Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

48. Children’s information texts

 

Margaret Mallett

 

Publishers’ perspectives

 

I witnessed first hand while serving on the Youth Libraries Committee ... the close links established with the Publishers’ Association and individual publishers, some of whom asked to attend selection meetings in library authorities to gain insights into the reading habits of children.

(Lonsdale 2001: 169)

 

Children’s information texts have long been an important strand in publishing in Englishspeaking countries. America has a history of strong texts in this category, with authors such as Jean Fritz (biography including Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George?), Seymour Simon (science and zoological topics - on whales, sharks and wolves, for example) and Russell Freedman (social and historical themes) (see details in Harvey 1998). This is also true of Australia and New Zealand, which, while having been traditional markets for UK books, have growing reputations for their own information texts.

Generally, today non-fiction publishing is ‘driven by the market rather than the muse’ (Unstead 2003: 4), with an eye to global distribution (although publishers are sometimes motivated by conviction - the writers and artists of Lines in the Sand: New Writing on War and Peace (2003) and the publisher, Frances Lincoln, gave all profits and royalties to UNICEF’s emergency appeal for the children of Iraq). Some topic books cover the same subjects again and again - putting new bright covers on the books, adopting modern computer-like format but with largely the same information. Not surprisingly many titles are produced for home markets directly to support statutory programmes, and there is everything to be gained from partnership between publishers, teachers and librarians.

There is much demand for information books in Korea, Taiwan and increasingly in Japan, China, Malaysia and Thailand where parents often wish their children to learn English at an early age. The wish to sell into international markets can affect the scope and emphasis of the texts. This can have an enriching effect; for example, nature books will need to show flora and fauna of different parts of the world. However these new considerations may militate against the achievement of truly individual books.

Three well-established traditions can also lead to texts lacking individuality. First, publishers have long produced books in series with a consistency of format, style and approach which can constrain the writer’s originality and offer ‘the facts’ rather than ideas and information for debate. It is also true that busy practitioners may be tempted to order a whole series, from a catalogue perhaps, without considering the merits of each text. Second, some publishers are addicted to the double-spread format. The trouble with this is that sometimes the text has to be stretched out to fill the spread while on other occasions so much has to be crammed in that coherence is compromised. Third, authors these days are very often supported by marketers, designers, photographers, artists, computer experts and an array of consultants. This can make it much harder for a truly individual ‘voice’ to emerge, which might tempt us into the subject and sustain our interest. Some publishers have responded to this criticism and show that it is possible to produce series and yet avoid the procrustean discipline which makes books uniform (for example, Walkers Books’ Read and Wonder series in the UK).

Publishers also try to meet the challenge of ever-changing advances in technology and have, for quite some years now, been transferring information books to computerised form. New technology and new kinds of visual literacy mean that they need to find ways of capturing the interest of young readers who are perhaps the most visually aware generation ever. They need to be responsive to new knowledge, new attitudes and new ways of presenting information. Crude and ethnocentric accounts, for example about explorers taking over territory, are now rare. But we always need to guard against distorting information, for example by omission. Children’s books about other cultures can tend to give an over-simplified or idealised view of particular societies in a troubled world.

The impressive technology of computer games and the satellite weather maps and news reports on television and film have brought about young people’s high expectations of the way in which visual information is presented. Print books have benefited as much as electronic texts, with ever more sophisticated and complex illustrations - although some information needs to be expressed verbally. We know that learning demands language and the visual needs mediation: drawings, photographs and diagrams are ‘culture bound like other semiotic systems’ (Meek 1996: 47).