SLA Information Book Award: a selection of books on the 2017 longlist about ‘The World Around Us’

by Lucy Chambers, Primary School Librarian for Tower Hamlets Schools Library Service, CILIP School Libraries Group National Committee member

I am very fortunate to be on the judging panel for the School Library Association Information Book Award for my second year.  I have enjoyed the whole process, from the moment the large boxes of books arrived at my home, through meeting my fellow judges and discussing the merits of the books, to the whittling down process to select the long list and then the shortlist, a very hard task, as we receive so many excellent titles.

I share with you four books on the longlist that encompass Non-Fiction November’s theme ‘The World Around Us.’  The longlist contains many books that almost made it and would sit well in any school library to be read with interest and curiosity. My selection encompasses biography, science, geography, history, nature and general interest.

Charles Darwin’s Around the World Adventure, Jennifer Thermes, Abrams, 2016

Darwin demonstrated a childhood interest in collecting samples from beetles to rocks, and so when the opportunity arose for him to join HMS Beagle as a naturalist in his early twenties, despite family opposition, he jumped at it, thus beginning his famous world voyages.  This well-designed and colourful book is perfect for introducing young readers to Darwin’s life and scientific adventures.  We read about how Darwin explored South America, writing copious journal entries about the animals of all sizes he saw, and about how, when exploring the Tierra del Fuego, he discovered the food cycle of larger animals dependent for food on smaller animals. Simplistic, uncaptioned watercolours show the range of creatures in a style that will appeal to young children.   Useful maps punctuate the text, showing habitats Darwin explored, and the whole route is pictured on the front and back flyleaves with a timeline.  Towards the end of the book, Themes include more detailed notes on Darwin’s theory of evolution and the significance of his discoveries, there is a short bibliography and a collection of random ‘Fun Facts’, such as how low oxygen levels in the high altitude of the Andes slowed down the boiling of potatoes.  Recommended for any school library.

Natural World, Amanda Wood and Mike Jolley, Wide Eyed, 2016

As Wood writes in the introduction of this very detailed compendium:  ‘Every time you open this book, you can go on a different journey of discovery to find out more about the natural world and its many wonderful inhabitants.’ You are invited to read the book from beginning to end or dip in in random fashion.  Whatever your chosen method, you will discover detailed facts about nature around the world.

The book is arranged in a series of 67 colour-coded charts explaining worldwide habitats, species and animal behaviour.  Subjects range from general to specific details about animals.  Each section contains watercolour illustrations and information using scientific terminology.  Let’s dip in, my preferred method, to some of the pages: ‘All about feathers’ explains their structure and illustrates different kinds of feather from various birds, such as the vaned flight feather from a macaw. In just two pages I learnt much about feathers, although I would have liked some indication of the relative size of the birds, and where they are to be found.  ‘Extraordinary hunters’ includes African wild dogs, the venus flytrap, the ant lion and spiders amongst other specimens, explaining how they catch their prey, again, with no indication of size or location (unless in the name.) I suppose it’s up to the reader to search for the animals in the yellow habitat pages to find this information.

The bear skeleton in ‘Skeletons and skulls’ has detailed captions but infographic-style simplistic drawings, although some features are seen in close-up too.  There is an index but no bibliography or further reading.  The cover unfolds into an excellent poster, an original feature.

This book would be of great interest to young people who enjoy a lot of detail and might spur them on to further research.

Survivors, David Long and Kerry Hyndman, Faber & Faber 2016

This thick volume contains over twenty exciting true life stories about daredevils, ordinary people, volcano explorers, sailors, mountaineers and more from across the world and throughout history.  No wonder Long won the Blue Peter Book Award for Best Book with Facts in 2017, because of the range of stories included and the extraordinary feats of bravery described.   Stunning watercolours enhance the recounts; for example, the spread on page 114-115 illustrating dramatically Craig Hoskin’s crash inside a volcano in Hawaii in 1992, and the picture on page 119 of a skier falling head-first into a stream in ‘The woman who froze to death – yet lived (Norway, 1999.) It’s a good thing her companions were doctors.

This book would be an excellent addition to any library, although I would have liked an index or a contents page, perhaps also a map, some factual details about each country and a bibliography. 

Timelines of World History, Jane Chisholm, Usborne, 2016

This wide-ranging history book covers a vast period from 10,000 BC to 1999. (Why, in a book published in 2016, does it stop there? )  Each time period is covered in two pages with a couple of sentences about single years or short spreads, arranged by continent. I have always been fascinated by how information and expertise travelled across the world in what as a child I called ‘the olden days’ (I thought of my parents as belonging to those times too!), and whether inventions were global or whether they were discovered in one era but forgotten in another.  There is not enough detail in this book to answer those questions, but it might make readers want to find out more.

Some significant periods in history merit a whole paragraph, two or three per double page, probably those studied in schools, such as Ancient Egypt and The Reformation.  Jaunty, captioned watercolours are dotted around the pages and these make the text less dry.

This is an ambitious book in its scope, probably frustrating to use apart from as an introduction or crib to many eras, but I enjoyed leap-frogging across continents, getting an overview of what was happening at any one time.  For example, while London was burning down in 1666, the Ottoman Turks were occupying Hungary, there were civil wars in India, trade wars in the Far East and settlers in New England were fighting Native Americans.  This book gives an overview of history and is a bit like reading the headlines of a news website today. You need to search elsewhere for more details.

In conclusion, publishers generously submitted around 200 books to the Information Book Award in 2017.  My reviews offer a small taster of them.  This is a great era for young people’s information books, with many stylish and informative books being produced.  Long may this excellent trend continue.


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