Children read non-fiction for many of the same reasons that they read other books -because it looks interesting. Or because they have read other things like it, enjoyed the experience, and want to get it again. Or because the book or topic is fashionable and they want to be able to chat knowledgeably with their schoolyard colleagues. Or to kindly humour an adult who finds the book or topic important and wants to share it. Or because they have to do a school project. Or because they are obsessive -compulsive types who suddenly realize that they want to know, for example, absolutely everything about First World War airplanes.
Hickman and Collins are to be congratulated on their three books on food chains, plants, and metamorphosis. These are nicely appropriate for cuddle-up-read-and-discuss sessions, and would be useful for actually learning something, as long as you had other books on the subject too, or a good encyclopaedia. They have a The-House-that-Jack-Built structure ("This is the tree which Connie climbs/ This is the leaf that grows on the tree that Connie climbs," etc.), which older children on the sterner business of "Doing butterflies/plants/food chains for school" will have to skim over, to concentrate instead on how well the books show what happens to the bones in a snake's head when it swallows a toad, or the first-class and very copiable illustration of the stages in a seed's germination. The books don't communicate that intangible sense of "this is only for little kids", which can result in even the most desperate project-doer looking elsewhere for material.
The material has been chosen well. In A Seed Grows, a botanist I consulted was glad to see the mention of male and female flowers, for example; this concept is almost always a startling and hilarious concept to grade four students, because although it is an interesting and accessible information byte, it rarely gets included in most plant books for the young. On the other hand, there are inevitably some regrettable omissions; in A New Butterfly, we get no help with the difference between a cocoon and a chrysalis, a persisting confusion for most of us. A few black-and-white diagrams might not have come amiss, either. For older children they are often clearer and more useful than artistic colour illustration.
The most entertaining of these books is Hungry Animals. Adults have to be constantly vigilant against gentling things down for children, for along with the instinct to educate seems to come the instinct to protect. Yet children can be healthily heartless about nature stories. They cheerfully enjoy descriptions of Mowgli's feasts of raw meat; as for Thornton Burgess's efforts to make the reader simultaneously empathetic to both weasels and rabbits, they find these quite transparently foolish. In Hungry Animals, a flower gets eaten by an insect gets eaten by a toad gets eaten by a snake gets eaten by an owl. The pictures are charming, especially one of the snake being borne off with the outline of the toad still visible through its skin. "All gone!" says the final illustration, in tones used when Junior has finished the porridge. Perhaps a slight tie-in to the fact that we too are part of food chain might not have been amiss at this point, but a quick classroom or family chorus of the song "On Ilkley Moor Baht'At" (wherein we get eaten by worms which get eaten by ducks which we then eat) would serve the same purpose.
For the past ten years, non-fiction for children has tended towards books that consist almost entirely of disconnected but attractive mouthfuls of information-and-illustration entities studded throughout pages that have a minimum of progressive textual development. I am referring especially to The Eyewitness series and their clones. They are astonishingly frustrating to read unless you already know a lot about the subject, and can put their hypertext factual hiccups into context. The strongest reason to recommend these Kids Can books, and to hope for further ones in the series, is that by the time you've finished reading them, you really do know something more than when you started. Great feeling.
Alison Sutherland is a school librarian who wastes time by stopping to read non-fiction children's books, when she ought to be cataloguing or shelving them.