Now, what I want is, Facts." How Mr Gradgrind would have enjoyed Factopedia (Dorling Kindersley, Pounds 25). At over 400 pages, it contains a mammoth 50,000 facts, organised into 11 themed chapters such as Earth, Human Body and Science and Technology and integrated with 15,000 illustrations and diagrams (DK aficionados will have seen many of these already).
Apart from the odd gaffe a list of key world writers omits Shakespeare this is a truly valuable book. The comprehensive index means that it works as an excellent one-volume encyclopaedia while the thematic arrangement and wealth of high-quality visuals make it a brilliant browse for juniors who have taken off as fluent readers.
Kingfisher has taken a different approach to mining the archive in The Beano Book of Amazing Facts (Pounds 6.99). Characters from the Beano comic break into a museum and tour nine themed sections which combine Beano-style cartoon strips with factual text, illustrations and diagrams. Information giving is successfully combined with comic elements it's not just a case of one being grafted thoughtlessly on to the other. This is not a reference book, although it does have an index, but it may well appeal to less single-minded fact-gatherers who are daunted by the bulk and price of Factopedia.
Song of the Earth (Orion, Pounds 12.99) provides yet another approach to factual matter. Coming from the Think of an Eel school of innovative non-fiction picture books, it rather whimsically ex-plores the four elements, blending facts and traditional stories. We are encouraged to re-examine our relationship with the natural world through a pot-pourri of myths, poems and beliefs inspired by earth, air, fire and water.
This is a beautiful, well-intentioned book, with a thoroughbred pedigree: gorgeous illustrations by Jane Ray (reproduced in five-colour printing with gold) and text by Mary Hoffman (author of Amazing Grace). It has been shortlisted for the Kurt Maschler award (see below). But does it really work?
It tries to do far too much, darting about breathlessly. The stories are recounted in too short and cursory a manner to be truly satisfying and the authors peddle their green message too unsubtly.
Also disappointing is The Secret Forest by Michael Gaffrey (David Bennett, Pounds 9.99). The idea behind this Where's Wally? with creepy-crawlies is clever enough: the bugs are introduced through drawings and captions and the reader has to find them again in subsequent double-page spreads of forest habitats.
This concept is too thin to carry a whole book (and at just 32 pages you don't get a lot for your money). The creatures are so feebly concealed that even a five-year-old would find them straight away, and visual appeal is limited because greens and browns dominate. This would have been better as a single element within a larger, more comprehensive volume on minibeasts.