February 12, 2010

Does popular science have sub-genres

My central question her is if popular science books are sold in categories (natural history, astronomy, history), are they consumed the same way?

Below is a screen-grab of the science page on the website for a large UK bookselling chain. It's cropped to show off the categories the books are presented in (click on pic for link to flickr to see larger version). Obviously, bookselling websites categorise/ cross-categorise in different ways from door-and-window-bookshops, but seeing as I didn't have my camera with me, I think it'll do as an illustration of the way we sort science publishing.

screengrab - Waterstone's Science Books

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September 9, 2009

eco-publishing and the business of kids' books

big old pile of dead tree media telling us to recycle

A huge pile of books telling kids to recycle. Insert easy laugh of choice here. Because no matter the intentions of these books’ content, the sourcing, materials and shipping of these objects has a reasonably large environmental impact of its own.

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April 21, 2009

Matt Whyman on children and technology

I recently interviewed the author Matt Whyman for the Write Away website. He's been a virtual agony uncle for AOL from their early days, and now writes teen fiction, including a series about the hacker Carl Hobbs. I asked him about his stand on children's use of technology and he had some very interesting things to say.
Here's a link to the pdf -

March 10, 2009

Mid-century illustrations of Charley Harper

The work of Charley Harper (1922-2007) was recently brought to my attention by fellow illustration afficionado Tammy Lu -- Harper was an impressive and prolific 'mid-century' illustrator who was especially drawn to natural themes.


The first I saw of his work was in this film by fashion designer Todd Oldham, who fittingly labels the style 'handmade modern'. Though the film is a bit corny, the spirit behind Harper's aesthetic approach definitely comes through.

Harper's magnum opus is possibly the Giant Golden Book of Biology of 1961, whose beautiful flat illustrations can be seen if you follow that link to grain edit. My guess is there are probably many more diagrammatic or instructional pictures in the volume but these wouldn't have made the cut in this little gallery!

Oldham recently created a retrospective book of Harper's work, An Illustrated Life, a bit of an investment, but still more affordable than an original copy of the Golden Book of Biology.

January 16, 2009

Isotype books and sketches on show in Reading

I've now posted a few times about Marie Neurath's Isotype books for children, but I could resist passing on news of this latest exhibition, on show at the Department of Typography in Reading.


'If you could see inside' runs from 12 january to 20 March 2009, and is open to the public from Monday to Friday, 9 am to 4pm. Information on how to get to the department can be found here. The exhibit is part of the AHRC-funded Isotype Revisited project, and it focusses on the birth of the whole project of Isotype children's books, and on preparatory sketches and drawings associated with a cross-section of titles. (Click on the images below for larger versions.)


The beginnings of this work are recalled by Marie Neurath in a quote drawn from one of the exhibit panels: 'In the last months of Otto Neurath's life (1945) we worked on picture books for school use with a number of questions at the side; the answers to the questions had, in general, to be found by close study of the chart. We worked on the first ideas of children's books; a rough was made called "Just boxes", another "Tips for Tots". Years later these ideas were developed in books like "If you could see inside" and "This is how it works"' (Instructional Science 1973, p. 145).


November 11, 2008

Maps and landscape: the work of Ronald Lampitt

The work of the little-known illustrator Ronald Lampitt is featured in this post on Diaphania, the blog of my colleague David Woodward at Reading. David refers to an earlier post on English Buildings which is also of interest, and not only for its gem of a throwaway comment about Horrible Histories near the end (take note Alice)!

Back to the focus of the post, Lampitt's 1948 children's book The map that came to life, published by OUP. You can see the whole book in spreads here, which gives you a good idea of the structure of the story as well as the layout.


The volume opens with images of the map two children will follow on their walk, and most spreads thereafter see small text blocks enveloped by a sprawling bucolic landscape. The bird's eye 'near view' is close enough to pull the reader in, and small segments of the original map are set into the text, allowing readers to compare the 'real' landscape with the abstract language of maps.


The close-up above shows the flat areas of colour and crayon-like texture of the drawing. This suggests Lampitt may have used lithography, perhaps with an intermediary textured substrate for the rough effect. It is really beautifully done, simple and effortless in its appearance.

