Just the facts, ma’am, John Bonallack

Peter Blake Sailor, Adventurer: The Story of a New Zealand Hero
Alan Sefton
Puffin, $16.95,
ISBN 0143318306

Scarecrow Army: The Anzacs at Gallipoli
Leon Davidson
Black Dog Books, $19.95,
ISBN 1876372605

Blue New Zealand: Plants, Animals, Environments: A Visual Guide
Glenys Stace
Puffin, $19.95,
ISBN 0143520008

Frontier of Dreams – The Story of New Zealand: The Weight of World Wars 1897-1949
John Parker
Scholastic New Zealand and TVNZ, $24.95,
ISBN 1869436822

Cameras in Narnia: How The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Came to Life
Ian Brodie
HarperCollins, $24.95,
ISBN 1869505808

What do young readers want in a non-fiction book? I’ll go out on a limb, here. Young non-fiction readers are mostly boys. They want facts. They want to know stuff: real stuff their peers don’t know. And they want their facts in a variety of ways, especially visual. They like maps, diagrams, graphs, timelines, photos, tables and captions, and text that’s interesting visually. Lots of perfectly normal teenagers, especially boys, border on obsessive when it comes to their field of interest. And they do not want to be patronised. They want to be spoken to and written for in a natural way, as to a friend and fellow enthusiast. It was with these thoughts in mind that I let the boy in me read the five non-fiction books shortlisted for this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

I started with Peter Blake because I’ve sailed offshore. Written as a narrative, the book started slowly, but picked up with the accounts of the races. It was easy to read, though I felt I was being written to as a child. When I got to the chapter covering Peter’s death in the Amazon, I wanted more emotion. I become involved in a book’s main character; to a degree I become that character. When Peter died, I needed to live through it, rather than be slid past and on. There was too much generalisation. What I wanted were vivid anecdotes. I go easily from the specific to the general; not so easily the other way around.

Where people are quoted, the writing comes alive. Peter’s wife Pippa says: “We’d be sitting in bed in the middle of the night talking about the food and working out amounts. Suddenly we’d wonder, ‘How much porridge does one man eat in a sitting?’ Then we’d rush downstairs and pour a bowl of porridge, weigh it and zip back to bed to do the sums.” That’s good writing, but the book needed more of it. I was disappointed there were no visual tools: no maps, no diagrams explaining rig or sailing technicalities, no photos apart from the cover, no illustrations, no lists or graphs – and no index or glossary. Race times cry out to be presented as tables rather than as running text. And how can I conceptualise the roaring forties, great circle courses, the doldrums, prevailing winds and currents, and sailing ship routes without maps? I can’t help feeling the publisher short-changed the author, me, and Peter himself.

I enjoyed Scarecrow Army. I liked the feeling that I was being spoken to as an equal, and the journal excerpt at the start of each chapter really put me on Gallipoli and brought the appalling hardships to life. I appreciated the photos, maps and timeline, the glossary, the side-notes, the range of typefaces, and the overall design.

I thought I had a reasonable knowledge of the Anzac fighting on Gallipoli, so I was surprised at how much I learned. It was primarily a narrative text, but there were plenty of facts. I hadn’t realised, for example, that Britain lost nearly twice as many soldiers at Gallipoli as Australia and New Zealand together. And it certainly clarified for me that the campaign wasn’t glorious, and wasn’t a victory. It was poor strategy, often directed by incompetent officers, and the only part that was well-organised was the final retreat.

If I were wanting the facts on New Zealand’s coastal marine life, I’d choose Blue New Zealand. The logical layout makes it very accessible. Like the Bateman New Zealand Historical Atlas, each double-page layout covers a particular topic. It starts with how tides work, how New Zealand split from Gondwanaland, and the water cycle, and leads on to the marine fauna and flora classifications and then to each of the marine environments. The layout makes it easy to dip into and focus on one topic. As an able student, I could easily structure and carry out my own research, while if I were a less able student, I could take on one section, knowing I was contracting into a manageable two-page task.

