Sparkling turn-out

8th March 1996 at 00:00

Children Just Like Me. By Barnabas and Anabel Kindersley. Dorling Kindersley in association with Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund.

It's like the FA Cup. More than 100 hopefuls enter the competition and only one can lift the trophy at the end. Heavily fancied and expensively-backed entrants fail to score against more modest rivals. Giant killers come from nowhere and win applause for their imagination and control. Respectable teams go a long way on discipline, practice and intelligent appreciation of the opposition, but fail to reach the last round. And the referees have a breathless but exhilarating time.

It wasn't hard to blow the whistle on entries that broke basic rules: a book on Shakespeare that misquotes one of the best-known lines in Macbeth; a book on Van Gogh that shows London as it was 30 years before the artist made his brief and painful visit; a book on Judaism that over-eagerly shows a high Jewish population in Alaska; a book on war crimes that fails to mention the killings ordered by Mao Tse-tung. These all had to leave the field early.

So, more regretfully, did we dismiss books that spoiled good midfield work with poor finishing, like an attractive volume on pirates that provided a challenging text but carved asunder Blackbeard's face by a page divide.

We were impressed with solid teamwork that showed every sign of intelligent and resourceful planning even if it failed, in the end, for lack of individual flair. Examples include the excellent books from the Collins, Longman and Oxford reading schemes. Great editorial care has been taken to make individual texts absorbing; we particularly liked Longman's volume on Celtic Britain and the thoroughly considerate teacher's guides for the Oxford Reading Tree series - a long way from the narcotic banalities of Peter and Jane and full of information as well as support for young readers.

We also enjoyed some passing set-pieces. One was the challenge to make a model of the Universe (not as hard as you think); another was the information that snakes mate for several hours at a time (probably more difficult). We quite liked the cheerful Cartesianism of a book on the body as a set of interlocking machines; and admired the brilliant paper engineering of The Most Amazing Pop-Up Book (Watts Pounds 14.99), sadly too fragile for regular classroom use.

Trends emerge when books are seen in such large quantities. There is the frankly appealing scatological approach to history, with detailed accounts of rooms variously called loos, lavatories, garderobes, privvies and their functioning. We also noted the sensible engagement with controversial issues like bulimia or racism, conducted through cartoons, advice, admonition and narrative. Several books used transparent overlays to show cross-sections in panoramic pictures, though sometimes to little purpose. And we witnessed the irresistible rise of the Where's Wally? format in history books, with many teeming pages filled with minute figures and identification puzzles ranging between the bizarre, the trivial and the occasionally informative.

Three books nearly made it to the semi-finals. They were Everyday Science at the Seaside (Macdonald Pounds 8.50), which combined a wealth of intriguing questions and lucid answers with an intelligible way of assessing the elusive attainment target one: From Reed Pen to Word Processor (Evans Pounds 9. 99) which related the history of writing with exemplary clarity; and The Oxford Children's Book of Famous People (Pounds 20), which surprised and pleased us by its inclusiveness, though its generalities leave some artistic lives unilluminated.

We were left with our shortlist. The X-Ray Picture Book of Everyday Things and How They Work (Watts Pounds 9.99) manages to clarify the workings of a whole range of devices from fax machines to polaroid cameras, using clear diagrams, unpatronising prose and a set of explanatory cherubs that float through the illustrations, eccentric putti that don't intrude so much as offer surreal guidance on the forces of electricity and magnetism. Cross-sections: Castle (Dorling Kindersley Pounds 12.99) is a world in a book, page after page of utterly absorbing cutaway drawings that accumulate a medieval microcosm. Children in classrooms pore over this book for the little stories it tells about spies, priests, pages and fools while they take in great gulps of intriguing fact. Read and Wonder: I Love Guinea Pigs (Walker Books Pounds 7.99) breaks down genres; it's a personal book, a humorous book, a poignant book (the author tells us about the deaths of his own pets) but also an informative book. It has delightfully accurate pictures and can be read by many seven-year-olds.

We tried to find fault with Children Just Like Me, (Pounds 9.99), a celebratory set of interviews with young people from all over the world in Dorling Kindersley's classic bright-on-white format. We queried the "just" of the title, the fact that only one of the many featured children was disabled, but it wouldn't do. The children's own evocative and mannerly words, their personal signatures in many scripts, their believable warm smiles, the social and international inclusiveness, the superb page-designs, the truly enlightening facts about so many different countries - all these convinced us (and our vox pop panel of young readers) that here was our favourite.

It's a fizzing antidote to the futile generalities of an OFSTED report; it's about children as they are, it's realistic, multicoloured, affirmative and unpredictable.A worthy winner.

Tom Deveson is an advisory teacher for music for the London borough of Southwark. The other judges were Elizabeth Hoadley, head of Bredgar Church of England PrimarySchool, Sittingbourne, Kent, and David Wray, senior lecturer in education at the University of Exeter

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