BOOKS FOR CHILDREN; High on the Mum factor

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Who were the first people to live in your house? Karen Bryant-Mole's My 1950s Home (Watts pounds 9.99) is part of a series including My 1930s Home, My Victorian Home and (lucky things) My Tudor Home. Single parent Lucy Mudie lives with her two sons in the house formerly occupied in 1958 by the Gadds. Funny contemporary illustrations and advertisements give a flavour of the optimistic Fifties, when families were stable and furnishings were bright. 8-12

Social history is definitely in. The "I Was There" series uses contemporary evidence to build up a portrait of an era, whether it's that of The Renaissance, The Roman Empire, The Greeks, The Vikings, or The Industrial Revolution (Bodley Head pounds 4.99). For the modest price this is a handsomely illustrated and fact-packed survey detailing life in town and country, the role of the railways, the efforts of civil engineers, the effects of trade, transport and emigration and the economic forces underlying the vast changes in working life. Unusual posed tableaux give a vivid, if slightly stagey, idea of conditions. 8-12

Peter Kent's brilliant, cartoony A Slice Through a City (Macdonald pounds 10.99) shows how debris piles up through the centuries, creating an archaeological cassata. Flipping its pages you can see how the Stone Age bone pit with its dead dogs and rubble still lingers under the growing town, how the mammoth skeleton lies undisturbed for millennia until the building of the Underground in the 20th century cuts its head off, how the river bridged in the Iron Age becomes a Roman sewer, then a subterranean stream. You can see a 17th-century man hiding his bags of gold inside a well: 300 years later and forgotten, it's still there. Fabulous fun and informative too. 8+

Yvonne Eyo's Eyewitness Africa (Dorling Kindersley pounds 8.99) places an emphasis on traditional lifestyles, not westernised development. Life in the compound with its wooden stockade and circular huts has changed little in centuries, and the Herero women of Namibia are still wearing dresses inspired by the Victorians. Double-page spreads on adornment, myth and magic, medicine and healing, hunting and funerary rites have all the DK hallmarks of arresting pictures and clear text. 8-12

Strikingly beautiful, if a little arid, is Lives and Legends of the Saints (Frances Lincoln pounds 12.99). Humanists can take comfort in the old master reproductions, and Carole Armstrong's straightfaced retelling of the extraordinary stories removes the goriness from, for example, the tale of Lucy, who tore out her own eyes and sent them to a suitor. Impressed, he too became a Christian. 11+

"The Nearly Complete History of Almost Everything" is the irresistible sub-title of In The Beginning, written by Richard Platt and meticulously illustrated by Brian Delf (Dorling Kindersley pounds 14). We begin with Big Bang, progress smartly through the formation of the earth and its geographical features and the origins of life. Pretty soon dinosaurs are galloping in neat rows, apes leap from trees and become men, and we shoot through a history of shelter, from caves to the modern suburbs. Amazingly, Delf manages to pack most of his histories on to double-page spreads: fashion, from loin-cloths to denim; medicine, from spells to ultrasound. In "Great Buildings", a mere seven jumps get us from St Paul's to La Defense. And were there really no innovations in fortification between Vauban's 17th century forts and the blockhouses of the Maginot Line? 10+


Books which actively encourage kids to be creative are more likely to drive parents round the bend with requests for arcane props. Ivan Bulloch's and Diane James's I Want to be an Acrobat (Too-Can/Watts pounds 7.99) is likely to require the least outlay in the series (the others are Clown, Juggler and Magician), but judging by the photographs fluorescent lycra outfits are a must. The book takes budding tumblers through the warm-up, then into jumps, skips, rolls, headstands and cartwheels, all building up to a grand performance. Expect to be begged for giant feathers, benches, old cans, cardboard and paint. 4-8

The small black boy on the cover of Sound not Silence (Watts pounds 7.99) is about to bash a pair of cymbals. Just what you need! Thankfully, most activities outlined here are less aggressive, and feature things like elastic bands and pebbles in buckets. Living with Light, Hot or Not? and Amazing Colours are in the same series. 4-8

