We need no reminding that too many of our kids can't read, can't do math, can't understand basic geography. The Japanese are far ahead of us; so are plenty of others. Searching for a cause, we blame the schools; schools blame parents.
Looking for a palliative, writers write and publishers publish hundreds of information books for children, fingers crossed that someone --an alert librarian, a sensitive teacher, an involved parent--will get these books into the hands of kids to whom they'll matter.
The range of subject matter explored in nonfiction for young readers reaches from here to the stars. Heiderose and Andreas Fischer-Nagel use magnified photographs to explore the fascinating goings-on in An Ant Colony (Carolrhoda Books: $12.95; 48 pp.). At the other end of the size spectrum, E. C. Krupp, an astronomer and director of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, and his wife, Robin Rector Krupp, an artist, collaborated to make The Big Dipper and You (Morrow Junior Books: $13.95; 48 pp.) a clear and sometimes amusing introduction to the sky.
William Jaspersohn, a writer in Vermont, and Chuck Eckart, an artist in California, combined talents in How the Forest Grew (Greenwillow Books: $10.95; 56 pp.), an attractive portrait of the long, slow cycle of nature that transforms open farmland to mature forest. The changing plant and animal life are illustrated by Chuck Eckart in nicely detailed pen-and-ink drawings.
Why does anyone write? And what do the life stories of women writers, past and present, say to young people--those who are merely curious and those who dream of the writing life--about what it is to be a writer?
Lucinda Irwin Smith explores these questions in Women Who Write (Messner: $9.95; 192 pp.), with profiles of seven writers from the past--women as varied and distinct as Emily Dickinson, Anne Frank, Agatha Christie, and Virginia Woolf. She also interviews 12 contemporary authors, including journalists, novelists, poets, and others whose names may not be so familiar. The final section is addressed to "You, the writer." I might quibble now about some of this--the interviews could be more effective--but I would have devoured this book when I was a kid, secretly writing, secretly dreaming.
All of these books are interesting and attractive enough to kindle a spark of interest in many kids. They are solidly non-controversial. But two other nonfiction books are guaranteed to provoke heated debate.
E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Our Children Need to Know by (Houghton Mifflin: $14.95; 271 pp.) is a collection of more than 2,000 brief entries alphabetically arranged in 21 categories, from history and geography to art and science. Hirsch, author of a similar book for adults published last year, believes there's a broad common body of knowledge with which everyone should be familiar in order to understand American culture. He also believes there is a core of knowledge that children need to learn by the end of sixth grade.
Hirsch's ideas have led to the debate in educational circles about the value of creating a core curriculum for our schools, a standard by which all high school graduates would then be judged. But this "First Dictionary" is appallingly Eurocentric. The dark side of Eurocentrism, an outdated and rather quaint notion if it weren't so dangerous, is that it denigrates or ignores the contributions of all other civilizations, particularly those on our own continent. Whose culture are we talking about when we say American culture?
Another book that could provoke thoughtful discussion is When I Was Young I Loved School: Dropping Out and Hanging In (Meckler Corp., distributor: $9.95, paper; 213 pp.), compiled by the Children's Express, a news service reported by children under age 13 working with teen-age editors. If you've ever wondered why kids drop out, why they run away, and what makes some of them come back to school to try again, take a long, hard look at these interviews. Thirteen of CE's teen-age editors talked to hundreds to kids--no adults allowed--and wound up with 23 edited interviews; also included are a principal who was himself once a dropout, and a teacher.
The results are stunning. You can't ignore the pain and fear and anger of the teen-agers whose voices are recorded here; nor can you help noticing their stubbornness, their self-centeredness, and their rationalizing. Some lack direction and self-discipline; others seem to have been blocked at every turn by, or abandoned by, the adults responsible for them. Some kids blame their parents, and it does seem that many of the parents lack stability and self-discipline themselves. Some kids blame their teachers, and it's plain that may teachers either don't care or have been worn down by overwork, under-funding, and a classroom full of out-of-control kids. It's nobody's fault, and everybody's.
"Wild Rover," Meyer's newest novel for teen-agers, was published recently by McElderry Books.