As time goes by

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
The story may stay the same, but the interpretation changes dramatically over the years, says Dennis Hamley. HEADLESS AND OTHER STORIES Edited by Barbara Bliemann and Sarina Broadbent The English and Media Centre. Pounds 5.50. From NATE, 50 Broadfield Road, Sheffield S8 OXJ.

THE LANGUAGE OF READING By Bernadette Fitzgerald, Adrian Jackson and Jim Porteous Hodder Stoughton. Pounds 5.99. TALES FROM OTHER TIMES: INTRODUCING PRE-TWENTIETH CENTURY PROSE By Christine Hall, Jane Browne Mike Hamlin Heinemann Pounds 5.75.

Literature for 12 to 16-year-olds demands many reading strategies. Here are three new books for the age range with plenty of currency for GCSE, which fully acknowledge these demands: each with its different emphasis makes a strong claim for the closest consideration.

Headless has the eclecticism and originality which are hallmarks of the English and Media Centre. It consists of 15 modern short stories with detailed activities and notes on - and where possible by - the authors. Several cultures are here and the authors are pushing the convention to its utmost. Brian Aldiss, Isabel Allende, Brian Friel, Hanif Kureishi, Olive Senior - these names taken at random show the collection's extent.

It is so welcome to find books for schools which can be possessed for their own sakes. The activities promote close and critical reading, involve group, individual and oral work and develop comparative studies. The short story uniquely lends itself to understanding how literary form works and the writer's craft. The editors take advantage of these qualities as well as anybody. This is an important book for key stage 4.

The Language of Reading announces itself as "a book about reading and what it is to be a reader". Apart from poems, this is not a source of complete texts. Each chapter examines a related theme. Chapter one, "Versions and Retellings" is about different versions and treatments of the same story: how different ages recreate and reinterpret them for their own purposes.

The key text here is Romeo and Juliet from earliest oral folk tales, through Arthur Brooke's 1562 version to Shakespeare, then to Lamb and Leon Garfield. Romeo and Juliet productions at different periods of history are compared, together with different genres and real-life versions.

There are other tales, such as Red Riding Hood, to illustrate the way different ages interpret the same stories: Liz Lochhead, Margaret Atwood, a 17th-century version and Anne Sexton's poem. The original Chandler Harris version of Brer Rabbit is compared with a modern retelling.

Chapter two, "Language Rules", takes Oliver Twist and Wuthering Heights to show authors using variants of standard English to differentiate character, then seeks to develop a critical view of the whole notion changing over the years.

Chapter three, "Perspectives", examines writers transmitting their own attitudes in their work: Chapter four, "Chopping and Changing' concerns censorship through the ages, its reasons and its nature, as well as what can happen in translation.

The whole is a resourceful, worthwhile book, as tight and disciplined in its editorial view as Headless but looking at close reading from a different, complementary standpoint.

Tales from Other Times is aimed at key stage 3, with an eye to introducing pupils to the demands of GCSE. The focus is on 11 pre-20th-century texts, all frequently studied at key stage 4 - Defoe, Swift, Mary Shelley, Dickens (A Christmas Carol), the Bront s, George Eliot (Silas Marner), Stevenson (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Hardy (Tess of the D'Urbervilles), Conan Doyle and Wells.

Each of the eight chapters is devoted to one aspect of the novelist's craft: three or four extracts each deal with openings, character, description, ways of telling, atmosphere, reporting, issues and endings: each is accompanied by activities well designed but obviously less demanding than in the other books.

Like them, though, this represents a fresh, worthwhile approach, of great use to its target audience but also with a role at key stage 4. Seeing these books all together was a heartening experience. In the end, nothing squashes the enterprise of the inventive teacher: these three publications will foster it and show pupils what rare and powerful tools are close, critical reading and its attendant speaking and writing.

Dennis Hamley is an English consultant and former English adviser for Hertfordshire

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