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14th February 1997 at 00:00
Chris Arthur looks at guides to the world's major religions. World Religions, By David Self, Lion Pounds 8.99. What Do We Know About Islam?, By Shahrukh Husain, Macdonald Pounds 9.99. Festivals of the Christian Year, By Lois Rock, Lion Pounds 8.99. Chinese New Year, By Sarah Moyse. Id-Ul-Fitr, By Kerena Marchant, Wayland Festivals series, Pounds 9.50 each. Ramadan and Id-UL-Fitr, By Rosalind Kerven. All Saints, All Souls and Hallowe'en, By Catherine Chambers Evans a World of Festivals series Pounds 8.99 each. Christian Beliefs and Cultures, By Carol Watson.

Buddhist Beliefs and Cultures, By Anita Ganeri Watts Beliefs and Cultures series Pounds 8.99 each. My Buddhist Life, By Meg St Pierre and Marty Casey. My Hindu Life, By Dilip Kadodwala and Sharon Chhapi. My Jewish Life, By Anne Clark and David Rose. My Christian Life, By Alison Seaman. Wayland Everyday Religion series Pounds 9.50 each

The popular maxim "every picture tells a story" should alert us to the extensive information encoded in pictures in children's topic books. These well-illustrated series about the world's faiths are likely to give primary pupils a much fuller understanding than words alone could convey, but their depths of possible meaning need to be handled carefully if we are not to foster all kinds of misconceptions.

Take David Self's largely admirable World Religions: the caption under a photograph showing a famous statue of the Buddha in a near skeletal state after extreme fasting, gives no indication that this was only one phase in his spiritual odyssey. Nor is it helpful to include an illustration merely captioned "A statue of one of the many gods of Hinduism". This is using pictures just to fill space or decorate, rather than to inform.

The search for a wholly satisfactory one-volume introduction to the religions of the world is something of an RE grail. There is much to recommend Mr Self's efforts, but the section on holy books is rather weak. Buddhist scriptures are extensive, numerous and complex, but to dodge the issue by simply saying so is not enough. The section on Buddhist monks should include mention of the existence of nuns, and the picture of a Hindu sadhu which includes in the caption a comment about "strange face painting and outlandish clothes" comes closer to the ethnocentric than the educational.

What Do We Know About Islam? offers a very good introduction. Perhaps the timeline on page 10 comes too soon - it would make more sense to relocate it at the end of the book when the events it seeks to chart have been examined. And the section on Islamic design may cause some confusion by including a picture of a vase decorated with animals, after stating that early Muslims would not allow human or animal figures to be painted. Substantially, though, this is a reliable and attractive guide.

Lois Rock's Festivals of the Christian Year offers an excellent practical supplement to information books on festivals. Her "Make it!" sections are filled with good ideas, easy-to-follow instructions and clear illustrations (though one should, perhaps, be wary about letting children make a crown of thorns for Good Friday). Sarah Moyse's Chinese New Year is likewise well thought out, clearly written, informative and superbly illustrated. Teachers who find festivals an effective way into the ideas and values of different religions and cultures will be keen to add both these books to their class libraries.

It is hard to see, though, what Kerena Marchant's or Rosalind Kerven's books add to existing material on Ramadan and Id-Ul-Fitr, beyond providing more pictures. This is, after all, very well-trodden ground in the RE classroom.

Catherine Chambers's All Saints All Souls and Hallowe'en is very disappointing given the interest which the topics it covers usually generate. To start chapters with apparently factual statements such as: "It's October 31st. The spirits of the dead are whirling round in a frenzy! They are trying to find their way home. Witches and demons are on the loose - watch out!", seems entirely ill-judged. The tongue-in-cheek stance may not be recognised by younger readers, who may mistake irony for information and come away with some very confused ideas.

The Beliefs and Cultures series covers the six major world faiths. The volumes on Buddhism and Christianity are unlikely to make teachers want to rush out and buy the others. Anita Ganeri offers some useful points of information (and, again, the pictures are good) but the activities sections seem somewhat laboured and unlikely to further an understanding of Buddhism. Likewise the "interviews" in both books seem rather artificial.

Carol Watson presents resurrection as fact rather than faith, describes Christianity as "the only religion that offers forgiveness of sins", and retells an important Bible story without giving its source. Christian Beliefs and Customs is also irritatingly inconsistent in the way it only sometimes identifies the artist of the paintings that are reproduced.

The Everyday Religion series is an elementary introduction to the world's six major faiths. The notes for teachers are extremely good and offer useful background material to supplement the minimal text. It is completely inappropriate, however, for My Buddhist Life and My Christian Life to end with invocation and blessing. Mixing the descriptive with the confessional is unlikely to find favour with today's phenomenologically minded RE teachers.

Chris Arthur is a senior lecturer in RE at the University of Wales, Lampeter

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