Early answers

5th May 1995 at 01:00
FIRST SCHOLASTIC ENCYCLOPAEDIA. Scholastic Publications (4 vols in slip case) Pounds 29.99. O 59O 542Ol X.

Did you know that if all the blood vessels in your body were laid end to end, they would stretch three times around the widest part of the Earth? Fascinating facts such as this are an incidental pleasure of this well-organised, nicely presented and eye-catching encyclopedia for the early years of primary school.

Four thematic volumes (All about People; How Things Work; A First Atlas; Animals and Nature) cover the subjects of a child's earliest curiosity. The main arrangement of each volume is alphabetical, making it easy to look up specific topics. Individual volumes have specialised features, such as the chronological storyboards of the human life cycle which intersperse entries on Blood, Body, Bone and so on, in All about People.

Of the four volumes, A First Atlas is perhaps the weakest, concentrating on the picturesque rather than the factual and paying a disastrous price in paucity of information for its ambitious coverage. Given the necessary print size and range of illustrations, one double page spread on Western Europe allows room for only the blandest information. Yet the editors devote 38 of their allowance of 183 words in this section to discussing pollution - a problem certainly not peculiar to western Europe.

Other volumes are much more satisfactory. All About People describes how our bodies work (except for sex), how we feel, grow and change, while Animals and Nature covers the Universe, weather and seasons as well as individual animals representing the most important animal classifications. How Things Work does not confine itself to machines, but includes work in the office, how a city functions and how a book is made.

Good sign posting makes navigation around the volumes easy. A great deal of thought has been given to arrangement and layout, offering teachers a valuable opportunity to introduce very young children to information handling skills. The glossaries are helpful and not too complex, while the use of indexes and contents pages is clearly explained in the preface. Cross-references are also well-chosen. Illustrations have been carefully selected to complement and expand on the text.

There are a few minor quibbles: "Now picture this" sections are occasionally misleadingly illustrated; sentences are sometimes too complex for the target readership or marred by colloquialisms and imperfect proof-reading, but the general verdict on this first encyclopedia has to be favourable. The text is factual but never dull, stimulating the imagination without straining credibility.

The wisdom of including such a necessarily limited atlas in an encyclopedia for this age group is questionable. This volume suffers badly from comparison with My First Atlas, recently published by Dorling Kindersley - a far more purposeful and informative work, albeit for very slightly older children. Nevertheless, the set as a whole offers good value for money for the primary school library.

Pearl Valentine is Chief Librarian for the North-Eastern Education and Library Board, County Antrim.

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