Somewhere to live

8th March 1996 at 00:00
HABITATS series: Rivers and Lakes. By David Cumming. Deserts. By Julia Waterlow. Polar Regions. By Nigel Bonner. Wetlands. By Ewan McLeish. Mountains. By David Cumming. Islands. By Julia Waterlow. Wayland Pounds 9.99 each.

Age range 9 - 14

The Habitats series will eventually be a 10-volume collection which will enrich the already considerable choice of environmental information books for nine to 14-year-olds.

The format is a familiar one: 48 large pages accommodating an index, glossary, and list of further reading and addresses. Page layouts are dominated by large high-quality colour photographs, plus a few diagrams and maps.

Careful planning has delivered consistency of language level and "tone"- the "sustainability" message is neither shrill nor dominating.

Generous pictorial content inevitably squeezes the amount of text, and the books sensibly omit questions and tasks. I welcome this trend. After all, pupils go to information books because they are engaged upon an investigation and must find it frustrating to encounter pages of tasks rather than the material they areafter.

A uniform format and a consistent approach does not, of course, eliminate individual emphases. Mountains and Rivers have the more misanthropic warnings - "human interference" with mountains has been "disasterous" (sic) and "meddling with nature has usually created as many problems as it solved".

Nigel Bonner's excellent discussion of Polar Regions, in contrast, finds space to debate polar tourism - "returning tourists are often very enthusiastic about the places they have visited and support their full protection".

Ewan McLeish opens Wetlands with an evocation of estuarine marshes from Great Expectations and incorporates Monet's water lilies.

Many of the striking images in Deserts come from the author's own camera work in Namibia. Given the limited space, it might seem odd that three writers attempt to explain plate movements, and the shrinking Aral Sea is selected as an example in three different books - but few pupils will be reading through the series one assumes.

The writers and designers of the Habitats series, in common with all the other environmental information books I have seen, wrestle with some fairly intractable problems.

These stem from the priority given to large and striking photographs, and the comprehensive, multi-faceted interpretation of the themes. The first leads to some very terse "explanations" ("Because the earth is round, it is not heated equally all over by the sun").

Many of the physical processes described (glacial erosion, permafrost etc) ideally need diagrams for real clarity. The ambitious coverage can at times result in a "listing prose" with a hazardously high density of names; an eight-page chapter in Wetlands carries 48 different locality names (countries, regions, rivers etc). Nigel Bonner, who provides nine polar maps, achieves the best graphicsphotos balance in the set.

These attractive books deserved much better proof-reading - pupils may be tempted to decend from a Eurasion peninsular, crossing Continenal waters to visit the Hebridges.

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