Books: And You Thought Encyclopedias Were Boring; Alison Davison Leafs Her Way through Some of the Exciting and Readable New Generation of Children's Reference Books

By Davison, Alison | The Birmingham Post (England), February 26, 2000 | Go to article overview

Books: And You Thought Encyclopedias Were Boring; Alison Davison Leafs Her Way through Some of the Exciting and Readable New Generation of Children's Reference Books


Davison, Alison, The Birmingham Post (England)


For all that modern children may rely on the CD-rom for help with their homework, there are still, happily, dozens of excellent reference books being churned out.

The emphasis these days is on making learning fun. No longer are encyclopedias dry, worthy tomes. The new ones are full of colour and great illustrations, expertly laid out and cleverly written to maximise their lively readability.

History books are a case in point. Publishers now realise that the subject is a winner if approached in the right way (thanks no doubt to the success of the fun but information-packed Horrible Histories series) - it does, after all, produce excellent stories and astounding characters.

Britannia - 100 Great Stories from British History by Geraldine McCaughrean and Richard Brassey (Orion hardback, pounds 20) is a fine example.

This declares its aim to be to "put the story back into history" rather than present an accurate chronicle of the past. The introduction points out that great stories are part of our heritage and some of the most amazing ones are the ones which really happened.

But fear not, this is not just another example of faction where the edges of fact and fiction blur, leaving the reader confused about where the real truth lies.

After each story - the tale of Lady Godiva, perhaps, or Alfred the Great burning the cakes - is a panel explaining just how much of it may or may not be true (as far as it can be judged).

Lady Godiva, it reveals for instance, really was the generous benefactor suggested by the legend, who endowed monasteries in Coventry and Stow. The character of Peeping Tom, though, was a fictional creation added to the plot much later.

This approach leaves the way clear for a lot of great storytelling, with tales of ghosts and murders, love and war; everything from the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie dressed as a woman to the creation of Barnardo's homes to the setting-up of Live Aid.

The writing is mostly capable and pacy, though there are occasional moments of sloppiness. An exciting story of smugglers, for example, refers to vicars turning "a blind eye to the sound of carts at midnight".

Still, there is masses of interest. Children would be fascinated to hear that Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas (along with dancing and theatre) or by tales of great courage, such as the derring-do of Grace Darling.

The illustrations are jolly and light-hearted, nicely reducing the trauma levels of some of the scarier stuff, and there is also a useful section suggesting extra reading.

The Hutchinson Book of Kings and Queens by Tony Robinson (hardback, pounds 14.99) is another winner - definitely a cunning plan by the actor and history fan. This is a great, fact-packed gallop through the history of the English/British monarchy and as light-hearted and humorous as you could wish.

Top children's illustrators have lined up to provide the excellent illustrations, including Tony Ross, Anthony Browne, Nicholas Allan and Babette Cole.

It approaches the subject in a childlike (rather than childish) way. Just what did these kings and queens do? What did they eat for breakfast? How come we've got a monarchy in the first place?

The wealth of information is presented in a lively, deceptively simple way. Henry II, for instance was "big trouble!"

"He was horrible to his beautiful, clever wife Eleanor, who was then horrible back to him. He was just as horrible to his children so they rebelled against him. The country was crumbling simply because of the king's family life."

Well there's a neat summing-up of years of history for you.

It isn't just ancient stuff either, though children will discover that days of yore were far from boring (stun your friends by revealing that George II died on the lavatory while drinking hot chocolate). We come right up to date with facts about the present queen (though most of this is rather well-known) and acknowledgement of a changing public attitude to the monarchy. …

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