Children's non-fiction

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Let's face it. We Brits are not good at sex education. The story of James Sutton, who, at the age of 13, fathered twins at the end of last year brings our failings home only too clearly. James and Sarah Drinkwater, his 17-year-old partner, were convinced that boys only became fertile at 16. Sex education in schools continues to be patchy, and at home parents fare no better and perhaps worse.

How and when to broach the subject of sex to children remains a question of agonising embarrassment to many. Babette Cole, in her uproariously funny 1995 picture book Mummy Laid an Egg (Red Fox pound;4.99), takes no prisoners when it comes to exposing parental discomfort. In this story of sperm and eggs, a brother and sister get fed up with their parents' stumbling attempts to relay the facts of life and present their own version with couples "doing it" while swinging from lampshades.

Let's Talk About Where Babies Come From by Robie H Harris and Michael Emberley (Walker Books pound;10.99) is a far less zany book, offering a much more serious and informative treatment for key stage 2 and lower secondary readers. But, like Cole's book, it succeeds in breaking the ice and allowing open and questioning conversations to develop in families.

The author and illustrator state in their dedication that they talked long and hard to a wide range of people - clergy, doctors, scientists, teachers, parents and especially children, and this shows.

Set within a context of love and care between people, the book takes us through the whole story from a simple but enlightening description of body parts, through to puberty, making love, pregnancy, birth, sexual orientation, safe sex and sexual abuse. Emberley's illustrations are lively, humorous and informative but also sensitive, warm and engaging. They are well matched by Harris's text, which deals with issues very much from a child's viewpoint. It answers many abiding questions children have about their own bodies, love, sex, reproduction and families. It is non-judgmental but responsible, giving children enough information and social guidance to dispel ignorance and fear, but not too much to leave them eposed or overwhelmed.

Cars, Cars, Cars! (by Kathy Henderson and Charlotte Hard, Frances Lincoln pound;9.99) takes a wonderfully exuberant look at this miracle of transport engineering which society loves and hates in equal measure. In a series of rollicking rhymes Henderson guides us through the car factory, into salerooms full of colourful, chunky, desirable cars and on to the roads. These become increasingly congested with every turn of the page as the green, rolling, rural bits diminish and the Tarmac takes over along with the scrapyards, car parks and garages.

Did you know that 70 new cars are made every minute and that by the time we are 80 we will have each spent three years sitting in a car? Just two of the horrifying, fascinating facts in this lively, witty book. A light, non-hectoring, but thought-provoking treatment of a heavy environmental issue for key stage 1 or 2.

Into the Underworld by Gillian Clements (Walker Books pound;9.99) presents nine underground tunnels, each one a maze. Have you ever thought what you might be walking over when you take a walk along the pavement or through a field? After reading and looking at this you will always be aware of the creatures that live underground; the transport systems we create below the surface; the rock formations under our feet; the underworld myths we have created. Entertaining and interactive, this book is also absorbing and informative. Primary age children will pore over the clever illustrations.

Baby Whale's Journey, written by Jonathan London and illustrated by Jon Van Zyle (Chronicle Books pound;9.99), takes us on another kind of voyage, through the seas, following the life of the sperm whale from its birth to fully-fledged membership of the pod (group).

There have been many books about dolphins and whales in recent years, but Van Zyle's illustrations are memorable, conveying in mouth-watering, double-page tonal pictures the magic and magnificence of this mighty mammal. London's text is lyrical but full of fascinating facts about the life of this awe-inspiring animal. His afterword gives an informative context to the narrative.

Elaine Williams

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