Mammoth books;Ideas for Christmas;Books;Encyclopedias

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
Children increasingly look to the Internet when searching for information, but there remains something special about curling up in an easy chair with a fat, glossy book. (For one thing, it does not take ages to download pictures.) Each of this new crop of encyclopedias has something to commend it as a gift.

If history is your subject, you have a choice of approaches. The Oxford Children's Encyclopedia (volumes on Our World, Plants and Animals, History and Science and Technology, Oxford University Press pound;12.99 each) orders its material alphabetically. Look up China, for example, and you get the whole of Chinese history summarised in a couple of pages.

The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia, on the other hand, goes for a chronological approach, showing what was happening across the world in any given epoch. It is much the more comprehensive of the two books (but at pound;30, also more expensive).

The layout of the Oxford books can be disconcerting at first. Adherence to the alphabetical order of main articles can lead to some odd successions. In Our World, for example, we get: "economics, energy, England, erosion" and "Scotland, seasons, settlements, shops". Time and again I looked up a topic only to find no article carrying that title.

I learned to ignore the advice at the front of the books and go straight to the index. If there was an article on that subject it told you; if not, it referred you to an article that mentioned it.

Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest's Space Encyclopedia (Dorling Kindersley pound;20) is packed with information about the contents, layout and history of the cosmos, backed up by a good glossary. There are interesting sections on space travel and how to get launched as an amateur star-gazer. The book is bang up-to-date, detailed and at times demanding. It seems to be targeted primarily at the serious space enthusiast rather than the casual reader.

Of the number of good books about planet Earth over the years, I still like Derek Elsom's Earth (Simon and Schuster 1992, in print only in the United States). The Usborne Encyclopedia of Planet Earth (Usborne pound;14.99) is a worthy addition to the list. But my first choice of Christmas present for a child would be The Kingfisher Book of Planet Earth (Kingfisher pound;14.99). The illustrations and design are stunning, and the pictures are full of energy.

Martin Redfern's conversational and reader-friendly text is in marked contrast to the more measured, painstakingly didactic approach of much of the writing in the other books on offer. There is a price for this - Redfern takes it for granted that readers are familiar with the idea that a star is a sun, and that they know the meanings of terms such as galaxy, comet and asteroid. The more careful pedagogues responsible for the other books reviewed here make no such assumptions. Their offerings are therefore more likely to be of value for providing information needed to underpin school work. Redfern's book is more inspirational in character, and as such, complements the others.

Russell Stannard is emeritusprofessor of physics at the OpenUniversity and author of the 'Uncle Albert' trilogy (Faber)

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