Elaine Williams delves into the realm of narrative in factual texts
Twenty years ago, schools put a lot of effort into introducing children to story books. Information books were seen as a necessary - if dull and somewhat Gradgrindish - means to an end.
But teachers are waking up to the creative potential of non-fiction and its role in the National Literacy Strategy. Publishers, meanwhile, are putting some of their best writers and illustrators on the job.
Story and fact, unified by imaginative and informative illustrations, are the hallmarks of some of today's best information books. Many good recent non-fiction texts would fit well into the Year of Reading's Story Month in September.
According to Margaret Mallett, senior lecturer and primary English co-ordinator at Goldsmith's College, London University, children have a naturally flexible approach to fiction and non-fiction. She praises Spider Watching by Vivian French, a Walker Read and Wonder tale of two children who transform a friend's fear of spiders into an enthusiastic interest. The text draws in young readers through the relationship between the characters. Alison Wisenfeld's illustrations are light and lyrical, as well as detailed and instructive.
Books like this provide information by focusing on an animal's life. Other recent Walker titles that take this approach are Tiger by Judy Allen, illustrated by Tudor Humphries (Pounds 7.99), Walk With a Wolf by Janni Howker, illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies (Pounds 9.99) and Big Blue Whale by Nicola Davies and Nick Maland (Pounds 9.99, Pounds 4.99). In similar vein is Wild and Free: a book about animals in danger, the latest title from the Watts Wonderwise team, Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom (Watts Pounds 9.99).
The illustrations in all these books are striking and inventive, and the text is fresh and thought-provoking. Such books, says Margaret Mallett, encourage children to come up with their own preferences and opinions through talking about the pictures and ideas, a process that "moves them on in their understanding".
Illustrator Stephen Biesty, Mallett says, is a master at producing this kind of response. Far from being put off by the enormous detail of his cross-sections, children adore them. Besides being factual, "with annotations which go far beyond the superficial", they are fanciful and witty. Stephen Biesty's Incredible Body (coming soon from Dorling Kindersley, Pounds 12. 99) follows the progress of the "Extraordinary Exploration Squad" around Biesty's insides - a resourceful way of drawing children into human biology.
The Walker Informania series (Pounds 10.99 each) tries a Filofax-style format on subjects such as Sharks and Vampires by Martin Jenkins (just published) and Aliens by Jacqueline Mitton (out soon), and makes the point - in bite-sized chunks of text - that fantasy and fiction can grow from fact.
In children's history books, characterisation and empathy help pupils become absorbed in events. The Watt's Sparks series (Pounds 6.99 each) gives the historical-novel treatment to the Jarrow march (The Road to London by Andrew Matthews) and the Irish famine (The Great Hunger by Malachy Doyle) among others. The drama of the narrative strikes home the facts that follow the stories.
Empathy also comes into play in anthropological accounts. In Amazon Diary: the Jungle Adventures of Alex Winter (Puffin Pounds 5.99), by Hudson Talbott and Mark Greenburg, the diary of a boy whose plane crashes in the Amazon shows how the tribe that rescued him survives in the jungle.
The challenge for publishers, says Linda Banner, associate director of Watts, is "to make sure that children of seven are going to learn, rather than just bombarding them with information". Story is one way to make the facts unforgettable.