Reaching well below the surface

31st October 1997 at 00:00
LANDSCAPES OF LEGEND SERIES. By Finn Bevan.Illustrated by Diana Mayo.




THE WATERS OF LIFE. Franklin Watts. Pounds 9.99 each.


THE SEARCH FOR GOLD. By Nicola Barber.



THE SEARCH FOR SUNKEN TREASURE. By Nicola Barber and Anita Ganeri. Macdonald Young Pounds 9.99 each

Dennis Hamley reviews two new series that deserve places in the school library

These two series are so similar in format and layout that I almost wonder whether each publisher has not pre-empted the next project of the other - particularly as the subjects complement each other so neatly.

The approach of the Watts books is new and refreshing. The fables are treated firmly in the context of the beginnings of animism in religion.

Each book deals with the awe in which ancient peoples held a particular natural phenomenon, expanding and rationalising it through the universal human urge towards narrative.

The structure of each book shows how this was a process common to every early civilisation. Thus, Mighty Mountains deals in turn with Mount Olympus and the story of Hephaestus; then Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, held by Hindus and Jains to be the centre of the universe; Mount Sinai, Moses and the commandments; Mount Kenya, the Kikuyu home of the gods; Mount Fuji, sacred to Buddhists and held by Shintoists to be home to the goddess Sengen-Sama and the fire god; and finally the Mountains of Dreamtime, Uluru and Katajuta, sacred to Australian Aborigines.

Each story is told in simple prose. The introductory information is clearly laid out, comprehensive and unambiguous, the notes at the end work effectively, and there are good maps and a simple index. The book works well as a text for key stage 2 and 3 pupils.

However, its most obvious and appealing virtues lie in the production: substantial hardback with high quality paper and illustrations. These are close-packed pages which delight the eye.

Of the other books in the series, I especially like Fabulous Beasts, with creatures ranging from Anansi to sharks, the tortoise to the jaguar. The most original in its treatment is Sacred Skies, but The Waters of Life is also powerful. All in all, a very impressive series.

The Treasure Seekers series has a similar format and quality of production. Here too is the apparatus of the good information book: excellent large endpaper maps as well as more detailed maps for each topic,a simple index and a glossary. The series would appear to offer better value than Landscapes of Legend, with 15 more pages and two more topics in each volume.

The illustrations are of high quality - but, unlike the near-surrealism of the Watts series, they consist of photographs, old engravings and paintings. Pictures made especially for the series are firmly realistic.

Page layout is more utilitarian: this is a different area of enquiry and the format suits it. A smaller fount, two columns of print and the use of information boxes all indicate that these books are close relatives of the encyclopaedia, while the Watts series are more closely related to the high quality imaginative picture book.

The scope of the series is vast and endlessly fascinating. The Search for Gold ranges from the golden helmet of Ur through Aztecs and Incas to Blackbeard and the Alaskan and Australian gold rushes. Tombs takes us from prehistoric times to Viking and Saxon ship graves via the pharoahs, Agamemnon, Petra and the mask of Maya. Lost Cities goes from Persepolis to Californian ghost towns. Sunken Treasure explores ancient Greek statues brought up from the Antikythera wreck as well asthe Mary Rose, the Armadaand the Titanic.

Each book has a section on unsolved mysteries. The technologies accompanying the exploration process involved are carefully and straightforwardly explained. Important figures are dealt with effectively. Throughout, the series is written in immaculately pointed, straightforward prose suitable for key stage 2 and 3 pupils.

Once upon a time, series such as these would be staples of the project boxes supplied by a huge network of schools library services. Alas, this once vast market has all but disappeared. Nevertheless, I would hope to see books like these on the non-fiction and reference shelves of libraries in primary and middle schools. In their different ways they satisfy the urge to see below the surface of things.

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