People who left their mark

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Turning points in history generals who changed the world 1 85028 233 1. Scientists who changed the world, 1 85028 236 6. By Philip Wilkinson and Michael Pollard. STATESMEN WHO, CHANGED THE WORLD. 1 85028 234 X PEOPLE WHO CHANGED THE WORLD, 1 85028 235 8. By Philip Wilkinson and Jacqueline Dineen Dragon's World Pounds 8.95 each.

Perhaps the greatest childhood influence which encouraged me to become an historian was reading the vivid "Romance of History" stories in an old Newnes' Pictorial Knowledge encyclopaedia. The Dragon's World Turning Points in History series, simplified from the Encyclopaedia of World Events by Philip Wilkinson and Robert Ingpen, 1991, is in the same tradition of well-written explanatory narrative history.

Caveat emptor! The rather prosaic titles belie the nature of the books which are, in fact, far wider in scope than a study of the role of the individual. Generals Who Changed the World, is a broad, episodic sweep through military history - from the campaigns of Alexander the Great to Pearl Harbour and the Normandy Landings. People Who Changed the World concentrates on the history of ideas; its subjects include thinkers such as Buddha, Christ and Marx. Scientists Who Changed the World deals with scientific and technological developments, whilst Statesmen Who Changed the World describes the political achievements of leaders such as Asoka, Gandhi and Mao Zedong. The series is not even exclusively based on people. People Who Changed the World, for example, has chapters on the Irish Famine, colonialism in Africa and the Wall Street Crash. Neither are the chapters on famous people merely potted biographies; the authors set their subjects in a very wide context so the chapter on Julius Caesar, for instance, surveys the story of Rome from its foundation until the reign of Augustus.

The result is a series of short, historical outlines of important developments over long periods of time, centred loosely on a key player. The disadvantage of this approach is that children are given broad-brush generalisations which are often simplistic and in some cases questionable. The text in the books (despite the claims on the jacket) is neither investigative nor analytical, and I was disappointed by the infrequent use even of the word "perhaps" - not even in statements as dubious as the claim, for example, that "Columbus was a pirate for a while, before going to Portugal". The advantage, however, is a fast-moving and interesting text which recounts the story in the history.

Although the books are being marketed for the 8-12 age range, their use of language particularly in Wilkinson's introductions puts them at the top of that range. The series, by its design, involves a selection of what the authors consider to be the key events in history, but the topics are well chosen, with perhaps a slight over-emphasis on the ancient world. Twentieth-century events tend to be tackled with less success, and I was not impressed by the chapters on the causes of the First World War and events of the Second World War.

Nevertheless, the series is informative and interesting to read. Each chapter begins with an excellent diagram placing its central events firmly in its time and place, and has a fairly interesting "Fascinating Facts" textbook. The text is factually sound, with few typographical errors. The illustrations are more for decoration than information, but the books are attractively produced and designed. These books will make a popular addition to the history section of your book-corner or school library.

John D Clare is Head of History and INSET co-ordinator at Greenfield Comprehensive School in County Durham.

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