Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


48. Children’s information texts


Margaret Mallett


Kinds and purposes


Information books should be beautiful, well written and organised and exciting.. .lending themselves to enquiry and discussion and therefore research.

(Nicholson 1996/7: 34)


Traditionally, publishers have categorised information texts within three main groups: children’s information books, text books and course books. Children’s information books and resources can help learning in school or be read at home for interest and pleasure. Text books support study by offering a basic introduction to a topic. Course books take older pupils through units of work in particular subjects with text, diagrams and, sometimes, questions to work through. This account concentrates on children’s information texts, although some of the analysis will be pertinent to text and course books.

Criteria for choosing books and other resources depend on the purpose they are to serve and their audience. Purpose and audience affect the organisation and the style of writing (Littlefair 1991). At the very least we expect authors of information texts to be aware of the likely knowledge of the age group for whom they are writing, to be accurate and to present their material invitingly. We want more than lists of facts - we need help to progress towards an insight, a generalisation and perhaps a summing up to take us forward. Both authors and readers have feelings about facts and ideas. So, interactive texts, those that encourage questioning and debate, are most likely to involve a young reader in a dialogue that ensures learning is alive and genuine.

For my discussion, I have grouped texts in a way likely to be familiar to children, teachers and parents: early non-fiction; reference texts; topic books, both narrative and non-narrative; non-book print and popular culture; electronic texts and information communication technology.


Early non-fiction

Children’s very first books with an informational function are ABCs, and number and concept books with titles like Opposites, Up and down and Colours. They are often presented in robust form: plastic bath books, cloth books and board books. Textured ‘touch and feel’ books and ‘lift the flap’ books (which reveal hidden objects) encourage an interactive, playful approach. The purpose of these early books is to help children organise their experience by picturing and naming everyday objects and people (Mallett 2003).

From about the age of three, children are ready for information picture books - about a trip to the park or a day at nursery school; books about journeys and about life cycles also have the time sequence organisation familiar to young children who have had stories read to them. Some are illustrated by photographs, others with art work often by acclaimed illustrators such as, in the UK, Helen Oxenbury, Lucy Cousins, Jan Ormerod, Barry Watts, Eric Hill, Shirley Hughes, Robert Crowther, Satoshi Kitamura and Ruth Brown. Illustrations can create multi-layered meanings which provide information not made explicit by the words. Malachy Doyle’s Cow (2002) shows the typical events of the animal’s day. One picture shows a cow with a wound on its hind quarters, a wound not referred to in the writing. In my experience it is just this kind of troubling and intriguing detail which becomes a talking point.

The language of early information books is informal and inviting. Cow uses the second person to achieve a friendly tone - ‘You tear the grass and chew the cud.’ Sometimes books are organised around questions, or a storybook character (or one from a television programme) introduces numbers or colours. Purists are nervous about the ‘genre confusion’ a mixture of fact and fiction may cause! But I have lost count of the times children and teachers have praised books like those in the UK Macdonald Bees series: for example, Seed in Need which explains the life cycle of a plant with the help of ‘talking’ insects. Baker and Freebody (1989) suggest we regard these early texts as ‘transitional genres’ because they are precursors of more mature forms.


Reference texts

Children’s reference texts - dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias and atlases - pour from publishing houses, including specialists in the UK such as Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Dorling Kindersley, Kingfisher, Heinemann, Usborne and Franklin Watts. Reference texts offer young readers some independence in the search for information. Authors and publishers keep three main things in mind: first, the design, the arrangement of the material to help make it inviting and easy to use; second, the coverage - which needs to be appropriate for the intended readership; third, the language which, if clear and inviting, will explain ideas effectively and extend and reinforce the illustrations.

Dictionaries teach about alphabetic order, word recognition and the development of vocabulary. We look for a core of everyday words, words to support children’s lessons, and most good dictionaries now include definitions of words to reflect the new technology - ‘email’, ‘Internet’ and ‘computer’ - as children need the vocabulary to talk about new concepts as our culture changes. Most compilers of early dictionaries go to great pains to contextualise words, putting them in sentences and indicating different parts of speech and singular and plural forms. Dr Seuss makes dictionary browsing fun in Cat in the Hat Dictionary (2002 edition) by using witty annotations like ‘zero is too cold for zebras’ and hilarious illustrations. By the age of six, children appreciate more substantial dictionaries, such as the DK Dictionary (2002),which have carefully thought-out definitions and example sentences.

