Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

48. Children’s information texts

 

Margaret Mallett

 

The critical context

 

What shines out from good criticism and judgement of information books is a distinctive kind of ‘connoisseurship’, a linking of knowledge and experience.

(Meek 1996: 109)

 

Each year some of the best non-fiction texts published do much more than what Peggy Heeks would call ‘assembling and ordering facts’ (Heeks 1970: 721). They awaken genuine interest and excitement in the young reader by linking with their interests and experience, and even the non-fiction strands in reading schemes and programmes, once such a target for reviewers, now often include books by fine authors like, for example, Meredith Hooper (Cambridge Reading). Information books are not reviewed widely, but there is a vast number of websites and journals (such as, in the UK, the Times Educational Supplement and The School Librarian). The reviewers may be children’s librarians or academics, and they often find themselves on selection panels for non-fiction awards: for example, in the UK, the TES information book prize; in Australia the Children’s Book Council ‘Book of the Year’ awards; in New Zealand the Library and Information Association Aotearoa non-fiction award; in the USA a non-fiction category was added to the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards in 1976.

One of the first to give a critical appraisal of non-fiction texts, examining them in terms of their accuracy, readability, design and illustration, was Margery Fisher (1972). Fisher observes that, at the same time as imparting facts and ideas, information texts must encourage the reader to assess what they read - in other words, they need to encourage critical reading by giving help with the interpretation of facts. Writing as non-fiction editor for Books for Keeps, Eleanor von Schweinitz noted that successful books have a clear focus and good linkage between illustration and writing, making a text satisfying and coherent (von Schweinitz 1989).

Certainly, writing a good information book for the young is as demanding as any other kind of writing. I keep three questions in mind when appraising a book. Does the author make insightful assumptions about potential readers’ existing knowledge and experience? Is the young reader offered a helpful route into the book? Is the information offered in an imaginative and appropriate way? Some books are for children just starting on a topic and needing to be invited in, others are for those who have the foothold of a beginning expert. In appraising an author’s work, we must take into account that the audience is likely to be multicultural and socially mixed, and that we want to interest both girls and boys. Reviewers should be dedicated to their task and to becoming, in Meek’s term, ‘connoisseurs’ so that they contribute to a developing culture of appraising children’s information books (Meek 1996: 109). Comment is needed on content, organisation and accuracy and on illustrations and retrieval devices - but above all on how the book appeals and interests.

Who knows how long print texts will remain the main ones used for reading to learn? The signs are, though, that new technologies - bringing about new literacies beyond what we can now contemplate - will continue to complement and enrich rather than replace them. The presentation of some kinds of information - that on databases and spreadsheets, and some diagrams - will be computer-dominated. And teachers will bring new energy to help children ‘read’ images, both print and moving. Teacher educators will continue to modify their courses to do justice to all the new ways of presenting and organising information. But I think the print text will survive because it offers a distinctive experience. Can a machine ever replace the feel of a hardback cover under the hand, the smell of the pages inside or the sheer aesthetic appeal of the best print illustrations?

 

References

Arnold, H. (1992) ‘ “Do the Blackbirds Sing All Day?” Literature and Information Texts’, in Styles, M., Bearne, E. and Watson, V. (eds) After Alice: Exploring Children’s Literature, London: Cassell.

Baker, C. D. and Freebody, P. (1989) Children’s First School Books, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Barrs, M. (1996/7) Editorial ‘Information Texts’, Language Matters 3: ii.

Beireter, C. and Scardamalia, M. (1987) The Psychology of Written Composition, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Britton, J. N. (1970) Language and Learning, London: Allen Lane/Penguin.

Callow, J. (1999) Image Matters: Visual Texts in the Classroom, Marrickville, NSW: PETA (Primary English Teaching Association).

Chambers, A. (2001) Reading Talk, Stroud: Thimble Press.

Delahunty, A. (compiler) (2002) The Oxford First Thesaurus, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fisher, M. (1972) Matters of Fact, Leicester: Brockhampton Press.

Harvey, S. (1998) Non-fiction Matters, York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Heeks, P. (1970) ‘Getting at the Facts’, Times Literary Supplement, 2 July: 721.

Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. (1996) Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, London: Routledge.

Littlefair, A. (1991) Reading All Types of Writing, Milton Keynes and Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.

Lonsdale, R. (2001) ‘Editorial’, The School Librarian 49, 4: 169.

Mallett, M. (1999) Young Researchers: Informational Reading in the Early and Primary Years, London: Routledge.

  (2003) Early Years Non-fiction London: Routledge.

Meek, M. (1996) Information and Book Learning, Stroud: Thimble Press.

Neate, B. (1992) Finding out about Finding out, Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton with UKRA.

Nicholson, D. (1996/7) ‘Key Stage 2 Information Book Collection’, Language Matters 3: 34-5.

Pappas, C. (1986) ‘Exploring the Global Structure of Children’s Information Books’, paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the National Reading Conference, Austin, Texas.

Reid, I. (ed.) (1987) The Place of Genre in Learning, Victoria: Deakin University.

Selinger, S. (2001) ‘Setting Authentic Tasks Using the Internet’ in Leask, M. (ed.) Issues in Teaching and Using ICT, London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Taylor, G. (2003) ‘Don’t Bin the Textbooks’, Times Educational Supplement, 28 February: 23.

Unstead, S. (2003) ‘Non-fiction Publishing’, Books for Keeps 139: 4-5.

von Schweinitz, E. (1989) ‘Facing the Facts’, Books for Keeps 55: 4-8.

Wray, D. and Lewis, M. (1997) Extending Literacy: Children Reading and Writing Non-fiction, London: Routledge.