Children's non-fiction History series

7th January 2008, 12:00am
Tom Deveson


Children's non-fiction History series

KEY STAGE 2. Reading ages 9-11. WHAT WOULD YOU ASK?. Belitha Press 32pp pound;8.99 each

ON THE TRAIL. Watts 32pp pound;10.99 each

BRITAIN AT WAR. Wayland 32pp pound;9.99

HISTORY BENEATH YOUR FEET: Wayland 48pp pound;10.99

In the What Would You Ask? series, four explorers are interviewed vicariously for children by Anita Ganeri. Each of the four books begins with basic questions - What do you do? Where were you born? - before branching out into inquiries appropriate for their very different times and places. The first-person mode is adopted for the first answer; thereafter, an authorial voice takes over in a useful mixture of analysis, fact and description.

Some of the queries are very much the kind that children would pose themselves. What was your scariest moment? (for Marco Polo) or What was your worst moment? (for Magellan). The answers - crossing the Gobi desert with its haunting noises; putting down a mutiny by Spanish captains off the coast of Patagonia - help humanise stories which might otherwise seem full of strange names and distant dates.

In On the Trail, the landscape itself is scrutinised for the clues it yields about human intervention. The series sends children in the footsteps of their forebears through the two past millennia. These books use topography and architecture to develop the implicit theme that "Britain" is not a timeless entity but a collaborative and ever-changing creation. There are hilltop forts and stone circles, half-timbered farmhouses and ecclesiastical wall-paintings, neo-Gothic town halls and mid-century war memorials.

A series such as this depends greatly on the quality of its illustrations. There are some excellent photographs here: the steep ridged banks of Maiden Castle lording it over the Dorset fields, the crumbling walls of the Mithraic temple of Carrawburgh near Hadrian's Wall, the towering chimney of Lister's silk factory in Bradford, and the grim gateway to Wormwood Scrubs prison. The examples are drawn from all over the island, and most children will be able to take up the invitation to visit at least some of them.

History as detective work is placed within children's reah by the benign canine, Sherlock Bones, who gives them numerous opportunities for pursuing 60-year-old clues.

Britain at War is an excellent series, which uses posters, cartoons, newspaper clippings, extracts from interviews, and judiciously selected statistics to open up a wealth of intelligent questions. Photographs of evacuees, for example, are examined for their documentary value, but also for the role they might have played in maintaining domestic morale.

Young investigators are invited to look at billeting forms and school logbooks; at medical data concerning impetigo and ringworm; at the nutritional exhortations of Doctor Carrot and Potato Pete; and at the multitude of acronyms from ARP and ATS to WVS and WAAF. Pictures of children crying after bombing raids, carrying gas masks and sleeping in the Tube add a poignant touch to the story of how the Home Front dug, sheltered, watched, argued and endured for victory.

In History Beneath Your Feet, adult professionals have already carried out the analysis. It's the books' task to explain how and why archaeologists reach their conclusions. These are interesting accounts of how the profession has added new tools to its repertoire. We hear about the work of divers and diggers, of the perennial tasks of scraping sand, silt and soil, but also of much more modern techniques. There is the study of thermoluminescence and stratigraphy, the use of resistivity meters and ground-penetrating radar, each explained simply and illustrated by an appropriate discovery.

What Would You Ask? Marco Polo. Ferdinand Magellan. Amelia Earhart. Neil Armstrong. All by Anita Ganeri

On the Trail of: The Celts in Britain. By Peter Chrisp. The Romans in Britain. By Richard Wood. The Vikings in Britain. By Peter Chrisp. The Tudors in Britain. By Richard Wood. The Victorians in Britain. By Peter Chrisp. World War II in Britain. By Stewart Ross

Britain at War: Evacuation. Rationing. Women's War. Air Raids. All by Martin Parsons.

History beneath Your Feet: Ancient Egypt. By Jane Shuter. Ancient Greece. By Peter Hicks. Ancient Rome. By Sean Sheehan. The Aztecs. By Peter Chrisp

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