A History For Kids That Isn't Child's Play

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There are still single-volume histories of the world being written, which is somewhat reassuring. It means that there is still a conviction that despite the destruction spread across millenniums and despite the battering of historical truths on the shoals of postmodernity, a coherent order can still be made, interpretations formed, a narrative constructed.

But histories of the world for children are another story. Here, judging from textbooks I have seen, every effort is made to make sure there is no personal voice or coherent vision. Instead, there is an uncertainty about how much to include, an anxiety about which groups might object and an inability to show that the project has any great purpose. The exception is E.H. Gombrich's ''A Little History of the World'' (Yale) which was first published in the 1930s and is now (finally) being released in English.

It is a remarkable book, written in an amiable, conversational style, effortlessly explaining, without condescension, difficult matters like the achievements of Charlemagne, the monetary system of medieval Europe and the ideas of the Enlightenment. Yet nowhere -- at least before the last chapter added in the 1980's -- is there an explicit sign of the troubled world in which it was written. An unwavering faith helps give the book its voice; the problem is that it is not fully warranted.

Its virtues are evident. ''All stories begin with 'Once upon a time,''' Gombrich begins, and he immediately is in the child's world, trying to evoke great expanses of time for the child, invoking grandfathers and grandmothers and their grandfathers and grandmothers, each 'Once upon a time' giving way to another. ''Have you ever tried standing between two mirrors?'' he asks, and describes the long line of mirrors stretching away into the distance -- which is the way we must envision the past stretching out behind us.

Gombrich doesn't slight history's horrors. ''The history of the world is, sadly, not a pretty poem,'' he writes. ''It offers little variety, and it is nearly always the unpleasant things that are repeated, over and over again.'' The destruction of Montezuma and the Aztecs by the Spaniards, he notes, ''is so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it.''

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