Unfolded secrets

John Reeve

KALEIDOSCOPES Series. From Big Bang to Electricity. By Jack Challoner and Ian Graham. 1 85697 284 4. The Living Forests. By Michael Chinery. - 1 85697 283 6. The Story of Theatre. By Jim Fowler. - 1 85697 281 X. The Secrets of Sculpture. By Christopher O'Neil and Nicholas Usherwood. - 1 85697 282 8.

Kingfisher Pounds 12.99 each. Age range 7 - 14

The Kaleidoscopes series now comprises eight ring-bound books on themes as diverse as music, electricity, sculpture and the stars. Like several other recent illustrated series for children they are French in origin, extremely appetizing and good value for money. The colour illustrations often on black, glossy backgrounds create a three-dimensional, textured effect. The interactive element varies the format and helps to refocus the attention. Stickers show the colours of Chinese theatre makeup or of the original Parthenon pediment, or what was made in an ancient bronze mould. Parts of pages can be detached to produce the back and front of a prehistoric female figure, or a Roman theatre, now and then. Pages can be folded out to reveal a giant sequoia tree, or an anorexic sculpture by Giacometti. Turn a wheel and you see highlights from great operas or scenes from modern theatre.

The Secrets of Sculpture does an especially good job in demystifying its subject by devoting a lot of space to process. We are shown the varieties of stone used in ancient Egypt and then how to produce a sphinx; or how a portrait bust by Camille Claudel was created in clay, marble and bronze. The geographical spread is also well handled. Alongside Michelangelo, Henry Moore and Brancusi, are anonymous African carvers and Peruvian potters. In The Story of Theatre, Japanese Kabuki and Javanese puppets appear alongside Shakespeare, Moliere and Verdi.

Occasionally there is just too much on a double spread: too much detail concentrated on the forest floor, for example, or in the dinosauramas. The "lift a flap" terracotta army is a great idea, but needs room to breathe and more context perhaps than here. The danger of crash landing on a new subject each spread is, of course, a big problem with thematic books and it is on the whole handled sensitively in this series.

The variety of levels of information, combined with the quality of illustrations, extends the suitable readership considerably. A younger child may relate to an artist like Calder or Picasso recycling handlebars, pegs, or matchboxes in their sculpture; a teenager can follow the process of casting a statue of Louis XV in bronze. Topics are also looked at in a helpfully cross-curricular way: paintings of the seasons by Arcimboldo appear in The Living Forest; Stonehenge and Hokusai's waves in Big Bang.

Like Simon Schama, The Living Forest looks at the mythological importance of the forest and also at the way of life of some forest peoples. Issues like the destruction of the rain forest and alternative energy sources are raised in a sensibly open way.

This is a series that will stimulate at home, or in school, before or after a visit, perhaps to the theatre, Launch Pad at the Science Museum, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, or a geology display. There are some especially well-chosen quotes. "Create like a god; command like a king; work like a slave", (the sculptor Brancusi); and this prescription for staging a play from the Spanish playwright, Lope de Vega - all you need are "four trestles, four planks, two actors and a lot of enthusiasm!".

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