WINNER: LETTERS TO HENRIETTA. By Nell Marshall. Cambridge University Press. pound;4.50. Shortlist: CYCLING - ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW. By Clive Gifford. Illustrated by Nick Dewar. Hodder Activators. pound;3.99. SNAIL. By Karen Hartley and Chris Macro. Heinemann Bug Books. pound;8.75
A text to get your teeth into is essential for a National Year of Reading winner. Letters to Henrietta, Nell Marshall's family history for Cambridge Reading, is set in an age when the written word had less competition than today.
It celebrates the vanishing arts of letter-writing and letter-reading that sustained Henrietta Marshall (Nell's aunt by marriage, born in 1889 into a vicar's family of nine) through the First World War in which she lost two brothers, Jack and Evelyn. Their despatches from Belgium and the Dardanelles, pages from the vicar's diary and family anecdotes add up, said the judges, "to a strong narrative thread with good use of different voices".
The relative length and complexity of the text, they said, was refreshing in an area of publishing where caption-speak often rules. "You get to turn pages, and the text goes on," said one delighted judge. "So often books suffer from death by double-page spread.
"This one tells a research story as well as a history story. It looks at what history is and how you trace it through generations using letters and memorabilia. The photographic evidence is very good. It's fascinating and very touching."
Generally, the judges wanted evidence "that some work has been done on the book - and some work has been left for the reader to do". Key factors, besides accuracy, were design and organisation that had a clarifying effect rather than the opposite, good writing style ("there are some terrible texts, written by people with tin ears") and images and text working well together ("Are the images appropriate or do they come from information book limboland?"; "Do the images tell you the same thing as the text?"; "Do they add up to more than the sum of their parts?"; "Is there any evidence that the author and illustrator talk to each other?").
Searching through 145 entries for a combination of these qualities in books that did not need accessories (such as a computer) led the judges to suspect that the national literacy strategy was to blame for the shortage of unputdownable books this year.
"So much effort has been directed into materials for the literacy hour that publishers are drained and unable to come up with much that is new and sparkling," was the collective view of the panel.
"There is a good steady standard and the basic things are right - we should now be able to take it for granted that books are well organised and have a glossary and an index - but little sign of innovation. There are no completely bad books among the entries, but there are some pretty feeble attempts."
The judges were tempted to make subsidiary awards for the most banal statement ("Families spend a lot of time together" in The People of St Lucia from Wayland), the most recycled fact ("A sneeze travels the length of three elephants" in Sam's Science: Germs from Walker) and the silliest question ("Is water wet or dry?" in Science Starters: Water Play from Wayland).
Stand Up for Your Rights (Two-Can), a guide to the Declaration of Human Rights compiled by young people from 47 countries, was commended as "a bold attempt at tackling the big questions". Another Two-Can title, Sound, in the Invisible Journey series, was "making a real effort to be creative and inventive in its use of alternative information trails".
Similarly, So You Want to Be a Roman Soldier? a wacky careers guide from Wayland, and Walker's Stone Age News with its tabloid format, earned approval for "doing some work on the material and thinking it through".
The judges liked the titles on world religions in the Aamp;C Black Keystones series - "an enormous step forward from previous books in this area, which smacked of benevolent white ignoramuses wandering into a picture library" - and Hindu Mandir in the Watts Where We Worship series: "A good unassuming book with a focus. It shows respect for the reader and is consistent in using the specialist vocabulary that it introduces."
Dorling Kindersley's A Street Through Time, with its precise panoramas from the year 1000 to the present, was applauded as "a book with a big idea, and an emphasis on learning to read information from pictures. The artist should be congratulated for getting so much right in recreating the past."
The Hodder Activators series - the paperback guides to childhood passions including skateboarding, astronomy and computers - won its place in the shortlist thanks to "a strong voice that appeals to children, and sound advice from writers who know something about the subject and take children's interests seriously". The Cycling title by Clive Gifford and Nick Dewar, which takes the two-wheeler all the way to the Tour de France, freewheeled ahead on broad appeal. Snail by Karen Hartley and Chris Macro in the Heinemann Bug Books series - "an excellent book with wonderful photographs that schools will be glad to have in their libraries" - crept into the remaining shortlist place.
Judges: Mary Jane Drummond senior lecturer, School of Education, University of Cambridge.
Paul Noble headteacher, St Andrew's primary school, Swindon, Wiltshire.
Michael Thorn deputy headteacher, Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex