Mania for facts

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Miscellanies are ideal reading for children who enjoy endlesslists of useless information - and they can even be persuadedto write their own, says Andy Seed

Ever since Schott's Original Miscellany first appeared, three years ago, bookshops have been filled with entertaining collections of randomly arranged facts and lists. For those of you who aren't familiar with the book, it is described by its author, Ben Schott, as a compendium of "essential trivia, uncommon knowledge and vital irreverence".

Schott's Original Miscellany was written for adults, but last year a number of children's miscellanies appeared, including my own, How to Spot a Hadrosaur in a Bus Queue.

These books are of particular appeal to many boys, even reluctant readers, as they are composed of short chunks of text, lists, and collections of fascinating facts and figures about the sorts of subjects that most 8 to 13 year-old boys are interested in: music, food, cartoons, football, funny names, TV, puzzles, pets, cartoons, monsters, ghosts and all things large, fast and dangerous, among many others. To give my own book an extra dimension, I added several sections of nutty humour, beloved of children of this age, as I recall from my days as a key stage 2 teacher.

This spring I have been running workshops for Year 56 classes, based on the book. These have been remarkably successful, especially in giving children an opportunity to assemble a class non-fiction book which is genuinely enjoyable.

I begin by discussing the word "miscellaneous" before introducing the concept of books called miscellanies. I then show the children Schott's Original Miscellany and How to Spot a Hadrosaur in a Bus Queue, before reading out excerpts from the latter to give them a flavour of the content and to show the enormous variety that is contained in this type of book.

The type of sections I read out include: * things you can buy with pound;1 million (eg 2,500 ostriches); * ricochet words (for instance razzle-dazzle, harum-scarum, argy-bargy); * 15 things that don't exist (tartan paint); * British-American translation (in the US, the first floor is called the second floor).

* also read out a couple of fun or silly examples: * What do you call a woman with... (a radiator on her head? Answer: Anita) * Crimes committed by Goldilocks (breaking and entering).

Next, I show OHTs of some of the pages, to give the children a chance to see how the information is set out in boxes and lists, and also how it is illustrated. Following this, they are eager to contribute some ideas of their own, so I write up the title of a new section on the board and ask for suggestions to include in it. The types of list that bring a good response include: * things you couldn't get 20 years ago;

* words for money;

* things you can't buy;

* unsuitable flavours for ice cream.

You'll soon find that these lists create a real buzz in the classroom, with lots of ideas exchanged and discussion about whether a particular item is "right" or not.

At this point, I'm keen to get everyone involved in creating new content for a class book, so I explain that we're going to create our own miscellany. I give out activity sheets at different levels, each with some headings and some blank sections for children to come up with their own ideas. The lists are based around a range of subjects including: * items which need to be researched - for example, six countries beginning and ending with A; * "open" items which give free reign to the imagination (five red things); * high-interest items (four boy bands); * jokes and fun (three tongue-twisters); * numbers, for instance the weights of African mammals; * words, for example five interesting words beginning with J.

Dictionaries, atlases and other reference books as well as internet access are provided, and the children are sent off, working in pairs or threes, to create their own creative miscellany page. Enthusiasm has been huge, and it gives children a chance to carry out lateral thinking as well as sharpening up research skills and decision-making in terms of editing.

The lists can be tied more closely to the curriculum or given as homework, but for me the workshop is a great chance to explore a fun new type of non-fiction book which is nowhere to be found in any literacy framework document.

I usually end the session by asking the class to share their best ideas, both in content for specific lists and ideas for new lists. This is a most enjoyable way to end the lesson, and the stream of imaginative suggestions never ceases to amaze me. The teacher can then go on to put the pages together to form a book: a class miscellany. Any really fantastic children's ideas can be sent to me via the website below - they may even appear in my next book.

* How to Spot a Hadrosaur in a Bus Queue by Andy Seed (Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99)

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