Children's books

28th July 2000 at 01:00
SIGHTSEERS ESSENTIAL TRAVEL. Guides to the Past. Ancient Greece. By Julie Ferris. Ancient Rome. By Jonathan Stroud. California Gold Rush. By Julie Ferris. Shakespeare's London. By Julie Ferris. Kingfisher. pound;5.99 each.

THE STORY OF LONDON. By Christopher Maynard and Jacqui Bailey. A amp; C Black. pound;3.99.

"Athens would make a good base for your holiday. It has an impressive political system" (Guide to Ancient Greece). Imagine the captions if modern travel brochures sold holidays with lines like that.

Russia - "sample the impressive black economy!"; Turkey - "witness Kurdish oppression!" Now there's an idea.

These guides are intended to accompany children (from seven upwards) on an imaginary visit to a place in the past. Imaginary visits for children with imagination. For in real time, you can visit a place only at a particular moment, so some conflation of historical events has to be allowed if the guides are to work.

Accepting that, one cannot deny that this approach has the effect of making the past come alive. By being gossipy, glossy and attention-grabbing, in a style that mixes the pitch of an estate agent with the journalism of a tabloid and the factual content of a museum handbook, the books suck you in.

And if it is facts that you want, these books give you facts, although they may not be quite the facts you're after. In the guide to the Gold Rush, Lotta Crabtree, child star of late-19th-century America, is pictured in an alluring pose. We are told that she imitated famous people. In the Rome guide we are told what to do if we are caught short n a walk around ancient Rome. (We wee in a jar.) Referring to another guidebook, I learn that female travellers in ancient Greece are not going to need a guide at all, because they are rarely allowed out of the home. Whether this is to protect them against lecherous bottom-pinching or for some deep socio-political reason, the guide does not say. But I had better stop carping or I may end up with my ears clipped and my face branded with a hot iron (Guide to Shakespeare's London, page 31).

The guides contain much more than titbits and gossip (although the gossip is what makes them so attractive), and disgorge many important facts in an easy to-read, chatty style. Ticks, exclamation marks and the use of other icons make the layout unnecessarily fussy, but the illustrations are fine and the books are good to look at.

The Story of London does not have the time problems that the Sightseers series has because it is very definitely set in the present. Indeed it can serve as a handbook to any junior age child who might be visiting the buildings associated with The London String of Pearls Millennium Festival (www.stringofpearls.org.uk). Although the writing is not very child-friendly, the historical coverage is impressive and there is lots of fascinating data for children to trawl through. As a Londoner, I was ashamed to discover that I did not know the name of the very famous and most important first mayor of London. I do now. (Sorry, Henry FitzAilwin - he got the job in 1193.)

Paul Noble

Paul Noble is head of St Andrew's primary school, Blunsdon, Wiltshire


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