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1987 Notable Canadian Non-fiction for Children

By Linda Winham
Dartmouth Regional Library
Dartmouth N.S.

Volume 16 Number 6

As we near the end of 1988, we have had almost a year to review and evaluate the non-fiction offerings of 1987. What distinguishes each of the books selected this year? Being "notable" means that a book's publication should be marked, not necessarily that it is excellent in all regards. We expect it to fulfill certain basic criteria for competent, useful non-fiction, then exhibit as well a special quality that prompts us to say, "Look! Be sure you don't miss this one!"

A good information book is "user friendly." The cover and overall design welcome the reader; a table of contents serves as a menu of topics within and makes clear the sequential organization of the work. Illustrations are informative and related to the text. Most important to the young researcher, a good index makes information retrieval easy and even fun. The once arduous task of indexing is now simplified by using computer word-search techniques, but the index thus generated may be daunting (e.g., twenty-five single-page listings under "Member of Parliament," and most of the entries mark an appearance of the term without significant information). Care is required in preparing a "friendly" index for children's use. Other valuable features may include glossaries, bibliographies for further reading, and suggested activities for the reader.

New approaches and formats for non-fiction reflect our involvement with computers and video; books have more interactive elements requiring response from the reader. Presentation of material is less linear, with tangential topics, anecdotes, and odd facts breaking up the text. This fragmented approach can be attractive or chaotic depending on the designer, but seems to reflect television's quick episodes and commercial breaks and our assumption of a resulting short attention span. All of the following books show some evidence of this trend.

Paulette Bourgeois gives a broad view of a narrow subject in The Amazing Apple Book. A real delight for teachers doing whole-language projects, this book presents in sixty pages every possible approach to apples, from their place in history and literature to growing, marketing, games, recipes and crafts. Linda Hendry's drawings are crisp, illustrative and amusing, complementing the text on every page. Most suitable for grades 3 to 5, this book is a good source of topics for further study in older grades.

Also from Paulette Bourgeois, On Your Mark, Get Set... All about the Olympics Then and Now should be noted for its timeliness and its neat presentation of all Olympic sports for middle grade to junior high readers. Each of the thirty-five sports has one or two pages with such subtopics as 'The Events," The Gear," "What to Watch," "How It's Played," "Rules," "Scoring," "The Challenge" and "The Lingo," along with lots of trivia on records, personalities and odd happenings. The introductory chapters include "What it Takes to Become an Olympian" with up-to-date information on training and, prophetically, a discussion of drug use and blood-doping. A dynamic appearance is achieved through varied bold-face titles, action drawings, and use of diagonals in the design. There is enough general information here to keep this book useful for future Olympic years. image

Packaging is the most notable feature of Dr. Hugh Danks' Bug Book The neat little guidebook to insects is sold in a clear plastic bug catcher, making it a great gift. Libraries find it difficult to shelve and circulate, however, and it would be nice if the book could be purchased separately. Authoritative information, simply presented, is organized with colour codes by location or habitat of the specimen. Appearance, food, and other notes aid in identification of these common bugs found in most parts of Canada. "Bug Bottle Projects" encourage active involvement, and a "Caution: Don't Touch" symbol warns young collectors that some bugs can be harmful.

Fine colour work distinguishes Exploring the Night Sky: The Equinox Astronomy Guide for Beginners by Terence Dickinson. Illustrations include photographs from a number of space probes and observatories, but it is the beautiful detailed and imaginative drawings by John Bianchi that create the impression of a highly dramatic universe. The fact that the largest full-page illustration in this small book is only 8" x 8" and that some pictures less than 2 inches square are clear and informative shows what good colour separation can achieve.

Each of the book's three sections could stand alone. "A Cosmic Voyage' takes a hypothetical journey through the universe in ten steps, from Earth to galaxies 300,000,000 light-years away; "Alien Vistas" devotes a page to each of the planets in our solar system and to other stars, black holes, quasars, and some informed speculation on extraterrestrials; and "Stargazing" brings it back to the level of what you can actually see in different seasons from your own backyard. Bianchi's drawings of constellations complement the diagrams of the same section of sky. A reasonably good index and glossary are efficiently combined. If you like this one, take a look at Exploring the Sky by DAY: The Equinox Guide to Weather and the Atmosphere (Camden House, 1988).

With the increasing popularity of pop-up books, what could be a better idea than a how-to book for pop-ups? The bright cover of Joan Irvine's How to Make Pop-ups impels you to open up and start folding. Guide leaders, teachers, craft counsellors and parents began asking for this book in libraries and bookstores as soon as people heard of it. The author, who received grants under Ontario's Creative Artists in the Schools program, had opportunities to develop her own creative pop-up ideas with children in twelve schools, so these projects are well tested.


Activities are organized by types of folds, from easier to more challenging. Each of the sections has Ups on which side to glue, how to make sharp folds, and so on. Instructive black-and-white drawings by artist Barbara Reid portray, step by step, exactly what hands or scissors are doing. This book is outstanding in using specific projects to teach the basic folds and slots, then encouraging the child to experiment with new combinations. Two big ideas utilizing a variety of techniques are "Making an Old-fashioned Zoo or Pet Shop" and "Making Your Own Pop-up Book."

