Children’s Non-Fiction has recently resurfaced as in important element in the literacy program. Reading non-fiction, especially the new formats of children’s picture book non-fiction, require new skills for students to navigate. I believe that these texts provide an opportunity for explicit teaching that complements screen reading (in it’s non-linear, visually vivid structure) and therefore is essential for students today.
Changes in the format of non-fiction now see them far more enticing for young children. In the past, these texts were often “lengthy chapter books that required advanced reading skills” (Gill, 2009). Today’s versions are far more accessible, drawing the reader in through questioning, using variations in text, formatting and images, as well as interesting and lively layouts to engage the young reader. Sometimes these new formats include a narrative style or an exposition style, sometimes they use both.
One recent children’s non-fiction picture book text is “Meet Captain Cook”, by Rae Murdie, with illustrations by Chris Nixon. This is one in the “Meet…” picture book series by publishers, Random House. This series of non-fiction texts is “about the extraordinary men and women who have shaped Australia’s history, including the great explorer, Captain Cook.” (Random House, n.d.). It tells the story of Cook and his crews’ discovery of the east coast of New Holland (Australia) and it was awarded a Children’s Books Council Awards Notable Prize in 2014 in the Eve Pownell Category for information books.
I recently recommended this book to a Year 3 teacher whose students were struggling with the more complex “The Goat who sailed the world” by Jackie French, as a companion text to the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards Stage 2 History Content ‘First Contacts’. At the time, the picture book format of this text was my main consideration for recommending this book. It’s simplified language structure better matched the reading levels of this class and the illustrations were more engaging for these less-mature students.
However, is it really a quality representation of non-fiction picture books? To determine the quality of this text we can compare it to Gill’s (2009) ‘Criteria for selecting Non-Fiction Picture Books’. Gill suggests we should examine three specific criteria when selecting these books: 1) Is the book visually appealing?; 2) Is the book accurate and authoritative?; and 3) Is the writing style engaging?
Is the book visually appealing?
Illustrator Chris Nixon has used a graphic novel style format on the front and back cover with watercolour backgrounds and a stylised image of Captain Cook peering through a telescope. Cook’s appearance and clothing, although stylised, is historically accurate. The inclusion of his use of a telescope, in combination with the ocean and ships in the background across the whole cover provide the reader with a clear connection between Cook and his career as a seaman.
Ocean colours such as blue, green and pale browns are used throughout the text, to great effect. They contribute to the theming of the book – Cook’s oceanic adventures – and they allow the illustrator a wide variation on tone from pale when the journey is free from trouble to harsher dark navy, almost black tones, when the crew is in peril when sailing through treacherous oceans, meeting Maoris in New Zealand or becoming almost shipwrecked on coral.
Tones of red are sparingly used to indicate specific important points or characters in not only Cook’s historical journey but also his life journey. Most significantly, King George is dressed in red and provides Cook with his special instructions in a red sealed letter. The typesetting of the HMB Endeavour is in red, enlarged letters and Cook’s crew are all pictured in red uniforms. It is clear that Nixon’s use of colour, mostly red, white (space) and blues clearly signifies the red, white and blue of the Union Jack.
Whether unintentional or not, representations of Indigenous peoples (Maoris and Australian Aboriginals) are dark. The representation of Maoris uses menacing, harsh angles and fear-worthy Maori masks, indicating the less than friendly reception they received upon landing in New Zealand. However, Australian Aboriginals are represented in a softer way, first in shadows as observers and later in paler brown tones, indicating the truce that was initially reached between the British and Australia’s first peoples.
The endpapers consist of a relatively accurate world map with a journey line indicating Cook’s charter from England around Africa to what is now known as Tahiti, then on to New Zealand and the east coast of Australia. Without previous exposure or comparison to a World Map, the endpapers are very beautiful but provide few clues for students to accurately identify Cook’s journey.
The serif typeface is easy to read and consistent throughout the book. It is likely to be intended to resemble old fashion copper plating to indicate the historical connection of this book. Throughout the text, significant events and actions are highlighted in the text with a larger font size and all references to ship names are consistently italicised to identify them as such.
Murdie draws the reader into Cook’s story very quickly, using three brief paragraphs that set the scene of the proceeding story:
The hand-drawn frame, with illustrated stitching, again recalls the historical aspect of this text.
