It's Boxing Day. The bodily and TV appetites have been over-indulged. What will keep the children quiet and help make temporary sense of a permanently strange world? How about a big fact book?
The Usborne Animated Children's Encyclopedia by Jane Elliott and Colin King (Usborne Pounds 19.99 with CD-Rom) is laid out in the familiar Usborne style - no photographs, but lots of lively little colour drawings. It sets out to answer some very broad questions - Why do people wear clothes? Why do people cook? Why do the seasons change? - and does so in brief and simple paragraphs, with the accompanying CD-Rom offering animations, quizzes, sound effects and narration for beginner readers. And the notes on installing the CD-Rom are straightforward enough - even for a drink-befuddled and IT-illiterate parent.
Keats's Naughty Boy - "He stood in his shoes and he wonder'd" - would love The Oxford First Encyclopedia by Andrew Langley (Oxford Pounds 14.99.) With its 400 colour pictures and confidently enthusiastic text, it makes a fine introduction to many of the mysteries for which children seek explanations.
They will need enough reading proficiency to decode sentences such as "Thunder is the noise made by the hot air expanding around the sparks", but the book's structure is finely planned to offer them the necessary support.
Topics are framed in eight large categories, from My Body to The Universe, and there is a generous catholicity about the information. Two playground games, five major religions and 16 children from different countries indicate the world's complexity.
A sentence like "Birds may really be flying dinosaurs!" might need an adult's explanation, but from Agamemnon's golden mask to the high-speed French TGV train, there are images to make the eyes bulge and words to set the mind racing.
For older brothers and sisters The Oxford Children's Illustrated Encyclopedia, edited by Ben Dupre, brings much of the nine-volume version reviewed previously (TES, September 4), within one set of covers for Pounds 30. Not everything has been transferred - Melanesians, Melody, Menstruation and Memory are all omitted between Mediterranean and Metals - but extra topics like Novels, referring to Achebe and Alice Walker as well as Dostoevsky and Joyce, find their place.
The elegant summary introductions, smart cross-referencing and excellent mixture of photographs and drawings make this attractive to the eye and helpful to the brain. The editors have managed to include the death of Michael Tippett and the Irish peace accords from 1998. This encyclopedia is colourfully intelligent - and lifting it will strengthen your forearms.
The Top 10 of Everything by Russell Ash (Dorling Kindersley Pounds 12. 99) is compulsive reading if you want to know that there are 50,000 more goats in the Sudan than in Ethiopia (who counted?). You can also discover that sheep are mentioned in the Bible 12 times more often than lambs. In the world of entertainment, Led Zeppelin II outsold Led Zeppelin IV, the audio version of Fawlty Towers outsold the audio version of Dad's Army, and in 1997 the Teletubbies books outsold Goosebumps.
This kind of accumulation of inert facts is fine for sports fans - although the football enthusiast will be disappointed to find no mention of the 1998 World Cup - and for settling pub arguments about the relative heights of American presidents. But quantity doesn't always mean quality. This book contains thousands of Whats, Whos, Wheres and Whens but very few Hows and no Whys at all.