A thesaurus has two main purposes: a good one both enriches vocabulary by suggesting synonyms and antonyms and encourages a genuine interest in words. The Oxford First Thesaurus (Delahunty 2002) makes its purpose explicit on the back cover. ‘Are you looking for another word for “nice” or “bad”? When you are looking for another way of describing something you need a thesaurus.’ There are superbly illustrated double spreads for specially important or interesting sets of words. For example, words about sound - ‘bleep’, ‘bubble’, ‘clang’, and so on - surround a fantasy machine shown operating in interesting ways (2002: 98-9).

Encyclopedias are often a first port of call, a starting point for other reading. Making a modern encyclopedia, whether single or multi-volumed, involves a considerable amount of teamwork: writers, designers, photographers and artists, teachers and museum curators are often involved. You need some people who understand the entries as specialists and some who understand how children learn. The editor’s role is crucial in ensuring that there is consistency of approach. Encyclopedias need regular updating: not only does knowledge advance, but our attitudes towards historical events and ideas constantly change.

Good atlases for the very young will have clear maps and will carefully explain how to use symbols, keys and co-ordinates, but like other reference books they often need adult mediation. The Oxford Infant Atlas (1998 edition) comes in a large format so that teachers can use it for demonstration purposes, and children can find the same maps and features in the small version. Publishers are producing electronic versions of print reference books, and this atlas is also produced in a CD-ROM version (2001) which is easily navigated and provides some interactive activities to give children immediate feedback.


Topic books

Topic books are copiously illustrated and usually on one subject such as ships, volcanoes or electricity. They have proved extremely resilient in print form even though they are increasingly available on CD-ROM. Teachers help children, particularly those under eleven, to use them to support lessons and projects. The defining features of the topic book, which identify it with a genre, were described by Christine Pappas in 1986. She suggested three global ‘obligatory’ features: topic presentation (the many different kinds of frog found throughout the world belong to the Anura amphibian category), attributes (frogs have smooth skins, no tails and can often leap long and high) and characteristic events (frog spawn is laid in the spring, develops into tadpoles and then these take on their mature form as frogs). Pappas considers it important that these features are present and coherent because this allows children to build up expectations about the structure of such books. Bobbie Neate also stresses the need for children to acquire expectations about how this kind of information text is organised; she recommends that authors and publishers stick to a predictable format using ‘structural guiders’ like headings, contents pages and indexes (Neate 1992). But many feel that children’s topic books have suffered from having too predictable a format, particularly when produced in series (Fisher 1972; Arnold 1992; Meek 1996).

Teachers want texts to support different subjects and publishers have responded to this. Science books aim to reinforce and link with children’s existing knowledge and to extend it in an interesting way. They give children the opportunity to encounter several different kinds of informational writing or ‘genres’: procedural or instructional writing explains how to experiment, or make a model; recount, how to share what happened on a nature visit; explanation, how machines and systems work; and report, describing topics ranging from electricity and magnetism and the structure and processes of the human body. We need science books that inspire and excite curiosity and the desire to understand. David Macaulay’s The New Way Things Work (1998), available in print and CD-ROM, enthrals readers of any age. Macaulay uses superb diagrams and absorbing text to explain how technology has worked through the ages, from the wheel to the computer, to help us in our everyday lives.

When it comes to geography texts we seek those which will support a developing sense of place. But of course environments are essentially dynamic; and some authors help children see the effect of change on people and on the landscape. Texts to support the learning of young geographers include posters, travel agents’ brochures, estate agents’ information sheets and articles in newspapers and magazines. Illustrations are especially important in communicating geographical information and include diagrams about population changes or climate and photographs to reveal landscapes and the lifestyles and occupations of the people that live there. Books to help give very young children a foothold in geographical concepts are often in ‘information story’ form: The World Came to My Place by Jo Readman (2002) places questions about the things we eat and use every day in the context of a story about a boy in quarantine in the care of Grandpa; Ifeoma Onyefulu’s story Emeka’s Gift (1995) shows through photographs the food, games and lifestyles of people in an African village. Travel books like S. Wheeler’s Dear Daniel: Letters from Antarctica (1997) help young readers find a personal foothold in a terrain and a culture.

