HOME HELP

In the second of our series on helping children with homework, Louise Levine looks at the best of the books to learn from, and about, history
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The Independent Online
Helping with history homework at GCSE level can often consist of splashing out pounds 69 on the CD-ROM Encarta and getting your child to help you install it into the computer. This can then be downloaded to form attractive (if faintly unoriginal) `projects'. Younger children are still happy with the more old-fashioned world of colour plates and a well-thumbed index.

Publishers target the bulk of their hardback history at 7-11 year olds (National Curriculum Key Stage 2) and the bigger, glossier books divide broadly into Ancient History, World History and British History. Key Stage 2 is a far cry from the old Sellars and Yeatman model. 1066 is missed out until Key Stage 3 but you do get meaty chunks of the past, with Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Tudors and Victorians.

The Romans are still alive and well in the average primary school. Publishers are big on Romans. They also know that although Key Stage 2 offers a choice of `past non-European societies', Ancient Egypt wins hands down. This is probably entirely due to the well-known Mummy's Curse whereby no child under 10 can resist the thought of the human brain being fished out through the nostrils via a long pointy hook.

They also get to stay up for wildly unsuitable Boris Karloff movies and will then demand the book of the film. There are dozens of these. Dorling Kindersley alone have three Eyewitness Guides on the Egyptians (Ancient Egypt, Pyramid and Mummy pounds 9.99, 64pp). These all sell particularly well in the environment of the average museum shop: "We're not buying anything." "But it's a book, Mum!"

Kingfisher and Oxford both do one volume guides to ancient civilisations. The Kingfisher Book of the Ancient World (pounds 14.99, 159pp) is simple but not stupid, and has handy diagrams explaining Roman sewage. The more demanding Oxford Children's Ancient History (pounds 9.99 320pp) is a good value paperback illustrated by Peter Connolly. Roy Burrell's text includes numerous fictional eyewitness accounts by pyramid builders and Athenian schoolboys. This kind of archaeological empathy is now a mainstay of history homework: "imagine you are Edward II's hairdresser etc". In teenage hands this type of exercise can degenerate into an embarrassing farrago of misinformation and anachronism. Roy Burrell's lively narratives show how it should be done.

Back in the Sixties, the world beyond Europe and the Mediterranean was something that Europeans discovered. Today's world histories seek to redress the balance by tackling the past on a global scale. The result is information overload. Dorling Kindersley's History of the World (pounds 29.95, 384pp) has a lot of little captions and a lot of charts. It's 3000 BC: pyramids are being built, Ireland has entered the Bronze Age. Meanwhile in the Southern Hemisphere: "Aborigine peoples live peacefully in Australia". But when you arrive at 2000 years later they are still doing it. The West's treatment of Australia and the South Seas is a story well worth telling but its impact is lessened by breaking it up into itsy bitsy captions and juxtaposing them with more high profile events in the West. Similarly, a project on the history of France or Japan or Brazil could involve a great deal of time with a thumb in the index. All very pretty though - 1500 illustrations can't be wrong.

British Histories are more straightforward. Aside from the obvious library trade, these glossy tomes are also aimed squarely at the gift market. Parents and godparents find the concept irresistible. The Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland (pounds 19.95, 415pp) keeps a weather eye on the National Curriculum but it doesn't stop there: "It's designed to be a good read, not just for looking up a fact". Kingfisher's Children's Encyclopaedia of British History (pounds 14.99, 230pp) breaks the text down into smaller chunks and is an easier read for younger children.

The perfect history book is an absorbing adventure, with attractive pictures and a reliable and informative index. The Oxford Children's Book of Famous People (pounds 12.99, 384 pp) scores two out of three. But the rather half-hearted cross-referencing prevents the child from making those serendipitous leaps from subject to subject that can make reference books so beguiling.

The selection procedure is slightly whimsical too. I can see why you might not bracket the Princess of Wales with Aristotle or Marie Curie in your top 1000 historical hall of fame - but who the hell decided to put Diego Maradona and Rupert Murdoch in the list?

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