Famous for all time

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Great men and women still deserve their place on the history shelves, says Tom Deveson

British History Makers series Queen Elizabeth I Winston Churchill By Leon Ashworth Cherrytree Books pound;10.99 each

20th Century Leaders series Churchill, Hitler By Paul Dowswell Stalin, Kennedy By Peter Chrisp Hodder Wayland pound;12.99 each

Leading Lives series Churchill By Fiona Reynoldson

Roosevelt, Hitler By David Taylor

Emmeline Pankhurst, Lenin, Stalin, Gandhi, Mussolini, JF Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Yasser Arafat By David Downing Heinemann Library pound;11.99 each

Judge for Yourself series Catherine the Great, Gandhi, Martin Luther King By Christine Hatt Evans pound;12.99 each

Creative Lives series Poets of the World War 1 By Neil Champion

Vivienne Westwood By Sean Connolly Heinemann Library pound;11.99 each

However often professional historians outlaw the "great men and women" view of the past, it's often smuggled past their theoretical frontiers in the form of biography. One reason why "then" became "now" still seems to be because X contributed to the process. Lives described without romantic ornamentation or superfluous piety continue to illuminate, explain and inspire.

The British History Makers featured by Cherrytree would have been familiar in classrooms 40 years ago, and the relatively uncritical narrative style also has an accustomed ring. The books nevertheless have the virtue of outlining a basic chronology and enlarging it with many paintings and photographs, and with contextual information on matters such as food, clothing or war. They won't introduce their readers, aged 10 to 13, to history's complexities, but they can spark a lively interest that can then be satisfied more richly and with more subtlety elsewhere.

Dictators and democrats share the billing in Wayland's series for older secondary pupils on 20th-century leaders, and such is the nature of the era that three of them feature heavily in one another's stories. The books are thoughtfully written, assuming an intelligent interest on the reader's part in the morality of past events as well as the facts. By adding photographs, some very well-known and some intriguingly unfamiliar, posters, cartoons and quoted testimony from contemporaries, they give the narrative text an added dimension. It's especially helpful to see the "low dishonest decade" of the 1930s in this way, with soon-to-be-murdered Bolsheviks, a smiling Chamberlain and anonymous tormented Jews complementing a dismal story.

The same protagonists are reassembled in Heinemann's set of Leading Lives, with other well-chosen names to swell the list. These books are aimed at key stage 3 readers, and so make less stringent demands than their counterparts from Wayland. While an underlying theme of the series is to examine the contribution made by individuals to historical processes, broader issues also have their proper place. Links of ideology or belief, such as those between Gandhi and Martin Luther King, are examined, and current controversies such as the role of Yasser Arafat are not shunned.

Some of the recommended resources need a health warning: films such as Warren Beatty's Reds and Spike Lee's Malcolm X don't really belong with a BBC documentary on the Nazis.

The series from Evans lives up to its attractive title. If you are a reader at KS3 or 4, you are invited to judge for yourself. In order to do this, you will need first to read a succinct 30-page biographical account of your subject. The addition of Catherine the Great to a more predictable roll-call adds to the potential interest. Then you have to answer half a dozen questions on the lines of "The Serf's Friend or the Serf's Enemy?"

and "Enlightenment Empress or Old-Fashioned Autocrat?"

Additional pages of background information and about 10 quotations from a range of argumentative observers and commentators support these debates.

The idea is a very good one, but some pupils will need help in distinguishing facts from opinions.

Heinemann's chronicles of Creative Lives go back to Shakespeare and forward to the beginning of the 21st century. Intended for readers at KS3, they offer a helping hand with a glossary that provides explanations of words such as "decorum" and "public school".

Vivienne Westwood is given a more obsequious treatment than seems appropriate; the distinction missing here is that between celebrity and lasting achievement. But that problem exists well beyond the world of school.

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