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CHILDREN'S BOOKSHELF

Beyond Nonfiction

May 26, 1991|KIMBERLY OLSON FAKIH | Fakih is the author/selector of "Of Cabbages & Kings: The Best in Magazine-Writing for Kids," and the forthcoming "The Literature of Delight," about humor and children's books

Far from being an endless recurrence of the same, nonfiction children's books can be safely pigeonholed into at least two categories-- information books and knowledge books. But the "instruction" characteristic of all such works throws into relief the way in which children sponge up facts--mainly through raw "perception." While books of the first genre address children as little people in constant need of improvement, books of the second genre take into account their autonomy and psychological integrity; they might even be called experience books.

Information books offer readers bites of data from a mass of available facts and trivia. These may sate a browser's fancy, but do not necessarily inspire further study nor even linger in the mind for long. TV pummels viewers with such bites. Information, on its own, without the fancy trappings of high-level organization, can be fascinating, as in the magazine-like--and quite jolly--My First Party Book by Angela Wilkes, with photography by Dave King and illustrations by Brian Delf (Alfred A. Knopf: $11.95). Superior quality full-color photographs on glossy stock present a catalogue of rather festive facts that will tempt children as few books do--into throwing a party and nabbing firsthand the pleasures of the text: how to make party hats, jazzy invitations, snazzy masks and ample snacks. Paging through it is, for shy types, much better than a conga line. A similar format governs The Science Book of Color by Neil Ardley, photographs by Pete Gardner and Dave King (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $9.95; the series also covers Air, Light, and Water). The user-friendly volume ably demystifies such processes as printing presses and pink-and-orange sunsets. Both books invite readers to flip back and forth, collect facts, muse over possible connections, but they do not promise to endow either sudden wisdom or new visions.

Knowledge books, on the other hand, bring order to chaotic data--molding them into princely structures or sorting disparate parts, those nuts and bolts, into grand patterns. Creating melodies from random notes, such compositions can instill in young readers the same serenity they experience the day that letters of the alphabet shimmer suddenly into words, sentences, meaning. In Books and Libraries by Jack Knowlton, illustrated by Harriet Barton (HarperCollins: $14.95), the information is framed in a historical perspective that covers the development of writing, paper-making, printing, and the safe-keeping of books. Order is seen as a necessary condition that allows for culture, shareability, education, communication and memory; any child or adult will appreciate what Dewey did for those temples of knowledge. There is one minor flaw: A book on the organization of knowledge should have a table of contents or index.

While Looking Inside: Machines and Constructions by Paul Fleischer and Patricia Keeler, illustrated by Patricia Keeler (Atheneum: $13.95), does not exactly give children Superman's X-ray vision, it offers indisputable evidence of the power of knowledge. The inner workings of such worldly items as the infrastructure of a wall are rendered transparent to the naked eye, as is the secret dynamic of toilet plumbing. It could make a child's grasp of the complexity beneath simple facades irreversible.

An easier lesson in leaping beyond the information given is in Ken Robbins' Bridges (Dial: $13.95), which is more about connection than construction of those structures we've all been told not to burn. In Robbins' hand-tinted photographs, a child crossing a log over a creek is a step on the way to the Brooklyn Bridge. The potency of the concept outdistances the limited locales--all on the East Coast.

Another construction site is the arena for a feathered hero's race against time in a book that builds toward insight and offers tacit revelations on each page. Albert's Alphabet by Leslie Tryon (Atheneum: $13.95) features a clever goose that is given the task of manufacturing a stand-up ABC in its employer's garden. Albert's carpentry work allows children to infer relationships between various elements--time's passing, materials decreasing--with an orderliness imposed both by the clock face and by the alphabet itself. Albert landscapes an entire playground with old-fashioned stick-to-it-iveness; his feat is an eloquent transition from the theoretical (and raw materials of his workshop) to the practical world of action and experience.

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