Colourful pasts

28th April 1995 at 01:00
STEPPING THROUGH HISTORY SERIES. MONEY 0 7502 1135 0, NEWS 0 7502 1138 5 The Post 0 7502 1136 9, WRITING 0 7502 1137 7 By Peggy Burns, Wayland Pounds 8.50 each

The covers of these books for 10-year-olds promise bright pictures with plenty of American examples. The insides keep that promise, but the international angle produces a strange lack of focus in the written contents. The post-Dearing curriculum is meant to give teachers more time to teach what they choose. Books such as these will provoke a need for further research and explanation they should themselves supply.

Money, for example, offers us a feature on the playing-card currency of 17th century Canada on page 11 and jumps to silver shekels in ancient Mesopotamia on page 12. A later page gives us Dr Dodd, the clerical forger who was hanged, facing a temple in Kyoto which might (at a time unspecified) have issued its own banknotes. The general explanations about the symbolic nature of paper currency and the philosophical question about the nature of money itself are done with clarity, but the book doesn't entirely know where it's going.

News begins vaguely, with cave paintings, the invention of printing and cuneiform writing all jostling for early attention. It is quite good at explaining the role of early newsheets and gazettes, but the examples reproduced are simply too small to be read accurately. Later discussions of the effects of new technology on our access to the news are quite thoughtful, but the book ignores key issues on the ownership of the media and how news values are determined.

The Post gives a lot of space to stamp collecting, the pigeons of besieged Paris and the Pony Express. These provide opportunities for some vivid images but don't contribute much of significance to the subject - the Pony Express, after all, lasted for barely two years. Chronological confusion appears again, with a section on the Royal Mail moving from Kubla Khan to the Falmouth coach of the 1830s and then back to Dick Turpin from a century before. The live issues in today's debates - private couriers and carriers, the Internet and e-mail are left out.

The early history in Writing, from pictograms and hieroglyphs to ideograms and alphabets, is thoughtfully covered. Once again, however, rather too many of the book's 26 operative pages are devoted to side issues such as secret codes and databases, and none to the realities that children meet every day such as felt-tips and word processors. Information about the simultaneous production of issues of the Wall Street Journal is also found in News. This suggests that the demands of marketing the series internationally have led to a loss of editorial grip and to lessened value for English classrooms.

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