How to Make Great Stuff for Your Room

by Mary Wallace, Mary Wallace,
88 pages,
ISBN: 0920775853

Manny's Many Questions

by Louise Framst,
24 pages,
ISBN: 096955382X

Kelly's Garden

by Louis Framst,
24 pages,
ISBN: 0969553838

Desdemona Saves the Day

by Eileen Pettigrew,
ISBN: 1550410237

Why Seals Blow Their Noses:
Canadian Wildlife in Fact & Fiction

by Diane Swanson, Douglas Penhale,
80 pages,
ISBN: 155110038X

Eat Up!

by Candace C. Savage, Gary Clement,
56 pages,
ISBN: 1895565138

Real Live Science:
Top Scientists Present Amazing Activities Any Kid Can Do

by Jay Ingram, Jay Ingram,
48 pages,
ISBN: 1895688000

Post Your Opinion
Children's Books - Active Information
by Janet McNaughton

IF TODAY'S children do not grow up to be Nobel Prize-winning scientists it certainly won't be the fault of Canadian book publishers. Presses such as Kids Can, Groundwood, and Greey de Pencier (which also publishes Owl and Chickadee magazines) produce activity books that give kids a chance to experience science at home using only kitchen-sink equipment. Two new releases, Eat Up (Groundwood, 56 pages, $12.95 paper) and Real Live Science (Greey de Pencier, 48 pages, $9.95 paper) are good examples of what's currently available in science activity books.

Eat Up, by Candace Savage, is the sixth book in Groundwood's "Earthcare" series. Not simply a book about nutrition, Eat Up uncovers the ways in which over-processed, overpackaged foods (in other words, the ones that kids prefer) waste energy and harm the environment. Readers may pause when they learn that about 500 litres of gasoline are needed to produce and transport the food each of us eats in a year. Savage is at her best when expounding these environmental facts, though she sometimes turns preachy when health issues are raised. Gary Clement's illustrations are similar to those of Roz Chast, that quirky New Yorker cartoonist, and add colour and wit to Eat Up.

The activities in this book invite kids to put their breakfast on the map as a way of seeing how far food travels, to keep a diet diary, and to play with unprocessed foods in creative ways. Parents like me, who are tired of harping on the evils of junk food, will welcome this book's approach to sensible nutrition. Since most kids believe they're immortal, the idea of heart disease in middle age means very little to them, but if they think that eating good food can help save the planet, they just might try it.



While Eat Up places more emphasis on facts than activities, Jay Ingram's Real Live Science: Top Scientists Present

Amazing Activities Any Kid Can Do takes a more hands-on approach. Ingram, for many years the host of CBC Radio's

"Quirks and Quarks," neatly demystifies science. To him it is "a bunch of questions, and nobody has all the answers." He

talked to 21 scientists, drawn from the pure sciences (chemistry and astrophysics) as well as those more muddied

with human factors (anthropology and psychology). Profiles of the scientists are included with a simple activity in each

discipline. Seven of these scientists are women, and all are presented in a warm and human light. The activities are

inventive and fun. Kids learn about the composition of lava by making pancakes. They conceptualize the universe by

unrolling a roll of toilet paper and make snowballs to discover the physical properties of snow. My seven-year-old daughter was especially pleased with the experiment that accompanies Roberta Bondar's profile, which deals with balance and the inner ear; it finally gave her an excuse to spin wildly in my office chair. Now whenever she's bored she says, "Let's do that experiment again." Real Live Science is a terrific book.

The third science book in this batch takes a different approach. Diane Swanson's Why Seals Blow Their Noses: Canadian Wildlife in Fact and Fiction (Whitecap, 92 pages, $10.95 paper) is purely an information book, but the information is presented in clear, short sentences that children can easily read and understand. And what great information! We learn that most bears give birth while deep in hibernation (an enviable trick), how wolves communicate with sounds and body movements, and about a small owl that throws its voice to fool predators. Swanson salts her text with folk-tales from around the world concerning the 10 animals discussed in the book, and the wildlife facts are just as interesting as the fiction.

