Brief encounters

7th May 2004 at 01:00
The Just the Facts series of issue-based information books for teenagers avoids simplification. Information has been thoroughly researched and the audience is never patronised. The sophisticated design will appeal to teenagers. The range of issues covered by the series is wide and topical. However, the "one size fits all" format, though it provides a helpful framework for looking at topics, may ultimately be limiting.

Each book starts with a brief history, followed by what is happening today and current debates. It then reviews what is being done to overcome the problems, ending with what the reader can do. There is also a helpful list of contacts and glossary at the back of each book.

The format works best where the issue is well defined and the facts fit the 56 pages available - for example, in Drugs and Sport. It works less well with wider issues, such as in Sustainable Development, where many facts are necessarily glossed over.

One of the strengths of the series is real stories, such as that of Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy who was found clinging to an inner tube off the US coast, in Refugees. It is people's stories that help bring issues alive for teenagers. The human angle is stronger in some books than others. What is it that turns an ordinary human into a suicide bomber, for example? It is a question Terrorism doesn't really answer.

The work of global non-governmental organisations, important as they are, is probably not a subject likely to capture the imagination of most 11 to 14-year-olds. The books in the World Watch series, I fear, are unlikely to change that. In focusing on the organisations, rather than the people they work with and the problems they hope to solve, the books could lose young people's interest even before they open them. Greenpeace (illustrated below) and the World Wildlife Fund, at least, are organisations that some pupils will already know through their well publicised work.

Each book starts brightly, with a story about the organisation in action.

Too quickly, however, it gets bogged down in committees, finance and acronyms (UNDP, UNEP, UNHCR, Unicef and many more, litter United Nations).

The language level may be too high for the average reader in the target age group. On one page in United Nations, the phrases "right-wing Saudi government" and "genital mutilation of young girls" both appear without any explanation.

The series aims to support the teaching of citizenship and geography at key stage 3. The books could be useful in the classroom, where teachers can direct pupils to relevant sections. But similar information can be obtained in equally accessible form on the websites of these organisations.

John Widdowson

Just the Facts series: Biological and Chemical Warfare. By Adam Hibbert

Child Labour. By Kay Stearman. Drugs and Sport. By Clive Gifford

Refugees. By Steven Maddocks

Sustainable Development. By Clive Gifford

Terrorism By Richard Bingley. Heinemann Library, pound;11.99 each, pound;65.55 pack of six

World Watch series: Greenpeace. By Sean Sheehan

The Red Cross Movement. By Jane Bingham

UNICEF. By Steven Maddocks

United Nations. By Stewart Ross

World Health Organisation. By Cath Senker

World Wildlife Fund. By Patricia Kendall. Hodder Wayland, pound;11.99 each

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