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Now you, too, can know it all



1000 YEARS OF FAMOUS PEOPLE. Kingfisher pound;19.99



THE EVENTFUL 20th CENTURY. Reader's Digest. pound;18.99 per volume

With the season of trivia battles looming, David Newnham asks whether the latest children's reference books are better sources of questions or answers, and Stephanie Northen uses them to compile a killer quiz

Who once described a hippy as someone who "dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane and smells like Cheetah"? Born in 1911, made a career in the moviesI No, it wasn't Jean Harlow, and it wasn't Ginger Rogers (nice try). But do please keep guessing.

This is what happens, you see, when somebody gets their hands on a reference book. They flick the pages for a couple of minutes, trip over something they didn't know, then spend the rest of the afternoon testing their friends to destruction.

Knowledge - even useless knowledge - is power, and even though we knew that Bamber Gascoigne had the answers in front of him, which of us wasn't impressed by his apparent omniscience?

Trees may still crash to the ground when there's nobody around to hear them, but facts (did you know pandas are closely related to racoons?) really come to life only when we devise a way of telling our neighbours that we know something they don't.

And although the internet may fast be replacing the reference book as a convenient source of answers, when you're looking for a source of questions, the printed and bound word still has the edge on its more searchable rival.

No publisher is more aware of this than Dorling Kindersley, which is probably why it runs a question and (upside down) answer along the bottom of each pair of facing pages in its Encyclopedia for children (How many types of grass are there? About 10,000).

Described as a "first reference for young readers and writers", this visually compelling book combines DK' familiar colour photographs, set like gems on glossy white pages, with the sort of bite-sized facts that children use to make friends and influence their teacher.

There are so many boxes filled with cross-references and suggested activities that each single-subject spread begins to resemble a web page. And for readers who find themselves unconsciously clicking an invisible mouse, the book lists suitable website addresses.

Rather more staid in appearance - illustrations are graphic rather than photographic - but has heaps more words and a traditional alphabetical structure, The Kingfisher A-Z Encyclopedia describes itself as "a must for every family bookshelf".

Despite having 400 pages, this, too, is essentially a book for browsing through rather than for looking things up (Did you know that goldfish are a type of carp?) rather than answers (What is a trade union? Sorry, you won't find that in the index).

Of course, if you're going to be picky, you would end up throwing most reference books on the bonfire. Kingfisher's well illustrated 1000 Years Of Famous People gives more space to Harold Shipman than Karl Marx - and even more to Freddie Mercury.

But for all that, older children will find it more accessible and entertaining than a thorough encyclopedia of biography. And as a source of questions for a Christmas trivia quiz (Where did Freddie Mercury grow up? Zanzibar, of course) it's a gift.

Kingfisher's sensibly organised and strikingly illustrated (all photographs this time) Book Of Living Worlds is also ripe for a little question quarrying (What is the leopard seal's favourite food? Penguin). But if quiz material really is all you're after, then there are any number of books containing nothing but ready-made questions and answers.

Paradoxically, these can make absorbing reading, and Tolkien aficionados will have hours of fun with a little paperback called So You Think You Know The Lord Of The Rings? (it contains more than 1,200 questions and a note explaining that neither The Tolkien Estate nor New Line Cinema has approved this work of scholarship).

But if running rings around your friends comes second to giving your children a sense of perspective, Reader's Digest's The Eventful 20th Century, still takes some beating.

So let's see now. Brave New World, 1945-70. Chapter 4: The Youth Explosion. That movie star who said unkind things about hippies? You passed on that one. It was, of course, the newly elected governor of California, Ronald Reagan.

Did you know...?

1 The world's largest flower is about 1 metre wide and smells of rotting flesh. What is its name?

2 What destroyed the Pacific island of Elugelab in 1952?

3 When a submarine rises to the surface, what part do you see first?

4 There are about 640 of them in your body. What are they?

5 What is the world's smallest country?

6 What did Prince Albert die of?

7 In The Lord of the Rings, which creatures first woke the trees and taught them to talk?

8 Who gives Frodo Baggins an item of jewellery to protect him from memories of fear?

9 Which famous American comedian will be 100 next year?

10 Whose failure to sketch the Italian landscape on his honeymoon led to the invention of photography?

11 What "white slave" surname did Malcolm X discard?

12 In 1841, which Baptist founded modern tourism by chartering a train to take 500 people to hear a lecture on the evils of drink?


1 Rafflesia 2 Testing of a nuclear bomb (from the Kingfisher Book of Living Worlds) 3 The conning tower 4 Muscles (from Dorling Kindersley Encyclopedia for Young Readers and Writers) 5 Vatican City 6 Typhoid (from the Kingfisher A-Z Encyclopedia) 7 Elves 8 Arwen (from So you Think you Know the Lord of the Rings?) 9 Bob Hope 10 William Henry Fox Talbot (from 1000 Years of Famous People) 11 Little 12 Thomas Cook (from The Eventful 20th Century)

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