The following two pages hurry Cook’s personal journey along, with seven small illustrations surrounded by white space and a few words to match each. They describe Cook’s life before he was a famous explorer, all in one sentence. Although brief, this provides the reader with a simple but clear description of Cook’s birth, young life, teenage years, marriage and eventual career. I believe this, combined with the far more detailed Timeline on the very last two-page spread of the book provides the reader with enough of an introduction to Cook. After all, the focus of the text is Cook’s discovery of Australia.
The remainder of the text matches beautiful, stylised but accurate illustrations with historically accurate, primary-aged reading level appropriate paragraphs to match. Although most animal illustrations are abstracted (and children will definitely enjoy discovering the large whale in the sky as the Endeavour crew loomed close to death), where animals are mentioned in the text their silhouettes and shapes are fairly accurate. Of course, describing the native flora and fauna is not the purpose of this text so I believe that this does not detract from the quality of this text.
Is the book accurate and authoritative?
Reliability and validity are the keystones of information literacy. Does “Meet Captain Cook” pass these texts? In short, no. This text does not list consultants used to research the text nor does it discuss the research process undertaken in any end notes, source notes of bibliography. However, this texts is clearly an historical account but the text itself does not provide enough information to determine reliability and validity. Does this mean that it is poor quality. I don’t believe so.
A quick search on the Random House website for this text reveals more detail: From the outset, Rae Murdoch is not a historian. However, she did conduct extensive research in her development of this book, particularly through primary sources such as Cook and Sir Joseph Bank’s personal journals and authoritative websites. She also consulted with history librarians at the Australian National Maritime Museum (Random House Australia, 2013).
Although the illustrations are stylised, Chris Nixon also did a lot of research to ensure the accuracy of the “period and place” (Random House Australia, 2013). He achieves a nice mix here, that is appealing to children, as well as indicative of the time, These would provide lots of opportunities for discussion with students about the social structure of the time, class structures, organisational structure, and so on.
Is the writing style engaging?
Does “Meet Captain Cook” assist the students in detailing Cook’s journey. Will they be able to explain the impact of the journey? Does it provide them with enough information to discuss the question, “Who discovered Australia?”
Murdie uses a friendly narrative style, suitable for middle to upper primary students. The very brief introduction to Cook’s early years is presented in a user-friendly format, reminiscent of children’s picture fiction books. Murdie writes without condescension and handles some difficult concepts (for example, conflicts with Indigenous Peoples) succinctly and simply. Similarly, figures concerning the crew composition are introduced within the narrative. I’m sure children will delight in the specific mention of the cook with one hand!
However, making connections between what children already know and Cook’s experiences is not addressed in this text. This is certainly an area where the author has an opportunity to draw the reader into the adventure. Perhaps linking the journey to a long trip or the apprehension of going somewhere you’ve never been before to make those deep personal connections between the reader and Cook’s journey.
The inclusion of a glossary would also add to the quality of this text. There is a variety of technical words that Stage Two students may not have encountered before and a glossary would be useful to develop the vocabulary associated with this topic.
“Meet Captain Cook” may not be a very detailed information text for upper primary students, but it is an excellent introduction to the discovery of Australia and more specifically, Captain Cook’s life journey. It may not be what Gill (2009) refers to as ‘new non-fiction’ with side bars and multiple layers on each page, but is a quality introduction for a unit on First Contacts. For those additional ‘new’ elements that the curriculum now requires – embedded technology, interactivity and cross-curriculum priorities – extensions for this text are available.
Teaching notes for “Meet Captain Cook” can be accessed online from both Random House and the Primary English Teachers Association Australia. These include a variety of primary source links, additional library resources and multimedia interactive links to enrich and extend students’ understanding of Cook’s journey of discovery. They provide cross-curricular linkages incorporating creativity and imagination, visual literacy, information literacy and visual arts. “Meet Captain Cook” is therefore, an excellent introductory text, with some high quality elements. It is a good starting point for deeper discovery and extension, allowing differentiation within the primary classroom.
- Gill, S. R. (2009). What Teachers Need to Know About the “New” Nonfiction. Reading Teacher, 63(4), 260-267. Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=b5d4c72a-18c3-45a3-b631-0f00a063cd72%40sessionmgr4001&vid=1&hid=4204
- Primary English Teachers Association Australia. (2014). Meet Captain Cook: Exploring the 2014 CBCA Short List: Information Books. Retrieved from
- Random House Australia. (2013). Teachers resources: Meet Captain Cook. Retrieved from http://www.randomhouse.com.au/content/teachers/meet%20captain%20cook.pdf
- French, J. (2006). The Goat who sailed the world. Australia: Harper Collins
- Murdoch, R & Nixon, C. (2013). Meet Captain Cook. North Sydney: Random House.