Tuesday, 6 December 2016

"a book about the everyday lives of the ordinary people of England"

I don’t think you can better the introduction by R.J.Unstead to his book Looking at History as a statement for what a children’s account of the past should be like.

“This is a book about the everyday lives of the ordinary people of England from the days when they lived in caves to the present day.  It shows how they built their homes and cooked their food, how they dressed, fought, travelled, worked and enjoyed themselves.

“This is, in short, a social history for children, which sets out to give them enjoyment and understanding that comes from ‘looking at history.’”

And this he did with “nearly 1000 illustrations which have been selected from contemporary sources or specially drawn, after careful research.”

There will be critics who point out that it is a book which is just about England, does not reflect the contribution of people who settled here from other places, and is light on its treatment of the role played by women in our history.

All of which is true, but it was written in the early 1950s when many history books concentrated on telling the story of Kings, Queens, generals and the rich.

By contrast Looking at History and many of his other books are history from the bottom up, and are as much about the poor, and working people as they are about the powerful, the famous and the people of plenty.

And for me what drew me in and still does are those illustrations some of which are in colour but most were line drawings which had a realism that made the book a must for a six year old.

In fact it was those line drawings which really captured my imagination, and years later when the book was republished in the 1970s substituting coloured versions of those pictures I for one thought the impact was muted.

That said the book could be found in schools and libraries from the 1950s onwards.

It was divided into four parts and continued to be used from the 1950s well into the 1970s.

Now I have lost touch with the children’s history books and rarely pick them up but those produced by Mr Unstead still have a special place on our book shelves.

Picture; The Press Gang, J.C.B. Knight, from LOOKING AT HISTORY, R.J. Unstead, 1955, A. &C. Black Ltd


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