Gen up on the new look

15th April 2005 at 01:00
Michael Thorn looks at exciting developments in recent information books

Scan the shelves in a typical school library and you'd be forgiven for thinking that most children's non-fiction is produced in large hardback, with each double-page spread a discrete chunk of information.

This standard format is suited to some subjects more than others, and in the hands of inspired publishers such as Dorling Kindersley it was made to work well. However, for every vibrant, well designed book of this type there are dozens of others, written by authors who would be better employed writing short information leaflets, and laid out by art departments content to conform to a tired old formula.

Exceptions include the Horrible Histories - still going strong with the recent release of Loathsome London (Scholastic pound;4.99) - and their various clones, together with one or two lively paperback series from Hodder.

Recently, there have been signs of much greater variety, more innovation, more daring and, most important of all, much more emphasis on good writing.

There is, however, life in the old ways yet. I am enjoying a preview copy of Dinosaurs by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhardt (Walker Books, coming this autumn), which sticks to the double-page-spread segmentation of information, but uses stunning pop-ups (huge and breathtaking with each page-turn, and further pop-ups in side panels and beneath flaps) that not only grab attention but accurately illustrate various aspects of dinosaur anatomy. This sumptuous, stunning book promises to become the non-fiction gift-book of the year.

At the other end of the scale is the Who Was? series of biographical monographs from Short Books. There is nothing sumptuous about the appearance of these unassuming paperbacks, although they have recently adopted glossy rather than matt covers. (Personally, I much prefer the earlier, distinctively quirky designs.) However, the stunning thing about them, in the context of biographical writing for children, is that they are well written, unpatronising, tell a whole, continuous story and, hey, there are no jokes. The series has deservedly picked up awards, and two of the most recent titles - Elizabeth I by Charlotte Moore and Napoleon by Adrian Hadland (pound;4.99 each) - maintain its reputation for well researched, page-turning storytelling. Coming soon: John Lennon and Jane Austen.

Simon Chapman's one-man series, Explorers Wanted!, is designed to appeal to children's natural instinct for exploration but also, I suspect, to their envy of older brothers' and sisters' gap-year adventures. Hence a section in each book on preparations and kit selection, with feedback given on the decisions made.

Interactivity is the hallmark of this eye-catching, yellow-covered series.

Too often interactivity is allied to inane information, but there is nothing lowbrow about the content here (the author has a day job teaching secondary physics). We are only on page six of one of the most recent titles - In Deepest Borneo (Egmont pound;4.99) - when, with reference to the fact that the climate on Borneo is similar to conditions in an Amazonian rainforest, we are introduced to the notion of "convergent evolution".

Too frequently, non-fiction books - particularly those relating to science - give the impression that the facts about our world are stark nuggets of information to be noted, looked up, copied out, memorised. The adults writing them have forgotten that for children the world is still an amazing place.

In The Hidden Forest, by Jeannie Baker, now in paperback (Walker pound;5.99), Ben at first dislikes the feel of the "slimy kelp" as it slides over him and is annoyed that it has snarled up his fishing trap and overturned his boat. But by the end of the book, after he has put on his snorkel and explored the underwater forest, the kelp has become "velvet swirling against his skin" and he has a new-won respect for the creatures who live among it.

Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom have proved many times before that they are in tune with young minds, and in Voices of the Rainforest (Watts pound;10.99), they have created yet another excellent non-fiction title for key stage 1. It is laid out in the standard format, but each section follows smoothly from the preceding one, so there is no sense of disjointedness.

Two pages about giant trees are followed by a section that mentions some of the animals that live in the "canopy world".

One subject that regularly inspires novel techniques of information delivery is sex. The latest gem in the facts-of-life category is Bits, Boobs Blobs by Jeanne Willis and Lydia Monks (Walker pound;3.99), a slimline handbook for girls that includes step-by-step guidance on inserting a tampon - "You can't put a tampon in as if you were sticking a pencil up your nostril" - and an illustrated guide to "downstairs hairdos".

Some people prefer the realism of photographic field guides, others like the aesthetic quality of illustrated guides. There is value in both, but there is no doubting both the charm and usability of A Child's Guide to Wild Flowers by Charlotte Voake and Kate Petty (Random House pound;10.99). Simply colour-coded with a blob of watercolour in the top right corner of each page, this delightful book will help children distinguish between primrose and celandine and encourage curiosity about the variety of plant life growing in the wild. At the back there is a tick-list of some 100 flowers to spot. This book is published in association with the Eden Project, which also produces a series of brightly illustrated practical gardening guides for young children. The Grow Your Own series (pound;3.99 each) are small slim paperbacks, each with a free packet of seeds.

Hodder has always excelled at cheap, accessible paperback non-fiction. One recent title appeals to children's love of lists and it is difficult to resist the blend of sense and silliness in How to Spot a Hadrosaur in a Bus Queue by Andy Seed (Hodder pound;4.99), a children's miscellany of useless but fascinating lists, such as the top five causes of broken biscuits, David Beckham's haircuts, 1991-2004 (all 12 of them), and how to say "yes" in 13 languages.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm Primary School, Hailsham, East Sussex

For a chance to win hundreds of pounds worth of books for your school in The TimesShort Books Great Young Historians competition, see The Times Weekend Review tomorrow, Saturday April 16, or go to

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