The text is broken down with appropriate headings and sub-headings that make information easy to find. The combination of running text, fact boxes, and “digging deeper” boxes let me absorb the text at various depths. I was particularly struck with the attractive and informative diagrams, captioned photos, maps, satellite photo-maps, labelled fauna drawings, nets/flow diagrams, combination photo-tables, and photo backgrounds.

The Weight of World Wars 1897-1949 is one of four books paralleling the 13-part television series Frontier of Dreams. I was drawn in by the layout – double-page spreads each loosely covering a sub-theme and a period. Intriguing headings and sub-headings, such as “Mostly Useless Work for Mostly Useless Money” referring to depression work schemes, led me into the text, and I appreciated the excellent design with generous white space, varied typefaces with ample leading, the abundance of historical photos, historical maps, posters and advertisements – and the good quality paper. The restrained use of colour gave a sophisticated feel, and tables, such as the one for New Zealand soldiers’ winter rations in the trenches, the index, and the glossary made it a powerful reference volume.

Probably because this is the third of a chronological series of four, the book begins rather inconsequentially. I would have liked a strong opening that swept me into the period, and a conclusion that in some way rounded it off. I went into the book feeling it was a volume to dip into, browse the photos, and read some of the related text. However, I found myself enjoying the certainty of the facts and figures, and I liked the personal snippets fleshing out familiar names, for instance:

The Waikato Maori leader Te Puea Herangi led her people in an anti-conscription movement. Police raided the tribe and imprisoned Waikato Maori who had resisted their call-up by ballot…. When a number of young Waikato men were taken to a Maori training camp … Te Puea sat on the cliff above the camp to show the men that the tribe was watching over them.


I found I was learning things I hadn’t known – such as that, in the 1920s, women were not allowed to hold permanent jobs in the government or civil service. By the end of the book, key events in our history had gained a framework and made sense for me. Few young people will read this book voluntarily, but those who do will find our history summarised in manageable chunks and lit up with sharp, specific and confidently recounted incidents.

For the film enthusiast, Cameras in Narnia is great. The short chapters of one to four pages laid out in spreads make it easy to browse, and it is authoritative and full of facts on what goes into making a major film. For the more general reader like me, the text is dry, with too much general explanation and too few anecdotes, though the several hundred clear photos with very detailed captions help make up for this. There is no index or glossary, but terms are well explained in technical boxes through the book.

The best of it was fascinating. Now I know what clapper loaders, gaffers, key grips, and best boys do – and how the names originated. With light bulbs up to 100,000 watts you need an experienced “gaffer” (old English name for foreman) to look after lighting, and a competent “best boy” (best of the “boys” responsible for electrical matters). Operating in windy locations, from helicopters, or on studio cranes or scaffolding, you need “grips”, led by the “key grip”, who see to the movement of the cameras and make sure nothing flies away or falls off. And “clapper loaders” work the clapper-boards and load the film – easy once you know!

There were lots of general sentences of the “They would often”, “Sometimes” type. With all the wind, fog, fire, smoke, and snow; with mechanical rigs and robots; with contrasting personalities and moods, something must have gone wrong, funny things must have happened. Didn’t the wolves ever escape? Didn’t anyone get singed with a flame thrower? The boy in me wanted to know these things, but the adult did, too. That aside, going back to my criteria at the beginning of the review, is there real information here? Yes, and it’s well organised and presented. Do I now know things my peers don’t? Yes, lots of esoteric stuff. Is the information conveyed visually as well as in text? Yes, great photos. Did I get the facts, ma’am, just the facts? Yes, I did.


John Bonallack was formerly a teacher and an editor of the School Journal who now runs Marathon Books, publishing for reluctant readers. 


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Posted in Biography, Children, Media, Natural History, Review, War, Young adults
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