In recent years publishing information books for young readers has become increasingly difficult. Once, the shelves of Dewey classified titles were the first port-of-call for those involved on “projects”. Once, children would have used books written by authors like Unstead, in which there was a good balance between accessible, informative text and illustration. Then came the “Usborne and Dorling Kindersley” revolution where the illustrative content, usually photographic, was increased and the text reduced. This format has become the norm resulting in books that deliver just the right amount of factual information to satisfy the curriculum; stimulating the imagination is not part of the agenda. The world moves on; Google now provides the answers- and does it more immediately. Sound bites muffle the wonder of finding something out.
How can young readers be excited by the factual as much as the fictional? What can one give those who say they don’t like stories? Does there have to be a gulf between the two categories?
We all know a great deal about Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole; it was a glorious – or needless – failure. Much less attention is paid to Shackleton’s equally epic, and ultimately successful expedition to cross Antarctica. For the young person who is lucky enough to find Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill there can be no such excuse. The very size of the book attracts attention – but it is not a thick tome. Yes, it is large (like Antarctica) but so are many of the graphic novels that are familiar. Then there is the design – the intriguing compass on the cover peopled by figures, dogs, whales and boats. Is it a compass? Journey’s certainly need a compass. Opening the book, the reader is presented with a sea of broken ice. The atmosphere is building. Throughout, the designs mirror the setting. These range from the great double page spreads where the enormous space of the Antarctic landscape is evoked in cold blues and freezing white, to the detailed inventories of dogs, equipment and sailors, bringing to mind the pages of a personal diary. Action and desolation are equally presented. There is no doubt as to the hardship – the sheer physical cold – that was involved. However, this is not just a pictorial record. Carefully crafted text combines factual information with a more descriptive style that draws the reader in. This is the story of an extraordinary feat of endurance – a real adventure. Here the words and illustrations combine not merely to inform but to excite.
Fact? Fiction? Books like this defy such categorisation; it is a book that demands to be read. It will transport the reader to another time and place to emerge better informed than before.
Flying Eye Books, 2014