David points out that Lampitt also worked on the Ladybird book Understanding maps (1967), as well as this wonderful illustration of an ideal city -- you'll notice a legend which points you to all they key elements, pieced together from buildings and monuments around the world! Fabulous. The dramatic natural landscape imposes itself in this illustration. It is on par with the built environment, as it is in The map that came to life.

October 8, 2008

Homage to the NatureTrail books

I have long admired the Usborne NatureTrail Books series and would like to present, for your consideration, a few examples taken from two volumes of the mid-70s, 'Trees & Leaves' and 'Garden Wildlife'. This series is an unsung classic of children's illustrated non-fiction that emerged in the golden age of Usborne's illustrated children's books.

I think that these earliest NatureTrail books are brilliant. Updated editions have recycled the images but reset the type and they are completely uninteresting. In the originals, the illustration and typography (in a nice nostalgic clarendon-like face) are well integrated and balanced.

Another classic book, 'How Your Body Works' (in which the human body is presented as a series of machines in cartoon drawings) might be the topic of a later homage…





July 22, 2008

Book pages as art

The site Ladybird Prints recently caught my eye; they do digital art prints of pages from old Ladybird books. There is a particular nostalgia around old children's books that becomes obvious in second-hand bookshops and antiquarian fairs. Picture books and illustrated fiction seem to dominate. Of course, old books can be taken apart and the individual pages framed as prints. Horrific! Ok, maybe its not so bad when the book in question is beyond repair, as in Kate Tempest's prints taken from damaged vintage children's books.

The (increasingly popular) process of digital photo printing, on canvas or heavy art paper, seems like a responsible alternative to ripping the book apart. (Especially if it wasn't especially well printed in the first place! Sorry, Ladybird.)

(click to enlarge)

One of the more interesting choices on the Ladybird Prints site must be the classic The Computer. How about one of these at A0 size -- that's over a metre high -- on 'watercolour paper'! (more images after the jump).

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June 7, 2008

History corner: Byrne's Euclid, 1847

Oliver Byrne’s 1847 edition of Euclid’s Geometry is a striking example of Victorian typesetting and book design, notable for its use of colour and layout to express mathematical proofs. It seems worth sharing here for its experimental use of graphic forms for teaching geometry.


The title page reads: ‘The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid in which coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters for the greater ease of learners.’ Byrne was a surveyor, mathematician and teacher, and the contents of the book, which covers the first six books of Euclid’s ‘Elements of Geometry’, covers topics that made up the basic mathematics curriculum for many students at the time. These pictures are ones that I took of the copy held in Special Collections at the University of Reading.

(click on the spread for a larger view; more spreads after the jump)


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April 16, 2008

Non-fiction picture books ignored again

A recent article in the Economist (April 5-11 2008) bemoans the decline of the picture book and the status of illustration generally in Britain, after the author's visit Bologna children's book fair. But the piece is concerned solely with fiction…

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April 10, 2008

Green books for kids

I saw an announcement for a kids 'green' book award, and it reminded me of an issue I've been thinking about for a while; namely a recent mini boom in kids eco-crit publishing.

There are some really interesting examples out there. Perhaps the most high-profile is the junior book version of An Inconvenient Truth. How's that for crossing media? Lecture to film to book, and adult to kid. There are also a growing range of guides to saving the world today, and don't get me started on the cultural politics of How To Turn Your Parents Green. There's a basic review of such literature published in Nature last December, and a run down of US equivalents can be found here.

There are tonnes of really interesting questions we could ask about these books and I could be all day writing this post. To start with a single point though, I wonder whether it is useful to class them as 'science' books?

There is a long tradition of children's nature guides, which I guess the non-fiction books could fit into. But there is both an analytical tone, and normative force, to these books which the more traditional 'spot the birdie' publications (rooted in Nature Study or similar) would shy away from. Are they politics then? Maybe. But they suggest themselves as factual information, as much as opinion; so are they science? In terms of the fiction and the fictionally-inclined (a lot are purposely in-between fact/ fiction boundaries), children's literature scholars have long argued pro-nature stories in kids SF generally paints science in a bad light, as if nature and science were somehow opposed. Personally, I think that axis is changing slightly, especially within steam-punkish forms of (tech)nostalgia and in some of the fantasy/science fiction genre fusions from writers like Eoin Colfer. Still, Noga might disagree!