History texts, particularly those which offer interesting material in the form of contemporary documents, interviews, photographs of objects and paintings, help children learn how to use evidence and to distinguish between primary and secondary sources. These texts also aim to help develop a sense of chronology: timelines, and family trees help put actual events in the context of the ‘bigger shapes’ of history. For example, Nell Marshall’s Letters to Henrietta (1998) shows how the ‘big shapes’ of war affect ordinary families and reminds us that the personal letter is an important primary source. Some of the more literary kinds of non-fiction - autobiography, biography and historical fiction - can help children begin to think and speculate like young historians. The best of these offer a carefully constructed background as a context to learn about a particular life. Equally, books which teach history in a humorous way, such as the UK publisher A. and C. Black’s Horrible Histories and Scholastic’s Dead Famous series, are bestsellers, showing, that for some children humour and the subversive can be the way into thinking about history.

Modern problems such as conservation, drug abuse, war and crime are now being tackled in children’s novels. Fiction is a powerful medium, not least because of its capacity to ‘distance’ us from things that may be too sensitive to face head on. But information books for primary and secondary schools can also take on these issues successfully if they reinforce children’s existing knowledge and introduce something new and interesting. A book is succeeding if children strive for a more than superficial knowledge and want to debate, for example, why rain forests are being cut down and why people abuse drugs. Some of these texts are termed ‘discussion’ or ‘persuasive’ texts because they model how to construct an argument and weigh evidence. Authors unafraid to take on the raw, the upsetting or the confusing are most likely to awaken passionate interest and concern.


Non-book print and popular culture

Children are introduced to an environment saturated by print from an early age - newspapers, letters, flyers and advertising material, print on food packets and notices and on street signs. Imaginative practitioners bring these into school to promote play, drama and projects to link school literacy with literacies at home, in the community and in the outside world.

English work in the later primary and early secondary years has always drawn on a range of printed material to encourage discussion and children’s writing. The choices children make about what they read in their leisure time, both fiction and non-fiction, also exist in a cultural context: gender, social class and community identity all make an impact. In many countries cultural and tourist organisations can supply booklets, exhibit annotations and interest sheets which support and link with first-hand experience.


Information communication technology

Media texts and digital technologies are part of our culture, and becoming able to read and create text using ever-developing electronic technology is part of becoming literate in an informational age. Multi-media programs differ from print sources in their dynamic use of sound, music and film. The moving image can show complex and detailed processes like the digestive system, the working of a car engine and speeded-up versions of a plant growing and an animal moving. So while a print version of a diagram, for example of the blood system, might use devices like arrows to show the direction in which the blood is flowing, the electronic medium allows the system to be shown in action. Concepts like the water cycle, migration and a volcano erupting can be brought to virtual reality. Two studies explore some of the implications of ‘reading’ visual images, including those on multi-modal systems. These are Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (Kress and van Leeuwen 1996) and Image Matters (Callow 1999). The latter book presents the research of a number of Australian academics and teachers; a main theme is that we need to teach children to interpret and evaluate visual input from every medium.

Information-handling software brings interesting ways of organising information when children create their own texts, and makes easier the creation of databases and spreadsheets. It also helps with practical problems of the storage of vast amounts of material. We need, however, to be as critical of software packages and CD-ROMs as we are of print resources.

The Internet brings access to worldwide sites and provides exciting opportunities for children to develop areas of expertise and hobbies. It certainly has a part to play in extending children’s visual literacy because of the quality images provided, not least stunning satellite weather maps and museums, wildlife parks and zoos. However, we need to keep two things in mind: information on sites is not monitored or edited and varies considerable in quality; the sheer amount of information can be overwhelming and children need considerable support when they use the internet.