Life in the balance

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Andrew Peck reviews a selection of books on the natural world

Wild Predators series Pack A: Killer Fish, Birds of Prey, Deadly Snakes, Deadly Spiders and Scorpions, Wolves and Other Dogs.

Pack B: Sea Hunters: Dolphins, Whales and Seals, Killer Cats, Killer Carnivores, Deadly Reptiles, Deadly Insects By Andrew Solway Heinemann Library pound;12.99 each, pound;61.70 for each pack

Animals Under Threat series Heinemann Library 12 titles, pound;12.50 each, pound;71.25 for a set of six

Tree of Life: the Incredible Biodiversity of Life on Earth By Rochelle Strauss, illustrated by Margot Thompson AC Black pound;12.99

Earth's Precious Resources series Air, Fossil Fuels, Minerals, Rocks, Soil, Plants, Water By Ian Graham Heinemann Library pound;11.99 each, pound;79.73 for the set

The front covers of the Wild Predators series, with their ragged, somewhat chewed font and graphic shots of predators at the moment of strike, may convince a reader they are about to embark on a journey of snarling, bloodthirsty photography supported by Top Trumps-style facts about numbers of teeth, speed of poison action, hunting skill and such like.

However, this is not the case, although we all have some children in our classes who would look forward to such a prospect. Instead, Andrew Solway's series explores the lives, habitats and hunting patterns of various species of predatory animals through accessible, research friendly text and well-chosen photographs and illustrations. Such an approach not only engages the average key stage 2 reader, but also raises the point that many predators themselves are under threat from human action.

The plight of animals endangered due to human involvement is continued in another Heinemann Library series, Animals Under Threat, geared towards the higher end of KS2. This sizeable series of 12 titles covers a variety of animals including alligator, giant panda, koala and orang-utan. The lifecycle of each animal is explored in detail in the context of its habitat and the influence of human activity.

As expected from the latest Heinemann reference books, the series is conceived and presented as an excellent source of research and reference.

However, it is the quality of the discussion in the text that separates this series from others of a similar intention. Issues regarding human influence are examined succinctly from all relevant sides with fairness and supporting facts, encouraging readers to make up their own minds and arming them with appropriate supporting arguments. Each title is uniquely concluded with worthwhile ways and supporting resources in which the reader can support the cause of the animal under threat.

Tree of Life: The Incredible Biodiversity of Life on Earth explores the rich variation of life on Earth in a strikingly visual and thought-provoking way for upper KS2 readers. The key feature of this book is its careful balance which provides children with insights and relevant information, without becoming overly technical and possibly dull. Beautiful illustrations and well-structured text give readers an appreciation of how species are classified and presents a perspective on the sheer number of species dwelling on Earth.

However, what really sets this book apart is the subtle way in which this perspective is developed to highlight that although humans are only one species, they have the greatest impact on the tree of life, with the ability to destroy or protect other species. As such, humans are firmly placed as the guardians of the tree, a role requiring reflection and great responsibility. Children are left with a rich understanding of the complex, and indeed delicate, web-like nature of life, and the consequences that human civilisation can bring in its wake.

Teaching children research and reference skills has always been so much more than explaining the mechanism of contents and index pages. Children have to learn about formulating worthwhile research questions, selecting the best research tools and making appropriate choices regarding their findings and possible next steps. The Heinemann Info Search range provides an excellent resource for the learning and teaching of such skills, and the Earth's Precious Resources series by Ian Graham is a welcome addition. Each title, covering Air, Fossil Fuels, Minerals, Rocks, Soil, Plants and Water, provides a wide range of reference opportunities from question headed chapters, points of interest captions, relevant case studies, rich photography and worthwhile links to further book and internet based materials.

Each resource is explored from its origin, extraction and use with a strong and consistent theme of environmental impact and sustainability. This series lends itself well to explicit skill teaching in guided reading, independent research and project work and as a springboard for discussion.

Andrew Peck is deputy head at Hazelwood Infant and Junior School, Enfield

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