The pleasure of reading for leisure

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Children must be encouraged to read non-fiction for more than facts, says Tom Deveson.

Over 30 years of teaching, I've heard the imminent demise of information books proclaimed on at least four occasions. They were to be replaced by tabulated learning schemes, then supplanted by educational computer programmes. CD-Roms would fulfil their role just as well, and now the Internet can do it all instead.

Books, however, remain stubbornly there in children's lives. They can still be shared with a couple of friends, stuffed in a lunch bag or a back pocket, glanced at on the bus or over the tea table. After 500 years, their residence in civilised places like primary classrooms seems guaranteed to continue.

Educational publishers change their names and ownerships, and come in many shapes and sizes, though the best ones resemble one another like distant cousins. Names on the spine like A amp; C Black, Belitha, Heinemann, Hodder, Oxford University Press, Watts and Wayland can't guarantee that every title is worth reading, let alone buying; but they do usually ensure that editors, when devising new series, have tried to think about what teachers and children need.

Lively smaller imprints like Tamarind, founded by the inspirational Verna Wilkins, are now filling gaps left by the big enterprises. Their current series of Black Profiles celebrates contemporary figures whose achievements lie outside the over-worked fields of sport and music.

Publishers take great pains to ensure their books are full of certified national curriculum nutrients, so children reading them imbibe approved programmes of study and take in knowledge, skills and understanding in officially acceptable doses. This is not said in mockery.

Publishing is a commercial enterprise but also, often, a benevolent one. Attractive series like Heinemann's Worldfocus, which explores life in the developing world, or Taking Action, which examines campaign activists' working lives, arise from consultations with teachers and librarians, and simultaneously reflect junior pupils' curiosity and their idealism.

But children also like junk food, tangy spices and cheap sweets. There are books that need to be gulped down in greedy swallows without too much regard for their wholesome intellectual content. They deserve a place in classrooms too, if only to stop the reading corner becoming an exclusive shrine to worthiness and good taste.

Some books never seem merely part of a series, not because they are awkward or gauche, but because they are triumphantly individual. These are books that seem to have demanded to be written. Author and artist may have incurred immense benefits from editors, but their unique appeal comes from an inner need to share an idea or explore a vision.

A book like Martin Jenkins's The Emperor's Egg (Walker Books) about the life cycle of a penguin, is by turns chatty, poetic and comical, always beautiful to look at and informative through its wonderfully gracious attitude to the reader. Dick King Smith's I Love Guinea Pigs (Walker) also lives up to the subjective passion of its title. The writer is confident enough to mingle biological facts and telling autobiographical anecdotes. The result is more than a story and more than a pet-keeper' handbook. It's a book that explains things and stirs the heart.

A prevailing fashion within books on the humanities is to cultivate realism and unshockability to find an echo in 10-year-old minds. History books are currently full of privvies and bad smells. While it's right for books on Shakespeare to shun the use of sentimental Victorian paintings that depict a sleek bourgeois Bard ensconced in quiet domesticity, this trend has its own pitfalls. It's too easy to patronise the past, to assume our own technological advantages entail a moral superiority. Some giggle-seeking accounts sneer at the dead generations in ways that would seem shocking if aimed at living inhabitants of a less advanced country.

Better books, such as Look Inside a Tudor Medicine Chest, by Brian Moses (Wayland), or Peter Chrisp's The Tudors (Wayland), make an honourable attempt to show how a complex civilisation could encompass both squalor and grandeur.

Tien Vu, a teacher at Alma School in Bermondsey, south London, is especially aware of the benefits of information books for boys, who are often attracted by the fact they can dip and choose shorter passages to read rather than embark on a long fictional odyssey. "So much of our literacy hour is occupied with non-narrative writing. It's good for children to see that different writers can present the same facts in varying ways, and that headings, layouts and fonts all help determine what it is we actually understand."

But Tien feels that publishers are sometimes too munificent to be truly helpful. For example, she sometimes needs to rewrite a 32-page biography so that the skeletal shape of a life emerges clearly from the proliferating detail.

Pam Girdwood, library adviser to Southwark schools in south London, points to an essential feature of the best science books - their link with the practical world of experiment and discovery. She points to deservedly popular series like It's Science (Watts), or the more recent Where Does It Come From, Where Does It Go? (Watts), or How It Works (Heinemann), none of which aim for ambitious all-embracing explanations of technical or physical theories. Rather, they derive abstract notions from things that children can see, smell and touch.

Electricity or forces become things we know, more as we recognise a person than grasp a hypothesis. That can come later, after this genial introduction.

Pam also offers the timely reminder, all the more telling when heard from a librarian, that books are not there just to give children what adults have decided they ought to want.

Find books that match specific aspects of your topic: yes. Show children how to use content pages and glossaries and indexes: yes. But it's vital to encourage children to read for leisure and pleasure.

Information books reflect the complexity of the world. Shakespeare's contemporary, Sir Edward Dyer, wrote: "My mind to me a kingdom is. Books can furnish the riches of that kingdom."

So plunder. Gather. Create. You never know, there might be something useful on that cereal packet after all.

Tom Deveson was a primary school teacher in inner London for 21 years, an advisory teacher for nine years, and is now a freelance teacher, education consultant and writer

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