JUDGES’ REPORT: Eve Pownall Award for Information Books

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Eve Pownall Judges’ Report

The number of entries in this year’s Eve Pownall category is consistent with those in the past decade. The impact of digital publishing remains very evident and now seems to be entrenched. It has had most effect on the traditional form of information book, the general and subject reference style book, as the trend to fewer of this kind of entry continues. This has highlighted the prevalence of other types of information writing, particularly biography, along with recount and reportage. Whether this is a publishing trend is difficult to assess without a detailed analysis of recent Awards but it would be true to say that these genres dominated this year’s entries.

There were 54 books entered in the category with 17 being selected as Notable Books. Some of these featured in the Picture Book of the Year Notable Books list: Circle, Chooks in Dinner Suits and Desert Lake: The Story of Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre. This reflects the high standard of entries and the refreshing approaches authors are employing to widely engage readers.

Some common themes amongst the entries were: biography (Australia’s Nightingale: Nellie Melba), historical recounts and narratives relating to the Early Settlers (William Bligh: a Stormy Story of Tempestuous Times), historical figures and World War 1 (Socks, Sandbags & Leeches: Letters to My Anzac Dad). Many books focused on animals as a theme, with topics ranging from endangered animals and habitats to animal deeds impacting upon humans and migration. Adventure and drama were prevalent in the narrative works, in an appeal to young people’s reading tastes (Fabish: a Horse that braved a Bushfire). Several still included some of the typical information guide format, though often this was done in inventive ways. Many entries provided links to other resources and websites to further inform readers (Aliens, Ghosts and Vanishings: Strange and Possibly True Australian Stories). There were also many entries written in response to a social or personal issue. It should be noted that the authors wanting to teach a lesson or to increase awareness of a certain issue cannot be overly didactic if they want to engage a young reader.

Varied approaches were used by authors to attract and engage readers. Some used a direct approach to address readers more personally (The Gigantic Book of Genes). Other books used a ‘dip-in’ approach allowing readers to indulge in a full or part topic before returning later for another (Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks). There were several books in narrative style, which could be read like a novel from cover to cover. Some combined the narrative style with a picture book format creating an invitation for shared enjoyment and reading aloud (Boomerang and Bat).  But all books left the reader better informed on a topic after reading, as well as eager to learn more.

With the avalanche of information available online, creators of information books must be ingenious in their writing and production to attract readers. Some of the topics in this year’s Notable Books could have ended up drying on the page but due to the inventive use of narrative, clever illustration (The ABC Book of Food) and resourceful production qualities, they will captivate readers (Hello!).  This year saw an impressive range of book covers produced to attract and engross the reader (Spellbound: Making Pictures with the A-B-C). Gentle watercolours, historic photographs (Resource: Stories of Australian Innovation in Wartime) as well as bold cartooning, made many of the Notables rise above the rest of the entries. The illustrations were varied across the list, some using photos of primary sources with others utilising watercolour to gently convey meaning. Many information books can be overwhelming for young readers, their size and bulk off-putting. The judges noted that, in general, this year’s Notables were of an appropriate size for the readership. Some notable entries used variations of size and shape of text to create interest, whilst others invited the reader to interact with the information (Degas: an Art Book for Kids).

Publishers considering an entry into this category should refer carefully to the criteria as stated because they are what the Judges use in their evaluations. Firstly, these are literary awards. The implication here for the Eve Pownall category is that informational writing that needs to follow a formal structure will not qualify. This includes educational publishing such as courses of study, textbooks, pedagogical advice, activity books and the like. Secondly, they must be written for a readership under the age of 18 years. Writing for young people has recognisable qualities; consequently, books for this category are not just something young people might pick up to read but something designed for them to do so. There is a very important distinction in this regard. The third principal criterion to meet is the primary intention of documenting factual material. As these are literary awards documenting is taken as more than simply recording information or copying factual information from other sources and writing it down, in some cases as a compilation of other authors’ works. It must go further than that with substantiation, expansion, exposition and even speculation. All our Notable Books demonstrate the above criteria.

The subsidiary criteria as outlined in the policy used for these Awards measure the nuances of creativity, imagination, innovation, inventiveness, appeal, freshness – the list goes on – that the book should offer. They will vary from book to book but are the areas where impressions are made; the more impressive, the more surprising (how did they think to do that?), the greater excellence can be expected from the book. One further significant criterion to consider, not listed explicitly but surely assumed in the very name of these Awards, is the quality of book production. This must begin at excellent for a book to be considered further (A-Z of Endangered Animals). Regrettably, this is an area where much self-publishing falls short, simply for the lack of professional guidance and in some instances, due to the quality of the illustrations, or the text and illustrations not forming a cohesive presentation.

Finally, there is the curious incidence of fiction in an information category. There appears to be a view that appending or embedding factual details, either to or in a story with a fictional structure, converts this to an information book. In some cases, an invented character interacts with a historical one, even so far as using invented dialogue. None of these approaches will pass the test of prime intention unless the focus is clearly on the factual material being conveyed. We see that as the fundamental purpose of Information Book publishing.

