On the home front

20th November 1998 at 00:00

Guatemala, Bosnia, China, Ethiopia, Brazil.

By Julia Waterlow.

Japan, Vietnam.

By Simon Scoones.


By John King.

South Africa.

By Jen Green.


By Sonja Peters.

Wayland Pounds 8.99 each.

On the cover of each of these first-rate books, the families sit in front of their houses surrounded by their possessions. The Getus in Ethiopia - two parents and five children - have a house with two rooms. They have some cooking utensils and some animals - the animals live in the house too.The Pfitzners in Cologne have books, CDs, a motorbike, toys, electronic goodies. The contrast is commonplace but shown here in stunning, unarguable detail.

All the books end with the same question - "What do you wish for the future?" Simon and Poppy Qampie in Soweto want peace and schools for their children. Mio and Maya Ukita in Tokyo want good careers in medicine and music. Again, the differences between rich and poor are simple but graphic. The books' great strength is the lack of moral complacency and pious editorialising. The facts and feelings are allowed to develop in the minds of readers.

They will captivate and enlighten readers of seven upwards. Quotations from children and their parents are subtly used to make a vernacular mosaic of data and opinions. When Getu's sister-in-law says: "Most of my day is spent doing things with dung," we have seen her collecting it, using it to cover the walls of the house, mixing with straw and burning it for fuel. When Nedzad Bucalovic in Sarajevo says: "I'd much rather be a hairdresser than a soldier," we understand because we have seen him in his Bosnian army uniform and at home making plaits for his mother-in-law.

We learn something of the politics that impinges on families - the one-child-only rule in China, the role of Saddam's army in Baghdad. (The Saleh-Ali family was actually selected by the Baath party to represent Iraq.) We also see how women's roles are changing faster in some countries than others. Wasan Ali has a job unacceptable under more strictly Islamicist regimes. Lucia Calabay in Guatemala can't count the number of hours she works each week.

Children will notice how football and TV cartoons are the manifestations of an international culture in which they all share - except in the electricity-free house in Ethiopia. They will enjoy some wonderful colour pictures, full of telling details such as the Qur'an texts on some walls and the saints' pictures on others. Even one of these excellent books would be an unimaginable luxury in some of the countries portrayed. That's one lesson for children. But so is the knowledge that arguing with your sister or enjoying your mother's cooking knows no national boundaries.

Tom Deveson is an advisory teacher for the London Borough of Southwark

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