Graeme Williams writes "In the past, I've written the sort of poorly-structured non-compliant web pages that can only be produced by a combination of laziness and confusion, so I'm an ideal test subject for Head First HTML with CSS & XHTML, an introduction to building web pages which focuses on compliance with the most recent HTML 4.01 standard and XHTML 1.0 standard. The book starts with the simplest of web pages, and builds from there to a solid foundation for writing simple well-structured web sites. It's clear and thorough, and will be effective both for the complete beginner and in bringing stale skills up to date." Read on for the rest of Graeme's review.
This is one of those cases where you can judge a book by its cover. In addition to the title and author, the cover of Head First HTML with CSS & HTML has seven tag lines, four photos and two drawings. One of the nuggets is, "A learner's guide to creating standards-based Web pages", which is a pretty good summary of the book and its intended audience.
Head First HTML is full of the sort of distractions that would normally make my skin crawl: people talking at me from the margins, mock conversations between inanimate objects (or in this case HTML tags), crosswords, quizzes and enough cute graphics to supply the kindergartens of a fair-sized city. It's clear that the authors realize that there might be some resistance to this style because they devote five pages of the introduction to explaining why they wrote the book this way – the summary of the summary is that novelty helps your brain learn. The example chapter you can download from the web site for the book is more than 50 pages, which might be enough for you to make up your own mind whether this works for you. My experience was that the method is so effective and the material so clearly presented that the issue disappeared for me after a chapter or two.
In the introduction, the authors also mention another goal: "a clean separation between the structure of your pages and the presentation of your pages". HTML or XHTML is used to provide the structure and content of a web page, and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) are used to provide the style and layout. This means that the book doesn't include many HTML elements which are now discouraged or "deprecated", such as <B> for bold, <CENTER> for centered text, or <FONT> for specifying fonts within the web page. I guess the choice between frames and CSS might be classified as a religious one. In any case, this book is about CSS and doesn't mention frames except to note their omission in the appendix.
Most of the examples are based on a fictional coffee company called Starbuzz, and their trendy competitor, the Head First Lounge. It's a great framework for building up a web site from a few linked pages to a complete CSS layout. If you've never written a web page before, the book starts at the beginning, with the simplest web page followed by links from one page to another. If, like me, you've written a handful of web pages, reviewing the material will help focus on the essentials for a clean, compliant web page. All of the example HTML, CSS and accompanying images can be downloaded from the web site for the book, which also has the completed examples online, so you can quickly review them in your browser. If you're considering buying Head First HTML, the online examples are also a great way to see the scope of the book, from the simplest example to the most sophisticated.
There are a few prerequisites for getting the most out of Head First HTML. Adobe Photoshop Elements is used to show you how to prepare images for the web. As the book says, if you don't have it, you can download a free trial from Adobe, with the small quibble that this won't work if you've already run through your free trial before starting the book.
Understandably, Head First HTML doesn't tell you everything you might ever need to know about CSS. On the other hand, you learn a whole lot about using CSS both for appearance (such as colors and borders) and layout (positioning different parts of the page such as headers and sidebars). The book is particularly good at explaining at least some of the limitations of CSS, such as the different compromises of liquid, jello and frozen layouts. It's easily enough for you to be able to continue learning or experimentation on your own. With forgivable cuteness, the book also frequently mentions the availability of other O'Reilly publications with more information, such as HTML Pocket Reference and CSS Pocket Reference.
The last chapter provides a brief introduction to forms, including example designs both with and without tables. The goal of the chapter is to show you how to use CSS to style and layout forms, but you can't try out a form without something on a web server to process it, so the book's web site includes a simple-back end which will "process" (really just echo) the forms which are submitted to it.
Head First HTML deserves its score of 10, but that doesn't mean every word is perfect. I wasn't comfortable with the description of CSS borders, margin and padding until I'd gone back and re-read it. And it wasn't obvious to me that the background of a margin (such as a dashed margin) is the same as that of the content area it surrounds until I'd worked through some examples on my own. But that just underlines the fact that the book is so readable that I could tell when my understanding was slipping.
While Head First HTML never claims to be a reference, information is presented very clearly. If you forget the differences between HTML and XHTML, the book's excellent summary is easy to find, and includes a discussion of the W3C HTML and XHTML validator. That said, the index is short and idiosyncratic: there is a list of page references for the Q&A sections (under T for "There are no dumb questions") but transitional HTML is indexed only under "HTML, transitional", and jello, the layout, is found under "Design" but not "J" or "Layout".
I've said that I was initially very skeptical about the graphics-heavy Head First Labs house style. I'm pretty sure I've been thinking in prose all my life, but apparently verbal and graphical perception can be safely intermingled. I can't explain why, but this garden salad of words, pictures and diagrams of all kinds provides a easy-to-read and very effective introduction to a large amount of material."
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