Thursday, October 6, 2011

Why 'cross section' & diagrammatic books work with boys

 I was reading one of Stephen Biesty's most recent cross section books with my grandson aged 9 (almost) the other day - 'Into the Unknown' (2011) illustrated by Stephen Biesty and written by Stewart Ross. It is published by Walker Books. It has to be one of my favourite books of this type. The book is a wonderful collection of stories and cross sections of 14 'Amazing Journeys'. The journeys include the epic travels of Marco Polo down the Silk Road to China in 1271-1274, David Livingstone exploring the Zambesi in 1858-1864, Captain Cook mapping Australia and the Pacific in 1768-1771, Umberto Nobile flying over the North Pole in 1928, Jacques Piccard's travels to the top of the Stratosphere by balloon in 1932 and then by submarine to a depth of almost 11,000 metres in the ocean in 1960. It is suited for boys (and some girls) aged 7-14 years.

As a child I loved books with cross-sections, maps and detailed diagrams or drawings - bodies, buildings, vehicles, the Earths' crust, mummies and so on. David Macaulay's books, including  'The Way Things Work', 'Castle' and 'The Way We Work', are other excellent examples in this genre. My recent post 'Making Reading Exciting for Boys' covers some of this wonderful material. But why do they work?

There is something about a good cross section or diagram that got my brain whirring as a child (and still does). And the same thing seems to happen for many boys.  Why? I think there are a bunch of reasons:

Cross sections teach you things - A cross section of a mountaineer's clothing and equipment gives an immediate sense that climbing Mount Everest must be VERY cold, heightening the sense of this amazing achievement. Jacob already knew about Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay and the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, but seeing Biesty's drawings made concrete many of the things he heard or read previously, and opened his eyes to others he didn't know.

Cross sections and diagrams offer a better sense of size, quantity and significance - You can read about the famous crossing of the Indian Ocean by Chinese Admiral Zheng He in 1405-1407, but understanding the shear scale of his 'Treasure Fleet' becomes a jaw dropper when Biesty's fold out drawing of the largest fleet ever sailed by a single commander is revealed. Seeing 62 nine-masted treasure ships, 47 eight-masted horse ships, 48 seven-masted supply ships, 60 five-masted cannon carrying warships, 40 patrol boats and 20 water tankers helps you to visualize the shear scale and wonder of this phenomenon.

Cross sections stir the imagination - They encourage boys (and girls) to come up with their own ideas and to represent the learning that has been stimulated in new ways. As soon as Jacob finished reading the book with me he raced off to find some cardboard to make up his own board game of the Hillary & Norgay ascent of Everest. We then had to play it and 'relive' the journey through the game. It had many novel elements. For example, if you failed to land on the spot where you received a critical rope you were doomed not to make the descent safely. Spontaneous child-initiated activities of this type enrich the experience of the book, stimulate the imagination and reinforce learning.

Cross section books encourage boys (in particular) to revisit - A good cross section book will be looked at time and time again, and each time it will fire imagination and increase the desire to learn once again. Even at my age, I never tire of revisiting diagrammatic representations of Apollo 11 and the first moon landing. The experience of growing up during the space race and seeing the Apollo 11 landing live, was one of life's great memories, and it floods back with new richness with Biesty's images.

Cross section books also help you to enrich and enliven previous learning & experience - Jacob and I had the chance to see and crawl through an exact replica of Captain Cook's famous ship the 'Endeavour' when he was six. As we looked at Biesty's cross section of the book yesterday we recalled where we had climbed, how low the roof had been and speculated about the exact location of the Captain's cabin.

Summing up

Books that incorporate diagrams, cross-sections and maps have special interest for boys as readers and learners. They encourage them to read and use visual material to reinforce and enrich learning as well as stimulating their imagination and creativity. I would love to hear your recommendations for similar books.

Short video introduction to Stephen Biesty's book 'Stowaway'

For a full description of Stephen Biesty's work visit his website HERE

1 comment:

Emily Kissner said...

My boys love these books as well. I've also noticed that they really like the books that cross-reference information, like the guides to various action figures and the books that have stats on different cars and planes. Thanks for sharing these books!