Starting to find out about things

18th November 1994 at 00:00
David Wray looks at information books for infants. When I was the language co-ordinator in a primary school, one of the most difficult tasks was to ensure there was a suitable range of non-fiction for children in the infant years. Juniors were generally well-provided for, but infant information books seemed, with very few exceptions, to be extremely banal in their contents, the classic example being the book about farm animals which began: "A cow has four legs and two horns".

At last, things seem to have changed. The five series of infant information books reviewed here, although very different in style, all make a serious attempt to engage the interest of their audience and balance visual and content appeal with a low level of textual difficulty.

The Watts Find Out About series (Rock and Stone, Wood, Paper, Metal, Clay and Glass) is the most traditional in its arrangement. Each book features a series of very high quality colour photographs, accompanied by text captions of between 10 and 40 words per page. There is no compelling logic to the order in which the information in each book is presented. Nor is there a contents or index page, which implies a rather different understanding of the phrase: "find out about".

However, these books are not intended to be used as straight reference books, but rather to act as focal points for parents and teachers to discuss aspects of the world with young children, and so develop and extend their curiosity. They succeed in this reasonably well, although the text is occasionally a little over-simple to grab the attention of young children.

The Heinemann My First series (Numbers, Colours, Shapes, Words, Sounds, Opposites) is also designed to provide focal points for conversations with children rather than sources of information. They offer an interesting introduction to a range of mathematical and other concepts such as number, shape and colour.

The publishers' claim that the books will "encourage children to learn as they play" is probably not quite accurate. Most children's learning of mathematical concepts through play will take place with concrete materials rather than with abstractions in books. The books may, however, help consolidate this learning through discussions with adults.

A different animal is introduced in each of the books in the new David Bennett I Am a . . . series (Tiger, Crocodile, Bear, Hippo). Although the books are, again, conversation starters rather than structured information sources, they do each contain a wealth of information about these animals which most young children will relish hearing read aloud and reading for themselves. The books are particularly well illustrated in a cartoon style and nursery and first school teachers will, I am sure, find them very popular additions to classroom book collections.

The Collins Keys books (Light and Colour, Weather, Pond Life, Earth and Space, Trees, Electricity, Flowers, My Body) are very differently conceived. Here we have a series of books designed to work like adult information books, with indexes and contents pages in the proper places. Clearly a great deal of thought has gone into making these books attractive and easy to use.

The quality of text is particularly noteworthy; it is informative yet easy to read and well arranged on the page. In many ways this is the most important test of early information books. Almost every publisher, in the wake of the Dorling Kindersley revolution, now includes high quality visual material, yet many do not succeed in getting the quality of text which young readers deserve. The Keys books, however, are outstanding in this respect and I would recommend them highly.

Walker Books' award-winning Read and Wonder series is definitely the most distinctive. The latest titles are I Love Guinea Pigs by Dick King Smith, Spider Watching and The Apple Trees by Vivian French and The Mushroom Hunt by Simon Frazer. Some teachers have criticised the series for mixing the genres of story and information text, which confuses young readers. It is true that if the books are approached simply as information sources, they will not work in the expected way. But if they are approached as books to engage and delight children, then they work superbly. In other words, they need to be read as literature rather than as simple sources of information. These books help us to redefine our understanding of the nature of the reading process and teach us that reading, whether of fictional or factual text, is always a process of engagement and transaction with the text.

The latest titles will enthral many young readers. Dick King-Smith's delightful I Love Guinea Pigs, with its clear, well-measured text and almost comical cartoon illustrations, is likely to become a favourite. Simon Frazer's The Mushroom Hunt skilfully combines an informative narrative and gorgeous illustrations. With books of this quality, it is hard to see how the series will not do extremely well. I would certainly want a set in any primary classroom I was working in.

Find Out About series. Watts Pounds 6.99 each, My First series. Heinemann Pounds 5.99 each, I Am a ... series. David Bennett Pounds 5.99 each, Collins Keys series. Collins Pounds 3.99 each, Read and Wonder series. Walker Books Pounds 7.99 each.

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