Fine and mostly beastly

15th September 2000 at 01:00
* OXFORD REDS: CARS. By Paul May.Illustrated by Paul Dainton. DOGS. By Marjorie Newman. Illustrated by Michael Langham Rowe. FROGS AND TOADS. By Judy Allen. Illustrated by Steve Roberts. HORSES. By K M Peyton. Illustrated by Michael Langham Rowe. ROCKETS. By Karen Wallace. Illustrated by Paul Collicutt. SHARKS by Chris Powling. Illustrated by Rupert van Wyk. SNAKES by Claire Llewellyn. Illustrated by Steve Roberts. Oxford University Press pound;2.99 each. * INVESTIGATE SERIES: Dinosaurs by Robert Jones. Illustrated by Kevin Stead. Racing Cars by Ian Debenham. Illustrated by Mark Vesey. Planes by Eric Waite. Illustrated by Spike Wademan. Sharks by Craig Snowden. Illustrated by Greg Bridges Snakes by David Kirshner. Whales by Lynne Tuck, Illustrated by Gary Fleming. Big Fish. C amp; B Children's Books pound;2.99 each

Both these series have an inviting format, pack in lots of information and are good value. They cover popular topics, but are so well written and illustrated that they match the competition.

Oxford Reds, for newly independent readers, are by well-known authors who have worked hard at how best to introduce their subjects and sustain interest. Sharks has powerful, rhythmic language and illustrations that combine perfectly. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better introduction to this topic. Readers of Snakes get a real sense of what a snake is like- how it moves and how it kills its prey. And what superb illustrations!

Frogs and Toads helps us imagine the habitats and is informative on food, breeding, and structures such as eyes and tongues.

The books also alert young readers to important issues. Cars introduces the petrol engine as well as roots and computers in manufacturing, and covers questions of industrial accident and pollution while Rockets has an exhilarating account of how these machines are used in war and peace.

The well-researched Investigate series, intended for the over-eights, takes readers further towards mature non-fiction text, but recognises that older primary children still need to be invited into informational reading. There are fine illustrations, too, particularly in Racing Cars and Planes, which also include diagrams that are helpfully labelled and annotated.

Humorous headings - "in for the kill" and "double takes" in Snakes - could perhaps have been subsumed under headings on the contents pages to give readers an overview.

But this is a mere quibble about books that will inspire reluctant boy readers to find out more. I also like the speculative tone. In Sharks readers are encouraged to consider whether looking for the anal fin is a good approach to classification. Dinosaurs offers a new (to me) explanation for extinction: constipation. "Perhaps an absence of natural laxatives clogged their digestive systems?" And my favourite in such a treasure trove? Snakes by David Kirshner is visually appealing, scholarly and powerful in communicating some challenging information in a way that would interest any reader.

Both series may be used to support national curriculum programmes and non-fiction work in the Literacy Hour. Above all, they deserve a place in the school library and at home to reinforce the idea that non-fiction can be read for pleasure and interest.

Margaret Mallett is visiting tutor in primary English at Goldsmiths College, London


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