The first instalments of the new What do the grown-ups do? series, Joe the Fisherman and Papa the Stockfarmer are educational books aimed at teaching five to ten year olds about the world of work, following the Mackenzie girls as they ask adults questions about their jobs.
I’ll start with the old adage ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ – and throw it out of the window. These books have a 1970s educational feel, looking like an old textbook on a classroom shelf which you’d occasionally open simply to laugh at the trousers. This is not what worries me most, however; given their overt educational purpose, both books contain some alarming errors. On the cover of Joe the Fisherman they cannot decide if ‘fisherman’ should have an initial capital in the book title; they’ve used one on the front cover, but not on the back. Amusingly, it’s the other way round on Papa the Stockfarmer, where they’ve used the initial capital on the back cover, but not the front. Further to this, Papa the Stockfarmer’s job title should almost certainly be two words, ‘Stock Farmer’, as indeed it is written by broadcaster Louise White on the ‘praise page’. It does not end there. The use of ‘light hearted’ on the back covers of both books should be either one word, or hyphenated at best – as the publishers themselves render it in their accompanying information sheet (which also contains a few silly, avoidable mistakes) and within the books themselves.
Having already spent too much time on judging a book by its cover, I will not dwell upon the quote marks around ‘poo’ (is it metaphorical poo, one wonders?) and how long-winded the blurbs on the back are, but move on to the stories themselves. At first, I was a bit put off by the books’ use of the past tense, which seemed at times to place the stories in the historical past in a way that was quite at odds with the content. However, when I read the text aloud, half to myself and half to my young daughter, this objection evaporated. The language definitely lends itself to being read out loud. McLellan has managed to simplify the world of work without dumbing it down: she includes a number of technical terms and concepts, such as how to lay the creels in Joe the Fisherman, complete with handy diagram, and low- and high-ground farming in Papa the Stockfarmer.
Each book also carries an environmental and sustainability message. Joe the Fisherman talks about the dangers of overfishing and possible solutions to combat this, while Papa shows how his cattle’s manure can help other creatures in the vicinity. Twinned with this is the series’ higher moral purpose – the importance of hard work – and the books are filled with little bits of wisdom such as the importance of enjoying what you choose as a career, and (my favourite line), ‘Mama says only stupid people get bored.’ This is all very commendable and at its best, the series read like the middle books of the classic Ladybird series Peter and Jane.
Covers aside, most of the books’ errors could easily be fixed: a missing closing quote mark, a misspelling of ‘dissimilar’ and questionable brackets within dialogue. There’s also a small incident of sexism in Joe the Fisherman which could have easily been omitted, especially given how proud Scottish fishermen’s wives have historically been of shouldering their share of the hard work – quite literally, in villages where they carried their husbands on their backs to prevent their feet getting wet on the way to the boats. So for Joe to say ‘However, my mother used to fish with my father, so not everyone on the boat needs to be really strong, but it definitely helps’ strikes a bit of a sour note.
Formatting also has room for improvement. Particularly jarring was the use of boldface type on key questions asked by the girls; are these stories, or magazine interviews? That being said, these books are definitely positioned as educational literature. I am not sure they are exciting enough to read to children, as they lack a clear beginning/middle/end structure and don’t have a climactic ending (although Papa the Stockfarmer is much better in this respect, as it includes the conflict of rescuing an ill calf). They are interesting enough that children of, say, seven or eight would read them to themselves. But I’m not sure I would give these to children to read to themselves, as the experience might tend to teach them incorrect – or at least highly inconsistent – spelling, punctuation and syntax. The tragedy is that any competent proofreader could have easily fixed all of this. Given that these titles cost nearly twice as much as most other colour-illustrated children’s paperbacks, parents can reasonably expect careful proofreading to have occurred.
Nevertheless, especially if tidied up, this series will no doubt continue to be enjoyable to read, and a great way to teach young children about the world of work.