The world about us

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
IF YOU WERE THERE SERIES. By Anthony Mason. Medieval Times Biblical Times Aztec Times Viking Times Marshall Publishing Pounds 9.95 each.

YOUR WORLD EXPLAINED SERIES. Earth By Barbara Taylor. Inventions By Richard Platt. Prehistoric Life By Jinny Johnson. Religions By Anita Ganeri. Space By Robin Scagell. Weather By Derek Elsom. Marshall Publishing Pounds 9.99 each.

Paul Noble reviews two series of reference books with an imaginative choice of topics

To support a broad and balanced approach to an increasingly narrow and unbalanced primary curriculum, you should try to add these reference books to your shelves. Marshall Publishing has been almost reckless in its choice of titles for these series, which not only cover national curriculum topics but venture into the great untaught beyond.

If You Were There carries the recommendation suitable for national curriculum history key stage 2, although it includes a volume on the Aztecs, effectively discarded post-Dearing, and one on medieval times, a period that never even made it to the key stage 2 history shortlist. But so what? The requirement to stick to the letter of the law will barely survive to the autumn, and who knows what will happen at the millennium review.

As always when artwork predominates over evidence, the books are full of drama and eye-catching action - heavy on imagination but light-proof. One decent photograph of a castle, church or medieval kitchen might have brought a different sort of realism to Medieval Times, and been a useful complement to the well-executed drawings.

In tone, the writing tends towards the academic, but the text is laid out in short, easily digested paragraphs. One double-page spread in Viking Times covers, for example, at home with the family; Viking women; entertainment; and Viking sagas. Although this approach is not new, the board game that unhinges at the back of each book is not something that you usually get in an information book. At the throw of a dice or the spin of a wheel, you can "Raid, Trade or Settle"; "Search for the Scriptures"; be a "Thief in the Castle"; or embark on "The Final Conquest", all of which gives substance and weight to books that contain barely 28 pages of text.

Untangling complex ideas so that an eight-year-old can understand them is not easy and the authors of the Your World Explained series make a good fist at this worthy task. The explanations and examples are presented clearly, although the text is not always an easy read. Derek Elsom's literate style is a joy, and his book Weather is such a pleasant change from those workaday children's books hack-written by authors with a tin ear, but it is a style that requires a good reader to get the most from it.

To look at, the series is modern and attractive and the choice of typeface and design bring quality to the books. Only occasionally does design defeat purpose when over-printing on dark coloured backgrounds undermines readability.

The books are determinedly up to date. El Ni$o is explained. That most recent addition to humanity's arsenal of weapons, the stealth bomber, appears in Inventions (unless you are watching on radar), and at the end of Space you can read the very latest about "The Beginning" as elicited from the COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite. In Religion, too, the latest line is promulgated. The author, somewhat prematurely, discards AD and BC because they are based on the Christian calendar. Do I detect yet another threat to the millennium party?

I hope that more titles will be added to this competent series before the millennium, but this package should see you through until then.

Paul Noble is head of St Andrew's primary school, Blunsdon, Wiltshire

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