Short words, brief lives

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Real Lives series. By Iris Howden, Julia Holt and Mike Wilson. Films. Elizabeth Taylor 1 870741 88 9. Marilyn Monroe 1 870741 84 6. Clint Eastwood, 1 870741 86 2. Arnold Schwarzenegger 1 870741 85 4. Humphrey Bogart 1 870741 87 0. Politics. Martin Luther King 1 870741 96 X.

Mahatma Gandhi 1 870741 94 3. John F Kennedy 1 870741 95 1. Sir Winston Churchill 1 870741 83 8. Adolf Hitler 1 870741 93 5. Sport. Martina Navratilova 1 870741 90 0. Ian Botham 1 870741 89 7. Muhammad Ali 1 870741 92 7. Linford Christie 1 870741 82 X. George Best 1 870741 91 9 Pounds 2 each. Set of 5 books Pounds 9. Set of 15 books Pounds 25. Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit.

Twenty years ago I was trying to persuade hulking great Birmingham youths that Pirate Readers and Ladybirds were really worth reading. Today the fluffy bunny book problem still confronts teachers seeking books suitable for mature poor readers, so, despite some deficiencies, Real Lives will be welcome in schools and Adult Education Centres.

Each book contains about 900 words and five or six black and white photographs. Subjects include Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe and Arnold Schwarzenegger (a name which demonstrates how the longest words are not always the hardest when read in context). Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Hitler, get a monochrome photo on the cover, which seems arbitrary, especially as another picture in Adolf Hitler is a black and white reprint of an Agfacolor photograph.

The design of these books is disappointing. Photographs are almost all full-page and the total lack of picture captions is confusing. Young Elizabeth Taylor in a swimsuit is next to details of the film Cleopatra. The Mountbattens are not mentioned in Mahatma Gandhi, but the last Viceroy and his wife appear with Ghandi opposite an account of post-independence partition. Paragraphing of text is good, but spacing between lines and words is unimaginatively uniform and the line breaks seem illogical. An imaginative use of different sized captioned pictures could have enlivened the pages without necessarily affecting reading level or price.

Anything written in a restricted vocabulary tends to trivialise its content. These books work best when their subject has had a relatively minor influence on world civilisation. In Ian Botham, we see him walking to John O'Groats, playing football for Scunthorpe and launching a terrifying cricket ball; we also get bowling and batting records, just like in a real information book. The Film series is suitably gossipy, but the Politics books struggle to deal with subjects which are just too big.

Information books should avoid generalisations and get the facts right. In George Best we read that he first played for Manchester United in September, 1963 when the club "was trying to build a new team", after the Munich air crash - an odd thing to say about a club that won the FA Cup in the previous season, before Best arrived. I suppose it is tolerable, if inconsiderate to the memory of some brave Germans, to say in Adolf Hitler that "no one stood up to him . . .", but I really can't accept that: "Everyone knows famous lines from Casablanca - lines like 'Play it again, Sam'".

Oh no they don't! Everyone knows that the line actually delivered to Dooley Wilson is "Play it, Sam!", which is also easier to read.

Keith Gaines is co-author of the Wellington Square Reading scheme and New Way Easy Start books, both published by Nelson.

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