Munch! Chew! A Book About How Animals Eat, by Karen Wallace and Ross Collins (Watts Wonderwise), as a title for younger children which has "got the language right" and admired the "excellent photography" in Flowers, Fruits and Seeds (Heinemann First Library), but noted that neither the winning book nor the runners-up used photographs, "which says something about the power of an illustrator who has a vision about a subject and can carry it through".

The best books had other factors in common: "They have not been brought into being by the national curriculum: they belong to a literature with broader concerns and they do their own persuading."


Tom Deveson, education consultant and writer Rosemary Feasey, lecturer in primary science at the University of Durham Michael Thorn, deputy headteacher, Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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