Pop-ups, holograms, and even scratch 'n' sniff are now all par for the course in educational books for children. But now that packaging is all, are messages getting lost in the medium? Do today's ingenious aids to learning improve or merely amuse? And are we descending to a Fascinating Facts approach that puts success in pub quizzes ahead of real illumination?
History is a notorious casualty of modern curricula, a subject distorted by a mania to prove relevance and with an ever lower take-up at GCSE. Its relentlessly zany presentation by children's publishers can't help matters. Rock bottom is touched by Smelly Old History: scratch `n' sniff your way through the past (and yes, that first omission apostrophe is printed the wrong way round). All good dirty fun, you might think, but the sub-Asterix illustrations, doggerel verse and absurdly synthetic and inaccurate smells of Roman Aromas (OUP, pounds 4.99) will do absolutely nothing for Year Five's appreciation of Roman Britain. That the series, which includes Tudor Odours and Victorian Vapours, is selling as well as smelling like hot cakes is no comfort at all.
We should be inspiring children, not joining them in the playground. History needs heroes and heroines. Two books by Rebecca Hazell, The Barefoot Book of Heroes and The Barefoot Book of Heroines (Barefoot, pounds l2.99 each) have both in abundance, illustrated by the author in a static but highly decorative style skilfully adapted to suit times and places ranging from seventh-century Japan to 20th- century Mexico. Exquisite maps set the characters in context. Fast and furious food for thought is offered by Usborne's newspaper format Egyptian Echo (pounds 3.99), "a heady mixture of historical facts and excitable tabloid journalism, served piping hot on 32 crispy white fun-packed pages", and Medieval Messenger (pounds 3.99), "a rollicking romp through yesterday's shocks, horrors and sensations". Both are well researched, enticingly illustrated, and very funny - especially if you already know your history. But shouldn't children be making their own tabloids as a digestive exercise rather than being presented with them in a more professional form than they could ever achieve? For the same reason, I approached More Shakespeare without the Boring Bits (Viking, pounds 5.99), the second of Humphrey Carpenter's effervescent reworkings of the bard, with more than a smidgeon of doubt, though I rapidly found myself giggling over the "Secret Diary of Hamlet aged Nineteen and a Half", and Iago as the inner self-doubt of "O.T." Othello. All good fun, and certainly no boring bits, but don't expect the good bits of the Bard either - there is only one direct quotation. Comprehensive summaries of the real plots - and a whole lot else besides - are provided in Anna Claybourne and Rebecca Treays' The World of Shakespeare (Usborne, pounds 9.99). This is an excellent overview of Shakespeare's life and times, including rather more than is officially known about his private life, a lucid account of Elizabethan thought and language, and a richly illustrated kaleidoscope of the different ways in which the plays have been presented across the centuries. Generously studded with quotations, the book would be a real asset for any child (or adult) involved in studying or acting in the plays. …