The other three books not only are written by Canadians, but also treat important Canadian topics very competently at a young person's level. Clair MacKay's Pay Cheques and Picket Lines is a history of unions in Canada; Maureen McTeer's Parliament describes the structure and workings of our government; and Caroline Parry's Let's Celebrate! makes a multicultural festival of Canada's own holidays.

Like The Amazing Apple Book for elementary grades, Pay Cheques and Picket Lines could provide the basis for a whole unit of study in a secondary course on Canadian history or sociology. Unions would not seem a topic of keen interest to young people, but the presentation is so lively and readable that Pay Cheques and Picket Lines entertains while informing. Claire MacKay is a skilful storyteller, and a strong narrative line runs through the fictionalized and first-person accounts of child labour conditions in factories, mines and family sweat-shops. The account of union development during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries covers the 1850s "when your great-great-great-grandparents were your age", the 1900s "when your grandparents were your age" and the 1950s "when your parents were born," helping the young reader conceptualize the historical time frame.

Probably the most fun for kids who are just entering the work force is the fictionalized account of a new dishwasher joining other disgruntled employees of the Piggin' Out Restaurant and deciding whether to form a union (their own unit, Piggin' Out Workers--POW?) or to Join the larger Glorious Order of Restaurant People--GORP?). All of the conditions of a contract are dealt with through the yes of this group as they negotiate their first agreement.

MacKay understands young people and what they like to read, their sense of humour, fascination with the unusual, and love of trivia. The book design offers great variety in appearance from page to page, some being crowded with activity--cartoons, anecdotes, drawings, photos--others with plenty of white space to set off the text. A never-boring book on what might have been a ho-hum subject.

By contrast, Random House has failed to bring this excitement to their presentation of Maureen McTeer's Parliament: Canada's Democracy and How It Works. It has the look of a low-budget book, with some line drawings of inconsistent style and quality; photographs would have been helpful on this subject. However, the text is neatly laid out, with bold type and numerous section headings to aid readers. The text begins with a personal tour of the Parliament buildings and continues in a conversational tone using the first and second person. McTeer shares her childhood impressions of Ottawa and gives her opinions on Senate reform and the 1987 constitutional accord. Her narrative has no story-teller's magic, but the presentation is clear and complete.

A nice feature are the dozen or so "Something to Do" suggestions, which consist of addresses to write to for specific information--a sort of invitation to students to initiate their own enrichment of the text. The glossary is very useful in defining special parliamentary terms, but the index is mediocre. This book is obviously intended for school use, and school libraries from upper elementary through high school will find it a good addition to their Canadian collection.

Let's Celebrate! celebrates our Canadian holidays; how numerous they become when all the founding cultures keep up their own traditions! As we browse through Caroline Parry's book of the Canadian year, we realize that despite the diverse ways we go about it, we all love a special occasion. It seems that people will always find reasons to feast, fast, pray or dance; they will dress up, decorate their homes and neighbourhoods, celebrate good fortune or guard against bad luck by being solemn or silly.

The book is arranged in calendar order from December to November, with Muslim Special Days following, as they do not fall on a set date. Five Artists have contributed lighthearted drawings interspersed with recipes, activities, poems, and bits of cultural lore. The extensive index provides a very important aid in listing holidays by religious or ethnic origin, so that the reader can quickly locate all Greek, Chinese, Finnish or native Canadian celebrations. This is certainly the most comprehensive and appealing collection of its kind, an essential resource for multicultural studies and festivals.

There is a need for more good non-fiction produced in Canada, and the best of the 1987 books set a high standard. What is notable in these books as a group are attractive, colourful covers (although colour inside is restricted to the two science books), creative design within the limitations of black and white, especially in the four books designed by Michael Solomon for Kids Can Press; and authoritative information, with encouragement to pursue the subject further. It is a cliche to say that a good book is more than the sum of its parts, but more accurate to say that it goes beyond its covers. As we begin evaluating the 1988 children's non-fiction, we'll look for the best features of 1987 and more.

1987 Notable Canadian Non-fiction for Children

Bourgeois, Paulette. The Amazing Apple Book. Kids Can Press, 1987.

Bourgeois, Paulette. On Your Mark, Get Set... Kids Can Press, 1987.

Danks, Hugh. The Bug Book. Illustrated by Joe Weissman. Somerville House Books, General, 1987.

Dickinson, Terence. Exploring the Night Sky. Principal illustrations by John Bianchi. Camden House, 1987.

Irvine, Joan. How to Make Pop-ups. Illustrated by Barbara Reid. Kids Can Press, 1987.

Mackay, Claire. Pay Cheques and Picket Lines: All about Unions In Canada. Illustrated by Eric Parker. Kids Can Press, 1987.

McTeer, Maureen. Parliament. Canada's Democracy and How It Works. Random House, 1987.

Parry, Caroline. Let's Celebrate! Canada's Special Days. Kids Can Press, 1987.

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