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Global understanding that starts at home

Young Oxford Books. Ecology, By Michael Scott. 0 19 910054 3, Prehistoric World, By Jill Bailey and Tony Seddon, 0 19 910043 9. Astronomy, By Simon and Jacqueline Mitton, 0 19 9100373 3. Oxford University Press Pounds 12.99 each.

First impressions on opening these books are of stunning photographs and illustrations. This initial pleasure is soon followed by admiration for the way in which the authors convey complex concepts in clear language and with well-chosen examples. As experts in their fields, they provide information and ideas which are right up to date (the latest pictures from the Hubble telescope, for example) and do so in ways which preserve the integrity of theories while presenting them in simplified form.

Each book contains a glossary and index which makes it suitable for reference by anyone from the age of nine or 10, with no upper limit. In each book the content is presented in fairly short chapters on a particular theme, with insets which give additional information, sometimes suggestions for activities or investigations by the reader and, more frequently, brief accounts of how discoveries were made. They do not go into the kind of detail which is more appropriate for specialist interests.

Ecology not only informs and feeds curiosity, but conveys messages which are important to the future of life on Earth. The best way to develop the understanding which underpins responsible attitudes to the environment is to start with simple explanations of the interdependence of living things that are familiar to children. The alternative of starting with global concepts and deploring changes in animal and plant populations which may seem distant to young readers, can generate more anxiety than understanding.

The three sections of Ecology deal with the enormous variety of lifestyles, with life in various habitats and only then with threats to life. The central themes are presented through intriguing examples and fascinating illustrations.

The threat to the diversity of plants and animals caused by human activity is treated as an issue of great importance, although without the political dimension. What is particularly impressive about this book is the fact that it is not choked with Latin names and taxonomic jargon. Quite young children will enjoy the pictures and older ones can return more than once to collect successively more sophisticated understandings.

Prehistoric World looks at the evolution of Earth and the history of life on the planet. The first part has the flavour of a textbook, with information about continental drift, plate tectonics and fossils. It might be hard-going for primary school children, because of the global context and large timescales involved. Nevertheless, the underlying message of the Earth's surface as constantly changing and the various possible reasons for this come through well. The second part of the book has chapters on living organisms throughout Earth's known history from pre-Cambrian to the Ice Age. This is a mine of information for the young inquisitive mind and is well suited to upper junior as well as older readers.

There are links between Prehistoric World and Astronomy in, for example, the astonishing fact that when astronomers look at the farthest galaxies in the universe they are receiving light which left its source before the formation of the Earth, tens of thousands of millions of years ago. The immense scale of the expanding universe is among the many difficult concepts of astronomy which are developed through this book with apparent ease. This success is partly due to the organisation of the material, beginning with the position of the Earth in the Solar System and moving out to the Sun and stars and finally to the Milky Way, to other galaxies and to quasars. On the way, the reader can pick up information about each of the planets of the Solar system, about black holes, supernovae, asteroids and comets.

These books are excellent value for money and all three should be considered for primary and secondary school libraries as well as in the home.

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