Barefoot in the bracken before a life on the treadmill
INSIDE STORY The Roman Colosseum. By Fiona MacDonald and Mark Bergin A Viking Town. By Fiona MacDonald and Mark Bergin A Samurai Castle. By Fiona MacDonald, John James and David Antram A Renaissance Town. By Jacqueline Morley and Mark Peppe Macdonald Pounds 9.50 and Pounds 9.99 each
In the What Happened Here series, children are photographed visiting sites, then pursuing their questions about the sorts of things they (and the readers) really want to know - how things felt, tasted and smelt. They end up finding out an awful lot more.
After pacing a Roman mile along Hadrian's Wall and measuring the barrack room at Housesteads they visit a reconstructed barracks in the Army Museum at Greenhead in Northumberland; they taste the vinegary "wine" the soldiers drank on marches ("which did not taste too bad"), they feel with bare feet that the bracken which would have carpeted the barracks is soft and warm, not scratchy; they weigh and measure javelins and smell spices.
At the Mary Rose Museum they practise the skills of a Tudor shipwright, find out how a yardarm was raised, try loading the guns, find out how the food was cooked and learn how to delice hair, although not how to amputate legs. How useful this book would have been for some students who recently set up a role play area based on a 16th-century sailing ship, but found it difficult to extend the play by supporting children in finding answers to their questions because the information books were too difficult.
At Quarry Bank Mill the children "carry the can" of cotton pieces between machines as an apprentice would have done. (I didn't know that was where the expression came from either!). Neither did I know how to thread the shuttle I bought in a junk shop recently: you have to "kiss it".
Home in the Blitz begins with a visit to Winston Churchill's Britain at War Experience near London Bridge, sounds of exploding bombs heard from an air raid shelter, smelly gas masks, then on to carrot and dried egg buns, and darning lisle stockings with a mushroom!
The Inside Story series clearly aims also for reader involvement. We are exhorted to cheer, tremble, try to find a seat; to feel how cosy a Viking house could be, to sympathise or watch with dread; to marvel, admire, seek wisdom from a Buddhist priest. This seems a bit of a tall order.
These are sound information books, each with index, glossary and list of key dates. We are invited into buildings through cut away illustrations, to see how they were constructed, how the stones of the Colosseum were raised with hoists powered by treadmills, for example, then we are shown the teeming life within. This is explored in more detail throughout the book. Double pages on topics such as Viking Beliefs, Martyrs and Slaves, The New Palazzo or Samurai Training are illustrated with drawings of artefacts and of people using them - the usual sort of thing.
Most of the books in the series could be used to support a national curriculum study unit at key stage 2 or 3 - an Egyptian pyramid, a Greek temple, Shakespeare's theatre, 19th-century railway stations at key stage 2; a medieval monastery, castle or cathedral or a Samurai castle (study unit 6) at key stage 3. It seems an indictment to say that there is no time for a European perspective of Vikings or Romans at key stage 2, but this is probably the reality.
Whether the absence of questions about sources, tables to analyse interpretations and covert opportunities for assessing progress which have proliferated since the introduction of the national curriculum is a bonus or not is a matter of opinion. But I did find the impulse to cheer and tremble quite resistible.
Hilary Cooper is a lecturer at the University College of St Martin, Lancaster