All about sex and lobsters

Paul Noble

Paul Noble enjoys browsing through two encyclopedias.

COLLINS CHILDREN'S ENCYCLOPEDIA By John Farndon HarperCollins Pounds 9. 99

KINGFISHER FIRST ENCYCLOPEDIA By Ruth thomson and Anne GivardiKingfisher Pounds 12.99

Although encyclopedias age instantly at birth, they seem to live for ever.Not long ago, in an infant school, I saw shelves deeply bowed under volumes whose origins were pre-war. Exceptional that may be, but how many primary schools still have 1960s encyclopedias on the active service list? My own childhood encyclopedia ("The de Havilland Comet is the world's most up-to-date airliner") is crumbling to dust close to an even older volume my father once used. These crumblies do, of course, have their uses and I have no intention of initiating tremors of guilt - I merely observe - but whether for reasons of reverence or reference we do seem very reluctant to dispose of them. Perhaps, like old teachers who never die, they simply use their class.

The one-volume Collins Children's Encyclopedia and Kingfisher First Encyclopedia have class, or at least that colourful modernity which gives the appearance of class, and look set fair to achieve reasonable longevity.Perhaps those up-to-the-minute entries on Leonid Kravchuk, virtual reality and the ecu will look as dated as the Comet before long, but who can tell, both writers and users of encyclopedias have to live with this problem.

Kingfisher aims at the younger market (five to nine-year-olds) using a good clean design and high-quality illustrations. Popping up from time to time are pictures of brightly clad children (en route, I believe, to an M amp; S catalogue) bringing a splash of colour to entries that might otherwise lack visual excitement. Take "money" for example, where a little girl (nice socks) is shown putting coins in her piggy bank. Now this designer gimmick is inoffensive enough but rarely necessary; some of the double-page spreads are excellent (the one on reptiles for example). The alphabetical arrangement of entries makes it easy to find your way about although because the book is relatively short and is generously illustrated with a decent size of print, it clearly cannot be encyclopedic.An enjoyable browse though.

Kingfisher does manage to have an entry on conservation which the larger,more densely packed Collins volume does not, although the subject matter is there if you look hard enough. However, one must not fall into the error of too direct a comparison between the two books because Collins aims at an older age group (seven upwards). The apparent overlap is misleading, because Kingfisher is more appropriate for top infants and lower juniors, whereas Collins I would place no lower than top juniors because of its much higher information and reading levels.

On the first page of the Collins you are hit with a full frontal of a naked man. This prompted me to look up "sex" in the index (I'm a mischievous 11-year-old at heart). There, under "Growing up and pregnancy",I found a two-page spread complete with a section through a couple coupling. Sampling more entries at random, I uncovered plenty to stimulate and inform. I didn't know, but know now, that lobsters can live up to 50 years; that more than half of all New Zealanders are under 30 and that ice cream was brought to Italy by Marco Polo (how did he stop it from melting?).

For this sort of information trawl, the Collins encyclopedia is fine - well-illustrated with plenty of detail sensibly arranged on the page. Not until you try to track down specific information do you get into difficulty.

An irritating fact about one volume encyclopedias is that they never seem to have enough of what you want, yet possess more than enough of what you don't want. The choice of a thematic organisation of the material (the Living World; Society; Science and so on) does little to aid enquiry. Both books would fit nicely into the hands of inquisitive children - I suggest in the home rather than the classroom - ideal stuffing for the more sturdy sort of Christmas hose.

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