Maybe the business of eco-crit for kids is its own small genre (or section of cross-genres). And I don't think we should get carried away assuming this is especially new - just looking back as far as the early 1990s, who remembers Captain Planet? Not to mention Nature Study (again), the Really Wild Show, David Bellamy...

February 24, 2008

Isotype workshop

This post is based on my workshop presentation at the 'Discussing popular science' workshop at Imperial College on Friday. Thanks to Alice for a great event! Though I could only make half the day, I met loads of interesting people, and the discussion-based format was a nice change from the usual.

I chose to bring along some the Max Parrish Isotype books for children that are part of the Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype archive held in the Department of Typography in Reading. These were developed by Marie Neurath and published by Max Parrish in London from the late 1940s to the 1960s. The books are innovative in their approach to picture/text integration and characterised by a very systematic approach to pictorial information, colour, layout and writing -- excellent examples of integrated design and layout.


This is just a beauty shot of the covers. 2-page spreads are after the break!

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October 21, 2007

Science and Cartoons

Science and Cartoons (Japan edition)

In the first post I made about Japan, you can see some examples of picture books on science and nature which the conference organisers had put together. One of the things that struck me was the way they integrated illustration in a rather artistic, children's literature style with approaches more common to technical illustation or photographic representation.

Some other books I found (looking in kids bookshops) were possibly even more exciting... Science Manga.

Doraemon Science communication - covers

More under the cut - warning to any on dial-up, this is pretty photo-heavy.

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September 18, 2007

Stephen Hawking (and Daughter) write science faction

I promised analytical posts based on Japan, and I've got two working through my brain which I'll put up soon, but for now, a bit of news.

Stephen Hawking's written a kids book with his journalist daughter, Lucy, and a French phsycist, Christophe Galfard (just out in English, it'll be published in French next week). You can read an extract here. I'm not that impressed so far, but I'm yet to get my hands on a copy.

According to Cosmos magazine, Lucy Hawking told the press that her father kept repeating "That's too much science fiction, we do science fact." That's fair enough as a bit of hype, but doesn't suggest a very developed attitude to writing (fiction or fact!). They also quote Stephen Hawking as saying "I don't know of any other book quite like George's Secret Key to the Universe... think we may be unique".

Er, Stannard, Gamow, Gilmore, Arnold and DeSaulles, Abbott . Maybe they have added something else as well though, the extract reads like a stilted Stannard, but it is just an extract. Apparently they mix in cartoon illustrations alongside technical drawings, which could add something to the literary mix of fact and fiction that these other authors employ (though DeSaulles' has been doing that for years too, and Gilmore turned his Alice in Quantumland into a computer programme, not to mention the multimedia spectacular that is the Magic School Bus). Mmmm. I'll keep my sceptism in line till I've looked at it properly, it's not fair at this stage.

Anyone else actually read it?

September 5, 2007

Japan Conference

I'm just back from the ISRCL conference in Kyoto, and having finally cleared my inbox I can post about it!

There was a reasonable amount on science and technology. As always, Mel Gibson's paper on girls and comics was a blast, I especially was interested in her discussion of the 'investigative gaze' of Supergirl's ability to see through walls (which, Gibson argued, she'd be subsequently punished for using). Susan Napier gave a fantastic lecture on anime, which included some discussion of attitudes to technology in Japanese culture. The Dystopia session (characteristically) covered a lot of science issues, from Farah Mendlesohn's paper on allegory to Kay Sambell's fascinating discussion of bodies in Bloodsong (abstracts here, note links to PDF). Also, the eco-criticism strand my paper was in, included Liz Parson's paper comparing Fern Gully and Princess Mononoke, which drew out some of the class issues around Nature/ Culture questions these films address (abstracts here, note links to PDF).

