Dig for gold

7th March 1997 at 00:00
Juniorinformation bookaward

Wonderwise:What's Under the Bed? By Mick Manning and Brita Granstr#246m Franklin Watts

Really awful books were as rare this year as a level six in a key stage 2 national test and it is encouraging to report that the general quality of submissions was very high, even if the "good but ordinary" category did predominate.

I do not mean to be dismissive of the "ordinary" - these do after all form the staple of daily classroom and library use - but ordinary books tend to have fairly limited ambitions. Take for example What Happened Here?Victorian Factory (one of a series from A amp; C Black #163;8.50) which positively oozes high production values and presents the past crisply and prettily. It is attractive and workmanlike yet, like numerous other entries, remains ordinary because it is underpinned by an assumption that children are passive learners to be fed, by page, data on demand. Rarely do books like these involve the reader or communicate any sense of curiosity although most disgorge data with less fuss than the whale expelling Jonah.

Do you wish to know the deepest point on the earth? Oceans and Seas (Neil Morris, Belitha Press #163;7.99) will tell you on one of its excellent fact-filled pages. Do you need information about birds? Try Ladybird Discovery: Birds (#163;2.99) which explains that large numbers of Pallas's sandgrouse sometimes fly westwards, but not why. Haven't Ladybird come a long way from Peter and Jane readers? The Discovery Books even contained a pull-out feature, the only design gimmick the judges encountered.

Information books are now a common constituent of initial reading schemes and Cambridge offered some visually stunning books of this type. Osprey (#163;1.95) particularly caught the judges' eye. Less attractive but eminently functional were What Do Levers Do? and What Do Pulleys and Gears Do? from Heinemann (#163;8. 50 each) using an approach referred to by one judge as "science through egg whisks". Kitchen sink science reared its head a few times and almost reached the status of a trend.

The use of information boxes, invariably called "factfiles", was undoubtedly a trend and it received a mixed reception. From Abacus to Calculator (Anita Ganeri, Evans #163;9.99) revealed, in a box headed "In Fact", that the 10-bani note issued in Romania in 1917 was a tenth of the size of a one-kwan note. I filed this away with "1815 was the best year for raspberries in France" as one of the most useless pieces of information that I possess. Shouldn't factfiles have to pass a relevance test?

Another trend, or perhaps obsession would be a better term, was the determination to be explicit about lavatories. We were confronted on all sides by references to and pictures of, lavatories, garderobes and piles of potty poo. Was this a vulgar conspiracy to grab children's attention by the back passage?

ln geography, science and technology, the main thrust of publishing interest was on national curriculum topics and there were no Stuarts or Georgians to be found in the history books, evidence that the constricting arms of the national curriculum had been at work.

A few entries seemed to be better buys for teachers than for children and I shall certainly find a place on my shelves for the Artists' Workshop series from A amp; C Black (#163;4. 50 each) because it contains a wealth of practical creative ideas and because it opened my eyes to the works of such painters as Hokusai and Hudertwasser.

Babies featured strongly as a subject and two books deserve a special mention. The World is Full of Babies! by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrm (Franklin Watts, #163;4.99) with its cleverly expanding text moving effortlessly from human babies to baby rats, lemurs and onwards to whales in an involving, highly informative way. Happy Birth Day, by Robie Harris (Walker Books #163;9.99) may be a bit light on general information (it is about day one in one life) but it does capture, realistically yet beautifully, a universal human experience. Michael Emberley's illustrations all but breathe.

At the last it came down to four books. Learned and wide-ranging, Science Mysteries: Sleep by Lesley Newson (A amp; C Black #163;8.99) answered questions that even a determined child let loose for a week in a large library would fail to answer. Although recognisably an "ordinary" book, it does all that it does extraordinarily well. Complementing the lively text was a catholic range of illustrations from "The Nightmare" by Henri Fuseli to a photograph of Freud's couch.

I Wonder Why Snakes Shed Their Skin and Other Questions About Reptiles (Amanda O'Neill, Kingfisher #163;4.50) uses an interrogative approach and tackles 30 questions about reptiles in a direct, engaging manner. It is not without flaws - the illustrations range from stunning to foolishly inept - but it is a book to capture a child's attention and represents excellent value for money.

For originality, energy, and the power to engage the mind, it would be hard to match Read and Wonder: Fly Traps! by Martin Jenkins and David Parkins (Walker Books #163;8.99) and Wonderwise: What's Under the Bed?, by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrm (Franklin Watts #163;8.99). These two fought a close battle for the prize.

Fly Traps! had the stronger personal voice. "People do all sorts of things in their spare time . . . Me, I like watching plants that eat animals." (It was mischievously suggested that the book would make an excellent present for vegetarians. ) The book is experimental and scientific, packed with facts and beautiful drawings, but is also encouragingly human. Just when the hand-reared plants are ready to start catching things we learn that "every single one died. " Accomplished writing like this could have stood more conceptual weight and one must regret the occasional appearance of anthropomorphised bugs, but the text is brilliantly successful at drawing you in to share the author's curiosity.

What's Under the Bed? wins. It is clever yet simple, a book in which lots of disciplines come together including geology, history and technology. With the exception of the appearance of pokey spacemen en route to the centre of the earth, the book is near perfect.

Young readers will curl up with this book even though it deals with lots of big ideas and has a whole complex of interweaving detail. Its structure owes much to the familiar, musically repetitive nursery genre typified by "The House that Jack Built" and "There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly". Building from "What's under the bed?" to "What's under the bed, the floorboards, the wires and pipes, the mouse nest, the soil . . .?" the text gradually leads you on a journey of exploration down under. A worthy winner in what looks like a vintage year.

Paul Noble

Paul Noble is head of St Andrew's School, Blunsdon, Swindon, Wiltshire. The other judges were: Tom Deveson, advisory teacher in music for the London Borough of Southwark and Mary Jane Drummond, tutor in the education of children aged three to 11 at the Institute of Education, University of Cambridge

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