Books for Children / Bound to make young things brighter: Non-Fiction, Nature & Environment

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The Independent Culture
LOOKING at this year's non-fiction for children, you might think today's kids have never had it so good. If colour, imaginative design and a willingness to innovate were all that was needed to make a child sit down and read, we would be breeding a race of literary giants. Sadly, we know that isn't the case. Books now have to explode off the shelf to stand a chance of outshining pop videos and computer games. How would Sir John Tenniel have fared in the age of the vision-bite?

Publishers are confronting the electronic challenge with varying degrees of success. Among the books that stand out this season are The X-Ray Picture Book series (Watts Books, pounds 8.99 each) - the new titles this year include Your Body and Big Buildings of the Modern World - which turn the visible world inside out, carving slices out of the Empire State Building or journeying deep inside the brain, arteries and internal organs. The effect is sometimes lurid, always compelling: some of the illustrations for Your Body look like a John Carpenter direction for an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

For younger children, Moonlight Publishing's First Discovery series ( pounds 6.50 each) has six varied new titles: Up and Down, The Jungle, Music, Monkeys and Apes, Light and The Bee. In each, wonderfully atmospheric pictures are combined with double-side printed overlays to produce some quite remarkable visualisations. Moonlight's First Encyclopaedias (Volumes 1-12, starting with Our Planet Earth, pounds 9.99 each) are also notable for their inventive effects. The Hamlyn Hidden Worlds books ( pounds 6.99) are also based on a clever concept - huge and mouth- watering photographs of tiny things - but lack a little in cheerfulness. They do, nevertheless, provide some riveting insights into the world of the unjustly maligned creepy-crawly. Their titles include The Natural World and Insects and Bugs.

For those who have long admired the Usborne Spotters Guides, the Usborne World of Knowledge ( pounds 17.95) combines science, geography and nature in one succinct but superbly visual volume. Usborne seems to have a knack of making learning fun - among its offerings this year, my favourites are The Usborne Book of Questions and Answers ( pounds 9.99), packed with fascinating facts and with an 'animal megaquiz' guaranteed to occupy an hour or two over Christmas, the Young Puzzle Books ( pounds 5.95) - join astronaut Archie and his robot Blip on Puzzle Planet, for example - and The Usborne Complete Book of Drawing ( pounds 10.99). For anyone with primary- school-age children, particularly girls, this last book would make an invaluable aid to all those dedicated but

rudimentary attempts at draughts(wo)manship.

New from Oxford University Press this year is the Illustrated Encyclopaedia, in nine volumes and 3,300 pages, costing pounds 175 until next April (thereafter pounds 200). It is described as a 'very different kind of reference book', although it is not immediately obvious why. Oxford hopes it will serve as a general family encyclopaedia: its scope and topicality are certainly impressive, although the illustrations seem chosen as much for ornament as elucidation - surely not the point for a work which sets out to communicate information through pictures.

By contrast, the Nature Search series (Joshua Morris pounds 7.99) has titles on grasslands, wetlands, rainforest and underwater and supplies a magnifying glass, together with a string of puzzles, to supplement their vast and heart- warming panoramas of animal and plant life. These are worlds you yearn to inhabit - even if you stand little chance of finding them in reality. The format of Bears and Apes (David Bennett Books, pounds 8.99 each) will appeal to pre-teen children: small nuggets of text, simply written, with marvellously expressive illustrations a photographer could only dream of matching.

Most children's non-fiction on the natural world now carries an environmental message: the trick is to make it cheerful and unobtrusive, avoiding preaching and condescension. The Earthwatch books (A & C Black) are good value at pounds 3.50 each: the text is informative and unhectoring and there is a nice mix of photographs, illustrations and colourful diagrams. There are titles on Trees for Tomorrow, Waste and Recycling, Food for Thought and Clean Air, Dirty Water.

For children whose parents dread the minatory gesture towards some winged creature in the garden and the demand 'What's that?', Simon Perry, formerly the national organiser for Watch, the young people's environmental club, has written A First Guide to Garden Birds (Hodder & Stoughton pounds 8.99), which sensibly sticks to the species most urban youngsters are likely to see - no ospreys here, then. There are other First Guides, on insects, trees and pond life.

A series with a promising sense of the contemporary is Science Spotlight (Evans Brothers pounds 8.95). The first title is Crime Fighting, and it contains enough about genetic fingerprinting and forensic sleuthing to turn any junior boffin into a crime bore: next in the series is Fakes and Forgeries. For teenage children, and their parents, The Guinness Guide to Nature in Danger (Guinness pounds 19.95) and The Book of Life (Hutchinson pounds 19.99), edited by Stephen Jay Gould, provide two fascinating, authoritative and exceptionally well illustrated perspectives on the current state of the planet.

(Photographs omitted)