by Jayne Gould
As well as being the secretary of Ipswich Children’s Book Group, I am also a primary school librarian, and was a children’s bookseller during the 1980’s.
Over the past 30 years, there have been huge changes in the development and publishing of information books. When I started at the bookshop, from what I remember, the majority of information books were not terribly engaging, with the honourable exception of Usborne, which had been founded a few years before with the remit to make factual, fun and humorous books that children would enjoy. They are still one of the leaders in this area of publishing.
The rise of the double page spread, spearheaded by Dorling Kindersley with the Eyewitness Guides, and quickly adopted by many publishers, revolutionised the presentation of facts. The use of colour, attention to design, interactive features such as flaps, pop-ups and acetate overlays have all transformed this area of publishing.
But when judging information books, you have to look beyond the surface and consider the facts, check, check, and check again.
The School Library Association Information Book Award was set up in 2010 at the suggestion of Chris Brown, former reviews editor of the School Librarian magazine. He felt that information books were a neglected area, not receiving the recognition that some high quality publications deserved. The Award highlights the high standard of books available, reinforces the importance of non-fiction and supports school libraries with an activity pack and posters available to download from the SLA website.
As a then member of the SLA Board, I immediately volunteered to become one of the four members of the inaugural judging panel and am currently still there. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to be a part of this team, gaining the chance to see the best of current information publishing.
The process starts with the invitation to publishers to submit up to three titles in each of the three age categories of Under 7s, 7-12 and 12-16. These are then delivered to the waiting judges to read and make our own long-listing suggestions. With around 100 books to read in the space of a few weeks, you quickly become adept at sifting out the less good titles!
A great information book will be well designed, employing text, colour, photographs and diagrams to the best effect. Whilst the double page spread is still much in evidence, some publishers are moving away from it. The Discover More series from Scholastic is a great example of this. Inspired by the internet, they wanted to make books as cool as the web. The fact that we have included several titles on recent long and short lists shows how well they have succeeded! There is a range of titles for different ages but one of my favourites is Penguins.
We are looking for books that will ignite curiosity in the reader, leading them to want to discover more and to engage them as they do so. The author’s interest and understanding of the subject needs to be evident in the writing; if they are not excited by their subject, then the reader won’t be.
Paper engineering, now an increasing feature of information books, should enhance rather than distract. We have to ask ourselves whether it has a purpose or is just a gimmick. Books on previous shortlists have featured flaps, multi-layered pop-ups, fold out panels and more, inviting the reader to explore the subject in depth. Literally so, in Bugs by Dr George McGavin and Jim Kay, a stunning example of the art, where you can peel back the layers to discover more.
Once the judges have made their suggestions for titles to consider further, we meet up to debate the merits of those books. Passionate discussion ensues, with the smallest detail which detracts or enhances being pointed out! From these we choose titles to longlist, reading them again ourselves and finding, where possible, experts in the subject to add their opinions. Once the shortlist has been decided it is then further consideration and debate as to which should win each category and be the overall winner. At this stage, voting is opened up for the Children’s Choice Awards, an important feature of the IBA since the beginning. Schools, public libraries, FCBG groups, Chatterbooks groups and similar organisations are all invited to take part, reading and judging the shortlisted titles and voting through the SLA website. Children deserve the best and that is what we aim to highlight.
The Information Book Award presentation evening is now a firmly established fixture of the children’s book world calendar. Originally taking place at the Free Word Centre, it then moved for a few years to Bath as part of the Children’s Book Festival, until coming back to London in 2015 and the 6th Story Roof Café at Carmelite House, home of sponsor Hachette.
The SLA is very grateful for the continued sponsorship of Hachette of the Information Book Award, which has allowed the Award to develop, as well as provide meeting space for the judging panel and the venue for the presentation evening.
Also very welcome is the partnership with the FCBG, linking in with National Non-Fiction November and celebrating information books for all ages.
The School Library Association has just announced the first Hachette Children’s Group Award for Outstanding Contribution to Information Books.
The award will be presented at the 2017 Information Book Award, which is sponsored by Hachette’s Children’s Group, on 22nd November 2017 at Carmelite House in London.