Flames above and below;Arts;Children's books

18th September 1998 at 01:00
HIDDEN UNDER THE GROUND. By Peter Kent. MacDonald Young Books pound;9.99. DEEP DOWN UNDERGROUND: Robert Crowther's pop-up book of amazing facts and feats. Walker pound;12.99.

LANDSCAPES OF LEGEND: Beneath the Earth. By Finn Bevan. Illustrated by Diana Mayo. Watts pound;9.99.

BRIGHT SPARKS SERIES. SEEING STARS: The Night Sky. By James Muirden. OUT OF THIS WORLD:Exploring the Universe. By Carole Stott. Walker pound;8.99 each.

Beyond the limits of our surface-bound lives lie largely unseen and often unimagined worlds of light and darkness. Paul Noble digs deep to find the high and low points of picture books that uncover the layers of life underground and illuminate the secrets of the stars

Underground, overground, Wombling freely through this collection of books, you will find they treat their subjects in quite different ways.

Going underground first, Peter Kent uses no particular tricks or stratagems - just a straightforward, meticulous approach. The front cover typifies this with a view of what might be going on under somewhere like Wimbledon Common, although the amphora, the crocodile (in the sewer) and the red squirrel mark this out as a place that is anything but common.

The book uncovers a great deal of ground, from Hell to hydro-electric power, with a historical perspective thrown in for good measure. An inquisitive child with a keen eye for detail will, one hopes, get as much out of this book as the artist has put into it.

A sharp eye is also needed for Robert Crowther's pop-up book. In reality nothing pops up, but an awful lot of pictures slide across and up and down when one of the many tabs is pulled.

The information given is of the "fancy that!" variety. A chipmunk's cheeks will hold 17 hazelnuts. There are 67 underground railways in the world. Fancy that! I have never seen such a complex labyrinth of tabs in a book and so many messy reverse pages. A child will pull the wrong bit sooner or later, and this intriguing book will then be turned into a costly disaster.

Landscapes of Legend: Beneath the Earth is beautifully designed and full of imaginative and graceful drawings. It is worth owning for these reasons alone. I did not like the blurring of the edges between fact and fiction, but no intelligent child should be confused by this. Unfortunately the storytelling does not match the high quality of the illustrations. Myths require a degree of poetry in the language that is lacking here - largely, I suggest, because lack of space has reduced the tales to little more than precis.

Going overground is a relief after all those worms and claustrophobic tunnels, and the two books in Walker's Bright Sparks series focus on subjects that will lift your eyes well beyond the hills to the heavens above.

Unfortunately the books barely rise to the level of the grass on Wimbledon Common. A sort of tabloid journalism approach is used with simple text and even simpler drawings under crude headlines - Space Fakes; A Star is Born; Eye on the Sky. Writing like this is always accompanied by an excess of exclamation marks ("The universe is spreading and getting bigger all the time!") so that the text shouts at you in case the writer has failed to get your attention by other means.

I know hype is just hype and is not to be believed, but the back covers call the illustrations "fabulous". One Seeing Stars spread on supernovas (to be fair, one of the worst in the books) has eight sentences and the word BANG printed in large letters over a mottled yellow page. Now, what was Victor Meldrew always saying?

For details of the 1999 TES Information and Schoolbook Awards, write to: Colette O'Neill, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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