Sort out the stinkers

31st January 2003 at 00:00
Mary Jane Drummond identifies the hallmarks of sound early years science

Around-up of recent science books for young children," said the reviews editor; "only write about ones you think worth it," she added. Shall I take her literally, and ignore the vast majority of the titles, reserving 600 words of praise for the only two books that I would encourage early years educators to invest in? Or shall I, disobediently, take a few lines to name and shame some of the rest? Can this sad parade of lost opportunities be used to establish some simple guidelines for wannabe early science publishers? Let's try.

First, and most familiar, is the necessity to escape the tyranny of the double-page spread, complete unto itself. Even very young children can cope with continuous prose and a worthwhile narrative line. Clare Oliver's series on microhabitats (Life in aI Cave, Pond, Garden, Tree, Rockpool, House etc - pound;8.99 each) published by Evans Brothers falls at this first fence, and commits a second grievous fault in its snippetty "Guess What?" inserts - "A mother bat's nipples are in her armpits." "A lemur can gorge on as many as 500 figs a week." "Penguin fleas only drink penguin blood!" (The exclamation mark is the author's, another ubiquitous failing of these texts.) Guess what? Nobody cares. Science, even for the youngest readers, is not a question of cramming in the knowledge.

Another principle: science is, among other things, about questions. A series from Belitha Press looks promising. The Why Can't I I ? books (pound;9.99 each) are structured around questions about big and important concepts (energy, movement, light and sound, for example). But the questions that these coyly photogenic children ask bear no resemblance to the difficult questions real children ask. These questions have been dubbed into the children's mouths by an author with a mission to educate. "Why can't I see air?" "Why can't I live in an igloo?" "Why can't I see with my eyes shut?" "Why can't I slide down a rainbow?" Why do I ask such dumb questions? Because the author had a good idea but failed to deliver the goods.

The Little Bees series from Hodder Wayland (pound;4.99 each) tackles electricity, forces and motion, sound and hearing. But the feeble mind of the four or five-year-old cannot be expected to grapple with these ideas unaided. They need three hungry mice to help them discover how useful electricity can be, and a moth on crutches to tell them "it can be very dangerous!" A cute little rabbit and his dad take "a first look at sound and hearing", and pronounce that "our ears I are very important" (on page 7 of The Best Ears in the World: A First Look at Sound and Hearing). The principle at stake here is not just that children don't need little furry animals to introduce scientific concepts; it's that scientific concepts are exciting, alluring and intriguing enough in their own right, without the gratuitous nature study.

Enough is enough: the two splendid exceptions to all this are in the Curious Nell series from Frances Lincoln, Everyone Poos (My Body Science) (pound;9.99) and The Holes in Your Nose (pound;9.99) will appeal to all the children whose healthy interest in their own bodies is not always met with the detailed and colourful information they desire. And the educators of those children will find much to admire and enjoy. The illustrations in Everyone Poos (example below) are both explicit and engaging; on the penultimate page an enormous glowering gorilla devouring a bunch of bananas, and a male lion tearing apart the bloody carcass of an antelope are among the seven animals, from giraffe to little boy, that illustrate the words "All living things eat, so I", and the following marvellous double-paged spread (possibly the single exception to this particular rule) shows the same seven animals pooing away to their hearts' content.

"Everyone poos", concludes the text, in its satisfying final sentence (and no exclamation mark).

The Holes in Your Nose is for children with a wider interest in holes, equally explicit: "Wed the holes in my dose are sdubbed ub, I candt sbell id eved wed I fart." Safety still comes first ("The holes in your nose are not pockets. So don'tI"), but with an agreeably tongue-in-cheek flavour.

These two books offer "knowledge and understanding of the world" in an irresistible form. Never mind, for the moment, which stepping stones they will allow you to tick off your list: buy them at once.

Mary Jane Drummond teaches at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

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