Winning formula for the time traveller
And on your right, ladies and gentlemen, the Flavian Amphitheatre. Diana Hinds meets the team that produced an award-winning guide to Ancient Rome
One of the joys for a publisher not selling directly to schools is that, when it comes to information books, you can afford to wear your learning lightly. Instead of being required by the national curriculum to cram in specific information, you have more freedom in what you present, and how you choose to present it. At the same time, however, if your book is not sufficiently eye catching, parents will not buy it, and if it is not all that much fun, children will not bother to read it.
This year's winner of the TES Senior Information Book award A Visitor's Guide to Ancient Rome, written by Lesley Sims and published by Usborne, is guaranteed to keep everyone happy: children, parents and teachers. Written in the form of a jaunty, spoof guidebook, the first in the Timetours series explores different aspects of everyday life in the Roman capital, managing to be both entertaining and hugely informative.
"We've done straight history books on Rome before, but this time we were trying to do history in a slightly whackier way," says Jane Chisholm, Usborne managing editor. "All our books have to be child-friendly and fun, and they try to disguise their educational input with the appearance of light heartedness."
The novel guidebook approach to Ancient Rome permits the inclusion of much day-to-day detail that would have no place in a more conventional history book such as what the Romans cooked, where they slept, and where and how they bathed (did you know, for instance, that the Romans used a curved stick called a strigil to scrape themselves clean?).
There is an excellent fold-out map of the streets of central Rome circa ad125, and tourist highlights include "the Games" at the Colosseum (still known as the Flavian Amphitheatre in AD125), chariot racing, Roman theatre, and shopping for slaves ("this will prove something of a culture shock to many visitors," says the guide).
Religion and education get a look-in, and the back of the guide lists "handy" Latin phrases, Roman emperors and a who's who of famous writers and statesmen. The book could be, equally, a valuable asset on a Roman hoiday, a stimulating accompaniment to a school project, or just an enjoyable read at home.
Like many Usborne titles, a Visitor's Guide to Ancient Rome is very much a team effort, written and designed in-house (with an outside historian, Dr Anne Millard, as consultant). Lesley Sims, who wrote it, initially toyed with the idea of a fictional diary set in Ancient Rome; but the spoof guidebook, she agreed with Jane Chisholm, worked better and allowed them to get more information across. "A diary turns into a fictional project, with characters," says Jane, "which can make the non-fiction bits seem a bit worthy."
To research the book Lesley Sims trawled every children's book, coffee-table book and guidebook on Rome she could find, as well as dipping into a few classical authors, such as Pliny and Martial, for the odd quotation. Daily Life in Ancient Rome, by a 19th-century Italian, Jerome Carcopino, proved a mine of unusual detail - such as children getting in free to the Roman baths.
Lesley then began to write pieces of text, and teamed up with Lucy Parris, one of Usborne's 20 in-house designers, to plan each spread. Much bartering of text and illustration ensued, but the process is genuinely collaborative. Not being able to include photographs was "a huge restraint", at first, says Lucy Parris: but photographs of crumbling buildings and rusting, ancient implements would simply be inappropriate in a guidebook purportedly set in ad125.
She got round this, however, by working with three different illustrators: one cartoony in style, another specialising in maps, and the third depicting objects such as the strigil, a cosmetics spatula and key ring, with near-photographic realism. Peter Usborne, the publisher, takes an interest in new titles, particularly in their early stages, and as he is a classics graduate, A Visitor's Guide to Ancient Rome is said to be one of his favourites. A sequel, A Guide to Ancient Egypt, comes out this autumn, and it is hoped others will follow.
Meanwhile, the TES Senior Information Book Award 2000 will join the certificates of previous winners (most recently Usborne's The World of Shakespeare in 1997) in the Usborne foyer. "Receiving the award is much more exciting for us than hearing that a book has sold a lot of copies," says Jane Chisholm. "You don't have to produce something very good to sell well, but if someone judges a book to be good, that's nice."