Memories of those politically incorrect favourite books of our childhood fade but slowly. This title still has the ring of stirring tales of derring-do and, more prosaically, The Boy's Book of Famous Scientists. There are the inevitable questions. How many women? How Eurocentric? How balanced is the portrayal?
The fact is, OUP has taken a risk and succeeded in putting together a reference book which survives the most rigorous interrogation. The thousand entries are the fruit of a careful selection process which involved fifty consultants, although the publisher's apologia for the project acknowledges that inclusivity may be an unrealistic ambition. It would be ungenerous to quibble about names at the margin of history. The breadth is truly world-wide from Fa Hsien, the fifth-century traveller and translator, to Che Guevara, Cleopatra to Maya Angelou.
Each entry, many of which are accompanied by an illustration, consists of about 200 words, summarising the subject's career and historical significance. What could have been a somewhat dreary sequence of pieces written to a formula is more an appealing set of cameos, portraying the personality behind the achievement, and, where fitting, the name behind the name, whether Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Trotsky) or Roberta Joan Anderson (Joni Mitchell). A range of styles is employed and the readability and economy of each keep the pages turning. Many entries are helpfully cross-referenced so Mary Pickford leads us to Chaplin and Sam Goldwyn and Harriet Beecher Stowe to Harriet Tubman.
Two directories at the end of the book add to its usefulness. One groups entries by the area of their achievement with helpful sub-categories so the reader can scan, for example, painters and illustrators 1900 to the present and political leaders of different parts of the world. A chronological directory brings together those who were born and lived at the same time. Teachers planning the key stage 2 History scheme of work will be greatly helped by these 50-year clusters of names as they attempt to portray the political, economic, scientific, technological, religious and cultural aspects of a period.
One of the strengths of this compilation is its modernity, a feature not lost on the designer of the book's jacket. Here the editors must have faced their sternest test, attempting to sift the cult figure of ephemera from the hero or heroine whose contribution may be more durable. Many will feel that the under fifties are over-populated with pop stars and sports people and that Stephen Hawking, Lech Walesa and Bill Clinton hardly redress the balance. The big "M"s, Madonna (yes her birth name is listed) and her junior (another surprise), Maradona, are inevitably covered, if one might so describe the former, but the editors thankfully stop short of Colonel Sanders. More seriously why Pierre Trudeau but not Harold Wilson in the 1915-1919 vintage?
Schools wishing to rejuvenate tired reference collections need look no further. This really is a superb work, worthy of the publisher's reputation for world class works of reference. Secondary schools should not be put off by the use of "children" in the title; it would serve as an ideal quick reference source in a wide variety of contexts. Those with presents to buy for eight to 14-year-olds could be surprised at the response to what, both in appearance and content, is emphatically not just another book.