New frontiers;TES book awards;Books

6th March 1998 at 00:00
The TES information book awards, now in their 25th year, celebrate the brightest and best in non-fiction publishing for children. This year's entries - more than 200 books - impressed the judges with their high standards of production and brilliant colour photography.

But it was the tackling of Big Ideas that really excited them...and nothing is bigger than the Universe. Both the junior and senior information awards went to books on the subject. Tom Deveson enjoyed the junior winner's sense of humour...rather like Red Dwarf but more thoughtful and with better jokes. On page 11, Se n Lang describes the senior winner, a scientific story of creation, as a demanding book which amply repays the effort of following it through. The TES Schoolbook Award for Mathematics, sponsored by the Educational Publishers Council, is announced on page 12

JUNIOR INFORMATION BOOK AWARD

WINNER Time and the Universe. By Mary and John Gribbin. Hodder pound;3.99. RUNNERS-UP

The Ultimate 3D Pop-Up Art Book. By Ron van der Meer and Frank Whitford. Dorling Kindersley pound;15.99. Walk with a Wolf. By Janni Howker and Sarah Fox Davies. Walker Books pound;9.99.

Time and the Universe by Mary and John Gribbin is a tribute to the book's power of stirring the poetic imagination through a firm grasp of physical fact.

It starts uncompromisingly with the notion of entropy but quickly and characteristically finds a homely analogy - tidying bedrooms - to make the abstraction concrete. It then covers an impressive array of physical concepts from Big Bang to Time Travel by a similar use of metaphor and patient definition. It pushes the boundaries of the reader's speculation towards the philosophical. It provides evidence from geology, history and biology, while linking them unobtrusively to the main theme. And it appeals throughout to the 11-year-old's sense of humour and wonder, rather like Red Dwarf but more thoughtful and with better jokes.

This little paperback in Hodder's What's The Big Idea? series costs less than pound;4 - it won't break the bank; and it can be stuffed into a back pocket or read at a bus-stop. A new edition needs to get the date of the Gregorian Calendar right; to correct a serious blunder about Einstein's special theory in one cartoon; and a glossary reference which maintains that the Earth is at the centre of the Milky Way. But the Gribbins win hearts and minds as well as this year's prize.

The Ultimate 3-D Pop-Up Art Book is unlike Time and the Universe in almost every way except for the central respect it pays to young readers. This is a sumptuous book, a private art gallery that ranges from the Lascaux caves and Byzantium to Paolozzi and Robert Crumb. It has the tactile investigative appeal of The Jolly Postman. There are pockets to open, portfolios to rummage through, flaps to lift, studios to visit, experiments to run. More important, these actually work; one judge assembled and operated the miniature Calder mobile on a moving train.

It doesn't merely get you to do things like make prints and collages or explore perspective. It explains them too, and asks you interpretative questions that guide you into the realms of historical empathy. Our only concern was that its fragility and desirability might make it vulnerable to damage in busy classrooms, and that some pictures - the Gericault for example - are simply too small. This is again for upper juniors, but adults would like it too. It's an opulent commentary on Degas's view that painting gives the idea of the true by means of the false.

Walk with a Wolf is for younger children. It blends authentic information with lyrical invocation, and uses two typefaces to express the difference. "Walk with a wolf in the cold air" is a bold call to accompany the pack in spirit, to follow the trail of a bull moose, to charge for the kill and to sleep and dream in a blizzard by the lake. In a smaller font, phrases like "During the summer months a wolf may hunt alone" provide the facts to anchor the fancy.

This is a stark, implacable book, that makes no attempt to disguise the need for bloodshed to maintain survival. It is beautifully illustrated, a subtle study in grey, brown, black and white, with scenes of thin sunlight and high-flying ravens that could come from the sagas. Its simple narrative of a day's hunt is a frame that provides a traditional fairy-story villain with dignity and presence. Gentle imperative verbs draw the reader into action. A map and statistics are lacking, but it's not really that kind of a book.

We liked the rest of the Hodder series What's the Big Idea? Those on Animal Rights and Nuclear Power deal with contemporary controversy by encouraging serious debate without intrusive moralising. The Choices series (Aamp;C Black) is rather more deferential to modern secular pieties but still deals sensibly with the "affective domain" and with the fact that adults can be wrong too. Dorling Kindersley had some other strong entries, including Incredible Everything, a breathless survey of how dozens of things are made, from the mundane (doughnuts and plywood) to the awesome (cathedrals and Saturn V).

The Mick ManningBrita Granstrom team supplied several very attractive books (Kingfisher amp; Watts), in which uniformly round-faced, snub-nosed children find out about nature, the weather, their own digestion and their reproductive origins. We liked the growing tendency for good science writing for the early years, with investigation and questioning well to the fore.

The need to make the new Literacy Hour tolerable will be helped by books from both the Oxford and Cambridge reading schemes that make use of diagrams, tables, photographs and a range of technical and historical topics to support lively texts.

We were glad to notice the enterprise of small publishers such as Clearview, producing cheerful, informative and entirely practicable stickers to supplement a museum visit; the boldness that provides biographies of such diverse characters as Seneca and Emma Goldman, Roger Bacon and Jorge Luis Borges (The Barefoot Book of Heroes); and the willingness of distinguished scientists like Steven Rose to write for Portland's Making Sense of Science series about the work they know best.

Goethe said, "There is no patriotic art." Chekhov said, "There is no national science." There is a national curriculum. But our best books continue to demonstrate that thinking and feeling and learning and understanding ignore frontiers and cross into new countries of the mind.

Judges

Dennis Ashton director of the Stardome Planetarium Sheffield

Hilary Cooper head of research in education, University College of St Martin, Lancaster

Tom Deveson music advisory teacher for the London Borough of Southwark

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