Brief lives;Books

27th March 1998 at 00:00
WHAT'S THEIR STORY? Oxford University Press. pound;3.99 each

In the Seventies and Eighties, many classrooms still had substantial sets of the Ladybird Lives. Not any more. For all their faults, these short books educated and entertained several generations. In terms of biography, nothing has yet arrived to take their place, although this series makes a difference. There are now a dozen titles, all integrated into the Oxford Reading Tree at stages 10-14 and available singly as well as in two sets of six. Each set features both 20th-century lives and subjects from other eras, including early historical figures such as Cleopatra and Eric the Red.

"Life writing" is very much an under-used genre in primary teaching, partly because the availability of accessible, straightforwardly-written biographies has recently been so poor. Produced by a variety of authors and illustrators - there are some familiar Oxford teams, such as Neil Grant and Victor Ambrus for Eric the Red - these short biographies are all of a similar length and format, and each contains a list of important dates and an index.

My favourite titles are from the first series: Henry Ford and Amelia Earhart. There are no female subjects in the second set, which is both surprising and regrettable.

Best considered as a flexible resource, these books should not be purchased with a view just to using them as passive reading and reference material. With imagination, they can find a niche as interactive non-fiction components within the range of texts recommended by the draft literacy framework. Children might be asked to rephrase the given information, a skill well-developed by biographers, and additional source material on the subject might be presented.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary, Hailsham, EastSussex

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