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August 29, 2007

The Science of Cloning

I just finished Star Split by Kathryn Lasky, another post-Dolly cloning book. It describes a future dystopia in which, although there are strict regulations regarding genetic engineering and cloning, there is no appreciation of the individual. It never ceases to amaze me how authors do not bother to check scientific facts in this day and age. Lasky's dystopia allows the cloning of gifted people, including the head of state, out of the notion that the clones will be 'copies' of the original and gifted in the same way. She has obviously never encountered identical twins. Her heroines, although growing miles apart, are both mountain climbers. At least Lasky doesn't claim that memory is transferable, as does Chris Farnell in Mark II. It is rather irritating.

May 30, 2007

The telephone in pictures

When I tell people that a big part of my research is about 'graphic description' I often get a blank look; what does this mean? but it can be good fun! I thought I'd share a few double page spreads, for your consideration:




These are also popups for more detail. There's nothing like direct comparison to see how dramatically different approaches to book design and illustration can be.

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September 5, 2006

Beauty and imprecision in diagrams

I thought it would be appropriate to present the image that I er borrowed to create the masthead of this blog: a double page spread from the Penguin Book of the Natural World, 1976. This is a small but encyclopedic volume covering everything from cells to plants and animals to ecosystems. Several main sections such as those of the plant and animal kingdoms are illustrated with these really nice hand-drawn geometric diagrams.


A larger version

I want to draw attention to the paradox of 'bad information design' versus aesthetic beauty. I'm stricken by the illustrative quality, colour and form of this spread. My favourite part is the cluster of circles on the right, meant to illustrate the 'approximate size of different plant groups'. Of course, from an information design perspective, gaining precise knowledge from this is difficult; research has shown that comparing quantities by surface area such as these circles can be misleading (see for instance Macdonald-Ross 1979). It would be much easier for readers to grasp the real quantities involved with a bar graph, for example. A table of figures would be the most accurate, but also possibly the most off-putting form, unless the illustrator could make a table of figures look amazing. In this sense the less accurate diagram is more effective.

When we are talking about young readers who may or may not have any interest in the subject, maybe all of this doesn't matter, and holding the fickle reader's attention is most important. This opens up a whole can of worms about 'edutainment'. A utopian solution might be to train everyone in principles of good information design. But for now: how much educational value is there in science that has been so tarted up? And isn't some scientific value better than none at all?

August 28, 2006

Telling Science: the D-N model & narrative structure

When I say my research looks at science stories people are often surprised. Sometimes shocked: "but how could the children tell the fact from the fiction, wouldn't science stories just confuse?". Personally, I think views like this are simplistic nonsense.

There are several arguments I have in defense of the story as a tool for science education. Without getting into a whole quarter of my thesis, now I want to overview just one of my arguments for science storytelling, and discuss the proposition that stories have a "logic" which particularly suit communication of scientific ideas.

Fritz Kubli, in a rare article applying theories of narrative to science education*, emphasises the German world for storytelling has the same route as counting, arguing that the story has a very logically put together plot. This plotting is something which happens in science, although it tend to go under different rubric ( e.g. the deductive nomological model).

A children's science story I have done a reasonable amount of research on is Russell Stannard's Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest, a tale of a little girl who goes on adventures within the world of the very very small to learn about quantum physics. In this Stannard chooses to give us first the atom, then the nucleus and electrons, then quarks, then their strange behaviour. Going straight to the uncertainty principle would appear to come out of nowhere, but with Stannard's story we are first introduced to entities to provide "logical" reasoning behind it.

We meet x then are told y, thus z must be true.

As anti-realists might be fast to point out, logic does not necessarily make something true, but it can give the persuasive appearance of it.

There are stories, and forms of science for that matter, that do not suit this. They invert common ideas of narrative structure or eschew logical reasoning as a route to knowledge. But I think this is one way in which we can see science and the story fitting together quite well.

There is, within this, Hayden White's problem of emplotment. But I'm going to leave that for now.

*reference: Kubli, F (2001) Can the Theory of Narratives Help Teachers be Better Storytellers? Science & Education, vol. 10: 595-599