Before the beginning;TES Book Awards;Books

6th March 1998 at 00:00


BIG BANG. By Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest. Dorling Kindersley pound;9.99. RUNNERS-UP

SHARKS. By Christopher Maynard. Walker Books pound;9.99. THE HOLOCAUST. By RGGrant. Wayland pound;10.99.

Make no mistake: Big Bang is a demanding book, but its subject matter could hardly be more demanding either, and it amply repays the effort of following it through.

It takes the story of creation from the state of nothing through the processes of blow-up, particle and anti-particle creation, enormous heat and massive cooling, and the creation of matter - all within one second - right through to the far future and the eventual exhaustion of the sun.

Along the way we encounter the various scientists and theories which have enabled us to know this sort of detail about the origin of our universe. The evidence stares us in the face every night: the darkness of the night sky is the void of a world before the stars began, billions of years before us in time but still visible.

This is an awe-inspiring subject, and that it should be described in anything approaching lay terms is something of a feat: this sumptuously illustrated book, authoritatively written and excitingly designed, is a real achievement.

Sharks will win over its young readers with its colourful and light-hearted style, yet it still gives a wealth of detail about these much-maligned and surprisingly varied creatures.

One moment it's an FBI report, the next it's a school project, but the quality of the information overcomes the gimmickry. Apparently most of the (rare) attacks on humans are cases of mistaken identity ("I'm so sorry: I thought you were a tuna"), though if Steven Spielberg ever gets bitten it's probably personal.

The Holocaust is simply the best presentation for children of this enormously difficult subject that we have seen.

It is comprehensive, taking the story from medieval anti-Semitism through to the post-Holocaust Nazi-hunters and younger generation today, and it covers all the major themes, including Jewish resistance and the complicity of ordinary German officials, railway workers and police. It ends on a powerful and unsettling note: "The utter darkness of the Holocaust overwhelms our understanding and defies the heal-ing power of time." Every school should have this book.

There was remarkable unanimity over our final three. As we went through the rest, we kept asking: when is an information book not an information book? Not when it's a textbook, a manual or an activity book, we decided.

Out went World Geography and South Africa 1948-1994 (Cambridge University Press); The Internet for Beginners and World Wide Web for Beginners (Usborne); and 101 Amazing Things to do with Your Computer (Kingfisher) complete with CD-Rom and clearly great fun. Telling It Like It Is (Live Wire) is a rich and absorbing collection of testimony about the lives of young Asian women, but it is not an information book.

And neither are Tales of Real Haunting (Usborne) and UFOs and Aliens (Dorling Kindersley). We thought it utterly irresponsible that such shallow and uncritical conspiracy theory should pose as information books for a young readership.

Marginally better was Tales of Real Spies (Usborne) if only because there is at least no doubt that the people existed, but this is essentially a collection of case studies with no obvious criteria behind the selection.

So is The Best-Ever Book of Magic (Kingfisher), which tells you some stories about magicians but doesn't let you into any tricks of the trade (even Blue Peter annuals used to let you Amaze Your Friends).

The Best-Ever Book of the Wild West (Kingfisher) gives only the briefest treatment to the conflict between the settlers and the Indians, and has very few photographs from this much-photographed period. The Best-Ever Book of Pirates (Kingfisher) is comprehensive in its coverage, but does not explain what made people take to a life of piracy. We never got below the surface.

The Even More Amazing Science Pop-Up Book (Watts) was a let-down. Call us fussy, but we felt distinctly underwhelmed on opening the flap hiding the Working Gravity Clock to find what seemed to be Captain Kirk's egg-timer. We'd had enough of superlatives.

Some books were not what they seemed. Mountains (Watts) is about myths and fables, not mountains. The Wayland Atlas of the Rain Forests (Wayland) has some maps in it, but it is not really an atlas. The Nature and Science of Rain (Watts) skilfully conveys a lot of good science without looking like a science book - "Science without tears" as one judge put it.

Some of the history books were virtually in disguise. The Sewer Sleuth and Convict! (Watts), which tell of the seamier side of Victorian life, are novels. The History News: Explorers and Medicine (Walker) adopt, not entirely convincingly, a "news" format for presenting the past; The Greek Gazette, The Roman Record, and The Viking Invader (Usborne) manage the newspaper feel better, but do not always distinguish between hard information and the jokey style of the writing.

We liked The Beginner's Guide to Animal Autopsy (Watts) which contains more animal innards than most of us ever encounter except informally over lunch, though it sometimes needed to explain them more. We enjoyed reading about the life of Romanichal Gypsies (Wayland). We particularly enjoyed the series of 90-minute biographies of scientists from Constable, especially Halley in 90 minutes: we all know about his comet, but he was also a sea captain, a womaniser and a spy, a sort of cross between Stephen Hawking and James Bond.

We were enchanted by the beautifully produced The Flute Book (Random House) complete with CD, a perfect present to inspire a love of the instrument. We were thrilled with the story of Mary Jemison in My Life with the Indians (Watts) which uses narrative to tell the true story of an 18th-century English girl who was adopted by the Senca Indians. We were impressed by the sensitive handling of Drugs (Wayland) for a special needs readership, though we found its neutral moral stance was sometimes rather stifling. And we enjoyed the detailed information in Magellan (Watts), though the crowded page design sometimes makes it difficult to follow.

With few exceptions, the visual quality of the books was excellent, sometimes superb. There were examples of imaginative approaches mixing the demands of the subject matter with the visual culture of young people in the l990s. Information technology can deliver information, but it cannot replace the particular enjoyment, or even the visual delight, of a well thought-out and designed information book.


Sean Lang head of history, Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, and honorary secretary of the Historical Association

Lynne Marjoram head of science, Kidbrooke Comprehensive School, south London

Mark Williamson general adviser for humanities and religious education, London Borough of Hounslow

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