Trial by jury

Children had the final say in choosing the winner of a prestigious science book award. Mary Cruickshank reports

One of the achievements of Science Year has been to forge new links between science clubs and libraries. The Library Association's Frontiers Science Clubs were launched in January with a programme of investigations and workshops on Science Year themes. You may have noticed some of the results in your local library: nine to 13-year-olds making hot air balloons, for example, or creating their own virtual planet.

Meanwhile, Sci-Zmic, the science discovery clubs network, has been busy in Bristol, Newcastle, Sheffield and East Sussex, organising events in science centres and providing information and ideas. Led by Rosalind Mist, who gave up an academic career in rocket science last November to manage the project, the aim of Sci-Zmic is to make sure all the interest and activity generated by Science Year goes on creating waves long after the end of August.

This term a new dimension was added to science club activities when the organisers of the Aventis science book prizes asked Sci-Zmic to help them select the junior award winner. The Aventis prizes were set up 14 years ago to celebrate the best in popular science writing. The junior award is for the best book for under-14s.

The six shortlisted books (see opposite), selected by a panel of scientists and writers, led by John Ashworth, former chair of the British Library, were sent to 30 clubs with advice on organising the judging. By all accounts, the responsibility of selecting the winner of a pound;10,000 prize, to be announced next Tuesday, concentrated their minds wonderfully.

"We wanted it to be a rigorous process, but also enjoyable and engaging."

said Rosalind Mist. "We also wanted them to be critical about how they look at science books." The clubs were asked to think about readability, layout, interest and appeal.

Eileen Armstrong, librarian of Cramlington high school, Northumberland, who put together the judging pack with Rosalind Mist, has had a lot of experience of judging book awards, but nothing compared with the Aventis in terms of "completely subverting every expectation", she says.

Two Year 9 groups, one of lower ability boys and the other of high achieving girls, looked at the books in two intensive double periods and the contrast in their choices was eyeopening. It was the girls, not the boys, who preferred the cartoon style of Albert Einstein and his Inflatable Universe; while the boys' favourites were the highly illustrated Human Body, Bugs and Dinosaur Encyclopedia.

Another surprise was that the books with internet links didn't send readers straight to their computers. "The books on their own were enough to hook them," said Eileen Armstrong, who felt that publishers sometimes tried too hard to be gimmicky.

The science club at Parkstone library, Poole, attracts about 20 nine to 11-year-olds each Monday evening and judging the shortlist made a change from their usual hands-on science activities. Library literacy officer Tracey McClelland said the most popular were the books with "bite-sized information, speech bubbles and lots of boxes", which made Life Finds its Feet in the Cartoon History of the Earth their favourite. Einstein and his Inflatable Universe appealed to those who enjoyed the Horrible Histories series, but The Dinosaur Encyclopedia "had too much writing and wasn't really laid out for children".

Dave Manton, who runs the science club at Southroyd primary school Pudsey, Leeds, welcomed the range of topics covered by the shortlist and the way traditionally less popular topics such as materials were brought to life. Life Finds its Feet was their front runner too. Like the other club leaders, he was impressed by the insights of the children and the seriousness with which they undertook the task. For Eileen Armstrong, it was "one of the most enlightening experiences I have ever had connecting readers with books".

QUESTIONS THE JUDGES ASKED

USE

* is the book easy to use?

* are contents, word lists and indexes accurate?

* can you find your way through the information?

INFORMATION

* is it interesting, accurate and up to date?

* does it show the contribution of men and women and represent all races and backgrounds?

* are ideas applied to everyday scientific and technical situations?

APPEAL

* does it make you want to find out more?

* are there activities?

* are there links to other sources of information?

LINKS

www.frontiers4libraries.org.uk

www.scizmic.net

www.ecsite-uk.net

Space science and astronomy are the themes of the Summer Reading Challenge, with links to Science Year resources. More details from your local library.

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