Of all the genres of literature for children that have changed in the past few years, informational books have probably made the largest evolution. There are books on nearly every subject conceivable, and many contain fresh approaches to providing facts, covering advanced topics with splendid graphics and illustrations.
In this column I will list criteria for selecting informational books for children with some exemplary titles for the youngest readers, ages 3 through 7. Next week, I will note some trends in publishing informational books with a list of books for older readers.The most noteworthy informational books are written by authors and illustrated by artists who have done diligent research on the subject but also are cognizant of the interests and abilities of the reader. Five points need to be considered when choosing a book of information:
Books may not meet the highest standards on all of the criteria because they have different functions; for example - use in the home to answer the "why" questions, academic research or just enjoyment - but I recommend that a book be outstanding in at least three of the five to make it a choice.
Accuracy/authenticity means that a book provides current information, avoids negative stereotypes, gives clear distinction between fact, theory and opinion, and omits anthropomorphic and teleological details.
Except for providing a historical prospective, it is not acceptable that the most current books available to children contain statements like "someday we may put a man on the moon."
Children should have the latest information (which is rapidly changing) with terminology that does not patronize or lead to misconceptions. Positive images illustrating a diversity of attitudes with clear distinctions that children can be assured is truth, not merely an opinion, are hallmarks of good informational books.
Children's informational books should contain adequate coverage for the intended audience, with a variety of viewpoints. The books should encourage inquiry and critical thinking while fostering an understanding of interrelationships among and between subjects.
Revealing both sides of controversial issues is important in books for young minds. Helping them understand that even researchers and authorities do not all agree on a subject provides a framework for thinking through issues and using the scientific method to obtain facts, observe, experiment and record information.
When informational books link issues (for example, social problems with science), young readers can internalize the material as it becomes relevant in their lives.
Informational books with a style that involves the reader (games, questions/answers, etc.) while using interesting and direct language convey a positive attitude to what may be a dreary subject.
The overall tone of the book is quickly seen by young readers. If a book stirs enthusiasm and stimulates curiosity, it will be chosen and become useful.
The organization of informational books is important to help readers find references.
In the books for younger readers, subheadings, tables of contents, indexes, glossaries and footnotes may not be necessary. But to the older reader, these devices may be essential.
The format - illustrations, binding, sequences and a layout - are of uppermost importance in choosing informational books. The adage that a picture is "worth a thousand words" is probably true when it comes to this kind on non-fiction. Many children use the illustration to "read" the material, and most of them support what they have read with the visual.
Size relationships, clearly shown label and captions, the appropriate use of color, graphs and tables are vital to consider. As far as layout, it is not unusual for a child to ignore a book with too-small print or pages that haveinsufficient white space - as well as pictures that are not interesting or creative.
The following are only a few of the exemplary information books for the youngest reader:
Each of the MY FIRST LOOK AT books in the series focuses on a single basic learning concept. They are completed in three-dimensional color printed on heavy durable stock and sturdily bound in laminated board 73/4-by-73/4 inches, just right for small hands. Titles include "Colors," "Numbers," "Shapes," "Sizes," "Counting," "Noises," "Sorting" and `Time." (Random House).
EYEWITNESS JUNIORS (Knopf) is another series with photographs that give younger children an innovative way to explore the world. The format is the same as the 24-series Eyewitness Books for old readers by the same publisher. The four titles, "Amazing Birds," "Amazing Mammals," "Amazing Snakes" and "Amazing Spiders," are the initial books that have been called the "picture library of the natural world."
FROM SEED TO PLANT by Gail Gibbons (Holiday House) follows a prestigious list of information books by an author who knows how to get to the nitty gritty in information. The large watercolor drawings show the sequence of planting to harvest. The project in the back of the book gives a simple way to plant a bean seed. (All of Gibbons' work is recommended!)
Molly Coxe's WHOSE FOOTPRINTS? (Crowell) is a book about the designs that feet make in the snow. It's not as accurate as some on the subject, but for the young child it gives a colorful introduction.
Speaking of feet, Aliki's MY FEET (Crowell) is a Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science Book that celebrates toes, heels and ankles in all kinds of climates. MY HANDS by the same author is in the same format.
Some of my favorite informational books introduce words and play with language. A CHILD'S BOOK OF THINGS by Paul Stickland (Orchard Books) is my idea of a `first book' when a child begins to attach a label to things like washing machine and laundry soap. MACMILLAN PICTURE WORDBOOK categorizes words into 27 areas like Desert/
Mountain or Visiting the Doctor. There's a section of "How to Help a Child Enjoy This Book" for parents, but it's my guess that children of all ages will find plenty to do with this thesaurus-type wordbook.