How to enthuse and enlighten

28th February 1997 at 00:00
CAMBRIDGE LITERATURE Children of the Dust By Louise Lawrence Pounds 4. 25 The Joy Luck Club By Amy Tan Pounds 4.25, Cambridge University Press. LONGMAN LITERATURE A Quartet of Stories By Maya Angelou, Lorna Goodison, Olive Senior, Alice Walker Pounds 4.40 Fiela's Child By Dalene Matthee Pounds 4.99, Longman.

LONGMAN IMPRINTS SERIES Landmarks. Edited by Linda Marsh Two Centuries Edited by Geoff Barton Scenes from Plays Edited by Michael Marland Genres Edited by Geoff Barton Longman Pounds 4.99

Bethan Marshall and Brian Slough look at three literature series, which include new titles, reprints and favourite extracts.

Cambridge University Press has brought out two more titles in their excellent literature series edited by Judith Baxter. Both The Joy Luck Club and Children of the Dust were originally published in the 1980s, but have been reprinted with the usual high-quality resource notes which include background information on the writer and issues, as well as a series of activities for individual students and the whole class.

Although the notes are aimed at students - the section on "How The Joy Luck Club presents its subject" would help any student struggling with the variety of narrative voices - they also provide excellent strategies for any teacher unfamiliar with the text, or teaching it for the first time. They refer, for example, to critical sources and other novels by Amy Tan with which The Joy Luck Club might usefully be compared.

The notes on Children of the Dust draw comparisons with other children's books written on the same theme such as Threads or Brother in the Land, but they also show the influence of Darwin's Origin of Species, thus allowing for the possibility of using the book for a wider reading assignment.

There are two new titles in the Longman Literature series edited by Roy Blatchford: A Quartet of Stories is an excellent collection bringing together short stories by Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Lorna Goodison and Olive Senior. The introduction and organisation of the notes not only invite comparisons between the writers, but a study of the authors themselves.

Fiela's Child by Dalene Matthee is a sensitive exploration of South Africa's racial conflict from a very different angle. Set in the middle of the last century, the novel tells the story of Benjamin, or Lukas, a boy caught in a custody battle between a black family, who found and cared for him for most of his life and a poor white family, who claim him as the son they lost when he was three. At its heart, however, the novel is about identity, how it is defined and who defines it.

The novel's structure, which switches back and forth between the two families echoes the tussles in the story and the conflict in Benjamin as he resolves his own identity. The easy, conversational style makes this a very accessible novel; the notes at the end of each chapter ensure that any student reading this unaided would notice significant pointers within the text.

Bethan Marshall lectures in education at King's College, London Leave well alone" has hardly been the English curriculum's guiding adage in recent years. The Longman Imprints buck the trend; their format is unchanged. Brief, non-prescriptive introductions, study activities, further reading and biographical detail never compete with the centrality of the texts, which are left well alone.

Except they are extracts (though not exclusively in Genres). Many English gurus would agree with Alan Bennett's lambasting of Classic FM for presenting highlights as the real thing: for music read literature. Fiddlesticks. A scene, or even a sentence, can enlighten and enthuse. Forty years on some current teenage "bud of love" will recall (like me 40 years ago) his tingling at Romeo and Juliet's second meeting. Admittedly, I fancied the girl playing Juliet. This scene, which appears in Landmarks, illustrates Linda Marsh's hope that "something in this book might startle and change you".

Her other intention is to provide a smattering of those literary landmarks that have come down through the centuries - the likes of Beowulf, Sir Gawain and Pilgrim's Progress. If that sounds daunting, don't be deterred. The editing is exemplary.

Likewise in Two Centuries, another adventurous anthology, of writers from the 17th and 18th centuries. The selection includes "specified" names such as Swift, but far more unknown in the stockroom. Look out for Zacharias Conrad Van Uffenbach on "Bull Baiting", especially if your school inspection is looming, or Engelbert Kaempfer on "Eating Poisonous Fish". Geoff Barton offers treats and complementary study suggestions, notably on language.

His Genres is also a successful example of this particular textbook genre. Subtitled "a collection of styles and forms", he acknowledges that "genre" is a controversial concept. Thus two or more texts appear in several of the chosen 12 categories (reportage, ghost stories, and so on). If definitions are difficult, juxtapositions are illuminating. Compare, for example, Wilfred Owen's letter to his mother with Bertrand Russell's on the madness of human slaughter.

The 11 Scenes from Plays form a collection of varied dramatic forms, countries and decades. They move from Japanese Noh play of the 14th century to Blood Brothers, via Ibsen and Dennis Potter. The study section is commendable in emphasizing the demands of dramatic production and staging.

Many teachers now fear that student reading will be limited by current syllabuses. This series can help to combat diminishing returns.

Brian Slough was a member of the Cox Committee

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