Masks by Meryl Doney, in the World Crafts series (Watts pounds 8.99) presents a novel way to learn about other cultures by making such artefacts as an African wall-mask, a "recycled metal face" (actually a foil pie dish), a Yoruba ancestor mask, a Day of the Dead skull, a Chinese paper dragon. You need a lot of kit, though: chicken wire, white emulsion, clay, plaster of Paris ... 8-12

Frank Rodgers has lots of tips to help children learn to draw monsters in Count Dracula's Cartoon Fun (Deutsch pounds 9.99). Haunted trees, lumbering trolls, slime-covered walls and robotic humanoids fill his pages. Rodgers has a grip on what's significant: "These are GOODIE'S FACES ... cheerful, decent ... not a wart, fang, slobber or spot in sight. Useless!" he writes, contrasting smiley kids with "deliciously disgusting baddies". There is useful advice buried in the fun. 7-12

Starting Chess by Harriet Castor (Usborne pounds 5.99) might have jolly little cartoons of bossy Queens and determined pawns, but it soon becomes taxing for budding Nigel Shorts. Notation is explained, good openers and cunning tricks are produced and a range of puzzles test the brain. This solid handbook would make a good present for an insufferable little rotter. 8-12

Young musicians can Learn to Play Blues with Anthony Marks and Ana Sanderson (Usborne pounds 8.99), which includes more than 30 tunes demonstrating the development from spirituals, "hollers" and work songs to country blues and boogie, taking in the technicalities (blue notes, improvisations and syncopations) along the way. 9+


In Day and Night, from the "Why Do We Have?" series (Hamlyn pounds 5.99), Claire Llewellyn explains time, light, dark, the earth's orbit and the changes of the moon in clearly comprehensible fashion, and Anthony Lewis provides delightful colour illustrations. Rocks and Mountains, Rivers and Seas, Wind and Rain are the other titles (4-8). More technical and whizz-bang, for older readers, is Nigel Hawkes' Mysteries of the Universe (Aladdin/Watts pounds 8.99), an accessible history of astronomy. 8-12

Neil Ardley's How Things Work, in the Eyewitness Science Guide series (Dorling Kindersley pounds 14.99) utilises photographs to suggest a range of home experiments that demonstrate basic principles: make a water-pump, escalator, skyscraper, "oil rig" or flying rotor. The "adult help advised" symbol hints at a high "Mum!" factor plus industrial supplies of polyboard, bottles, dowelling, batteries, foil, piano wire ... 8-12


Do Animals Go To School? is the anthropomorphic question posed by Steve Parker's animal behaviour book (Viking pounds 8.99). Yes, is the answer; they also "go on holiday" (well, migrate), live in "cities" and eat take-aways. Graham Rosewarne illustrates. 4-8

Mary Ling's Wild Animal Go-Round (Dorling Kindersley pounds 8.99) has a gimmick: rotate the wheels on each page and watch your penguin/parrot/tiger grow. The same information could more easily be displayed conventionally, but heavens, you've just got to pull-out, pop-up or interact nowadays. 4-8

Nature's Little Builders by John Woodward (Electric Paper pounds 10.99) makes inspired use of pop-up to enliven a mole's nest, a beaver's dam and a termite colony. Pull the tab and watch a spider leap out and seize a beetle! 4-8

Nicky The Nature Detective (R&S Books pounds 8.99) spends her time out and about, experimenting and observing. In summer, wearing just a vest, she hunts for shrews with her binoculars and makes an underwater viewer; in autumn and winter, well wrapped up, she collects leaves, indentifies animals' tracks in the snow, feeds the birds. Ulf Svedberg's text is complemented by Lena Anderson's delightful illustrations. 4-8

Beverley Birch's Science Stories (Gollancz pounds 4.99) are striking accounts of Marconi's Battle for Radio, Benjamin Franklin's Adventures with Electricty, Pasteur's Fight Against Microbes, Marie Curie's Search for Radium. The first two are illustrated in sparky water-colour by Robin Bell Corfield, the latter in Christian Birmingham's pastels. 8-12