 

Winner

Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks – Gina M Newton (National Library of Australia Publishing)

This identification guide about Australia’s magnificent and diverse fauna in fifty-five national parks, is presented in the traditional information book format: contents and index pages, an extensive glossary, location maps of national parks, illustration references and tables detailing animals’ habitation spread. Interesting additions to this format are ‘Mammals – Age at Maturity’ and each animal’s conservation status and challenges to their survival. This book classifies the fauna content by their habitat, which is a refreshing departure from the usual geographical sorting approach. Each habitat’s features are described in detail before introducing the species that inhabit them: birds, frogs, fish, reptiles, monotremes, mammals and marsupials with a special section for the ‘Little Critters’ – from ants to scorpions. Researching and writing this book would have been a huge undertaking but the result is not overwhelming for the young reader – or any reader. This valuable information book will be dipped into and revisited by readers and become a favourite staple of personal and educational libraries.

 

Honour Books

A-Z of Endangered Animals – Jennifer Cossins (Red Parka Press)

An inspired author/illustrator takes us on a journey to encounter some of the world’s rarest and most endangered animals, using the alphabet to introduce twenty-six animals from the Amur Tiger, the world’s largest cat, to the diminutive Zebra Duiker. To self-publish a book of this unique quality, in a market crowded with books championed by publishing houses, is an achievement. The presentation of this book is superb; from its production values that make you instinctively reach towards it, to the exquisite hand-drawn illustrations of each animal. The layout of a double page per animal provides the requisite impact and space for reflection. It is a delicate line to walk between preaching about our responsibility to protect animals from the impact of mankind’s activities upon their habitat, to using illustrations and information to evoke a connection with an animal’s vulnerability that makes you want to rise out of your seat and act. This book gently awakens one’s sense of responsibility and gives hope for the future for these unique animals, which deserve to live side-by-side with us under our protection.

 

The Gigantic Book of Genes – Lorna Hendry (Wild Dog Books)

The lessons in genetics from secondary school days may not sparkle in our memories, with those blurred-blob chromosomes and flattened double helixes in monotonous shades. This book takes maximum advantage of advances in knowledge and printing processes to make the subject not just fascinating, but accessible and understandable for even primary school readers. The information documented is just enough to interest young readers and not overwhelm them; at the same time the book is an excellent pre-reader for older readers embarking on more detailed studies in the topic.  Illustrations are bright, bold and imaginative, a combination of photographs and diagrams.  These illustrations are not decorative but form a strong relationship with the text. The book cover immediately attracts attention; the size and handling is attractive to young readers. Any young science enthusiast will enjoy the easy reading of this book as will anyone interested in learning about why they have Uncle Larry’s crooked nose. With the spotlight currently on STEM education, authorities would do well to take note of this kind of learning resource which is at the vanguard of new approaches to general reference publishing.

 

Other Shortlisted Books

Spellbound: Making Pictures With The A-B-C – Maree Coote (Melbournestyle Books)

What may not look like an information book at first, certainly is one.  With an instructional writing type that aims to increase knowledge and execution of a unique style of letter art – fontigrams – the presentation in this book is bold and colourful. It is sturdy and the cover is funky and exciting. Perfect for individual readers and groups of readers, this book will provide hours of word fun for a young readership; copying and practising examples for middle readers; and plenty of source material for graphic art skills. It is multipurpose. Nowadays publishers and creators should invent ingenious ways of presenting information that doesn’t look as though it comes from an iPad, website or eBook. This book is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when they put their soul into it.

 

 

Fabish: The Horse That Braved A Bushfire – Neridah McMulli, illustrated by Andrew McLean (Allen & Unwin)

This is one of those books that draws the reader in and, once read, will not be forgotten.  It is a wonderful story tightly told.  There is no drifting off into speculation on what happened, only the facts as known.  There is a tension throughout the story that holds right to the end.  The reader is introduced to the type of relationship that exists between trainer and horse with just one illustration at the beginning.  Both creators reveal their knowledge of their characters: the writer uses equine phrases easily and unashamedly – “clods, nostrils flaring, pranced and tossed their heads, Fabish snorted and stamped his feet” – and the illustrations show the fear in the horses as the fire approaches.  The colours reflect this fear as well as the all-consuming fire. The final page reveals the circular way of life and a promise of hope. Readers will want to seek more information about Fabish and the time that fire almost destroyed lives and a livelihood.

 

William Bligh: A Stormy Story of Tempestuous Times –  Michael Sedunary, illustrated by Bern Emmerichs (Berbay Publishing)

This fun, informative yet quirky telling of the story of William Bligh is great for reading aloud, the natural voice rhythm appealing to young ears.  The book integrates fact, has a conversational tone with historical illustrations, all mixed with a touch of whimsy.  Our knowledge of William Bligh is extended and the story engages on all levels. The book also connects effortlessly with the reader of any age. What sets this apart from other books on Bligh is the quality of the illustrations.  They are reminiscent of the naïve drawing styles found in logs and diaries of explorers of the time yet done in a sophisticated technique using hand-painted ceramic tiles. The illustrations are superbly layered and a reader can get lost for quite some time in each page. This is a visual treat.

 

 

 

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