Aesthetically, this is an impressive book. The large 10 1/4 - by - 10 1/4 inch format is spacious and attractively designed, and subheadings and sidebars break the text into small, easily digestible portions. Douglas Penhale is a versatile illustrator. His monochrome drawings for the factual text are vividly realistic, but the animals that accompany the folk-tales are humorous caricatures. This book is perfect for budding naturalists.

The last non-fiction offering here is How to Make Great Stuff for Your Room (Greey de Pencier, 88 pages, $16.95 cloth, $9.95 paper), by Mary Wallace. How to Make Great Stuff is attractively designed, and Wallace's instructions are easy to follow. She shows how to make large objects - bookcases, footstools, and headboards - out of cardboard, and smaller things such as bookends from painted stones, as well as offering suggestions for wall and fabric designs. Some items, such as the stuffed-animal hammock, are useful; others, the cardboard headboard for example, will probably shed paint flakes every time they are knocked. Also, some projects look flimsy. Cardboard tubes aren't likely to stay glued to a flat sheet to make a pencil organizer as Wallace directs unless cut into flaps at the bottom to provide a solid surface for the glue.

The value of most craft projects is in the doing. By using the written word to create objects, kids learn to conceptualize. They develop fine motor skills while cutting, drawing, and painting. Children value the finished products, but are parents willing to deal with an entire bedroom filled with homemade stuff, however great? Reviewing this book in terms of the amount of clutter it will produce may seem churlish, but How to Make Great Stuff could drastically alter a child's room. Since 33 projects are included in this book, some of the larger ones could safely have been omitted to decrease the potential for havoc.

There are three picture-books in this lot, and none is outstanding. In Desdemona Saves the Day (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 32 pages, $13.95 paper), by Eileen Pettigrew, Desdemona's mother is so addicted to garage sales that all of the things her family really loves are squeezed out of the house into the garage. When they try to have a garage sale to make room, no one buys, so Desdemona decides to have a "house" sale. Then all the bric-a-brac her mother bought disappears, and the family returns to normal, although indications are that the cycle will repeat itself.

Pettigrew has a good sense of the kind of repetition and character development that work in a picture-book and Tina Seemann's illustrations are both simple and expressive. A child with a particular interest in garage sales may find Desdemona Saves the Day appealing, but I can't help wishing this pair had applied themselves to a more memorable plot, especially as the title seems to promise an adventure.

The final two picture-books, Manny's Many Questions (24 pages, $6.95 paper) and Kelly's Garden (24 pages, $6.95 paper) are self-published by the author, Louise Susy Framst, who lives in rural British Columbia. Kelly's Garden shows a mother and her small children planting a garden. The little girl Kelly then plants pennies, stones, and candy, hoping to grow these things for herself. In Manny's Many Questions, little Manny asks his aunt about the woodstove until she leaves her piano to make a fire and pop some popcorn for him. The illustrations, by Betty Halliday, are colourful but amateurish.

Self-publishing is becoming a more respectable option than it used to be, but problems persist. One is cost. Picture-books such as these, with an eight-by-eight-inch format and some monochrome drawings, would probably retail for half their $6.95 price if produced by a publishing house.

Louise Framst is a Native woman with a degree in special education, so she has a lot to offer as an author of children's books. One of her aims is to show small children that Native children are just like kids everywhere. We certainly need books that make this point, but the clues about the characters' ethnicity - singing a song while planting seeds, and the closeness between the child and the aunt, for example - are so subtle that adult readers will have to say "Look, this is a book about Native children" if these stories are to have their desired effect. The question of presenting culture without stereotyping is a serious one. Framst would benefit by looking at books such as Grandma's Latkes, by Malka Drucker (Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich), or Something from Nothing, by Phoebe Gilman (Scholastic), both of which show Jewish children and culture in settings that reveal ethnicity while confirming the universality of childhood.

Picture-books look deceptively simple, but this form is as difficult as the novel. If you doubt that, consider that really fine picture-books come along at about the same rate as really fine novels: not often enough. This points up what is probably the most serious problem in self-published picture-books: without the help of experienced professional editors and designers, an author stands a one-in-a-million chance of getting it right.


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