Yesterday and today

18th October 1996 at 01:00
PEOPLE THROUGH HISTORY SERIES By Karen Bryant-Mole People Having Fun People on the Move People in the Town People in the Country People at Work People at Home Wayland Pounds 9.50 each

HISTORY MYSTERIES SERIES By Gill Tanner and Tim Wood Dressing. Farming. In the Street. Eating A C Black Pounds 7.50 each

KENWOOD: A Teacher's handbook By Marilyn Tolhurst Pounds 3.95

USING DOCUMENTS: A Teacher's Guide By Ian Davies and Chris Webb Pounds 5.95

ANCIENT TECHNOLOGY A Teacher's Guide Pounds 5.95 English Heritage Education Service

Tom Deveson on series that look at aspects of life in the past. Today, school-work is much more interesting." Karen Bryant-Mole offers this challenging statement as unequivocal fact. It's in the same spirit as "today many people watch films on television or video" or "patients often died from illnesses that can be cured today."

The People through History series will certainly make interesting reading for five to seven-year-olds. It uses a simple formula. Three pictures, one from the turn of the century, one from around the interwar years, one from the present, show the transformations and continuities in many aspects of daily life. A simple text points out contrasts and raises points for discussion.

The language is engagingly simple but manages to exemplify good habits of chronological discourse. "In the past", "nowadays", "years ago", "over the years" make a quiet refrain. "Most people", "many people", "few people" and similar usages help develop a natural vocabulary of social description.

A century of astonishing upheaval is mirrored in ways that can be understood by quite small children. People still do the same jobs as they did a hundred years ago (dentists, window cleaners), they do them in different ways (shop assistants, miners), different people do them (women managers) or they are now hardly done at all (butlers). These examples of slow and rapid change from People at Work are thought-fully matched in the other volumes.

Issues of progress and the costs of progress make an appearance too. New opportunities for women are touched on, but so too are matters such as animal rights on farms and in circuses, the loss of play-spaces in streets, pollution by cars, the disappearance of rural railways and village shops. And it's also made clear that nowadays people can travel further, don't die so young, and spend less time doing dirty and demeaning work.

The pictures sometimes suggest that people were needlessly grim in 1900 (slow camera shutters made them appear wooden) but there are many compensations. Patriarchally-bearded paterfamiliases, Hardyesque farm labourers and coal-grimed pitboys appear alongside charabancs overflowing with merry makers, a swarming 1930s lido and the Ne Plus Ultra rocking horse on its bone-jarring concrete base. Used with tact, these books will give children much to talk about.

History Mysteries continue to reach similar high standards, setting their usual page-turning pictorial conundrums for seven to 11-year-olds. Buttonhooks, sickles, horse-troughs and tea-caddies are called in evidence to illuminate life across four generations. The follow-up suggestions are excellent. Schoolwork is much more interesting when it's supported by good books such as these.

Kenwood House in north London is a little world of 18th century elegance. English Heritage has produced a teacher's guide which is rather packed and breathless, but still useful. There are documents on the Adam design, the aristocratic menage and the household accounts, as well as a brave attempt to illuminate the life of a mixed-race dependent, Dido Belle, whose tantalising portrait makes us wish to have more information than is obtainable.

A visual dictionary of classical architecture explains pediments, pilasters and porticoes. Cross-curricular work is suggested in such varying fields as symmetry, satire and slavery. Sometimes the phrase "would have been" reminds us that what we see of the surviving building has to be complemented by the restorative imagination. But this is itself a key tool in the historian's box, no age is too young to start wielding it.

Using Documents gives a succinct guide to themes such as work and leisure, poverty and population, health and housing, religion and education. It shows how to find and make sense of sources such as wills, reports, cartoons, parish records, censuses and diaries.

Ancient Technology aims to dispel the social Darwinism implicit in words such as "progress" and introduce children to a world unmediated by television. It shows how to use museums and archaeological sites while having fun with fire, clay, levers, rollers and wedges.

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