Unnatural selections

10th March 1995 at 00:00
Kingfisher Child's World Encyclopaedia, Kingfisher Pounds 25, (one-volume edition), 1 85697 256 9. Pounds 65, (multi-volume boxed edition). 1 85697 257 7. My First Encyclopaedia, Kingfisher (12 volumes paperback) Pounds 3.99 each Choose a range of subjects with guaranteed child appeal (dinosaurs, large machines), add the imaginative appeal of story wherever possible (myths, legends, films) and season with references to the national curriculum. Stir it all up with some fun activities and hey presto! an encyclopaedia for children between the ages of four and eight.

Is it really that easy? Well, no, I'm afraid it isn't.

All credit to Kingfisher for trying to penetrate this difficult market. The challenge of presentating complex subjects in simple words and short sentences, always difficult in information books for young children, is magnifified by the need to achieve comprehensive coverage of the world of knowledge in a very limited space. Kingfisher has gamely tried to meet this challenge and to some extent succeeded. Page layout is attractive, print size appropriate and sentences suitably short. There are contents lists and indexes (though perhaps not as comprehensive as they might be) and the illustrations, though occasionally purely decorative, in the main complement and amplify the text.

But balancing the needs of this very young audience with the amount of information to be conveyed has led to some extraordinary results. Does the importance of dinosaurs, for instance, really justify 50 pages, while religious beliefs get short shrift in one? The dangers of oversimplification in dealing with subjects like "The Americas" in 10 pages are obvious, yet the editors waste precious space with sketchy summaries of folk tales and myths of questionable relevance and value. The general presentation is suitable for the age group, yet unfamiliar terms and concepts ("probe", "adolescence") are used without explanation or cross-referencing within the text. While sign-posting was recognised as necessary, the symbols used are crude and of no real help.

These encyclopaedias are not really reference books, in the sense of yeilding information on any topic of interest. Appropriately perhaps for the age group, they are more suitable for continuous reading or for dipping into at random in an idle moment. Yet there are pitfalls even in this. A child interested in dinosaurs will encounter the term "amphibian" without further explanation and will need relatively sophisticated information-handling skills to decide to look up the term in the index and go on from there into the section on animals where the term is explained. For the child using the multi-volume set, this task is even more difficult, since each volume is indexed separately and the user has to decide in which of the other volumes the term might be indexed.

There could be certain advantages for a school library in choosing the multi-volume Child's World rather than the single volume: the indexes to individual volumes are more detailed and more children can use the work simultaneously. Yet the information contained in both versions is identical, while the difference in price is considerable. The one-volume Child's World is equally effective in exciting interest and represents much better value for money.

The volumes in the My First Encyclopaedia series (My Body, People Long Ago, Plants etc) represent no real advantage over many other topic books for children of this age. While they have some interesting features, their only claim to encyclopaedia status lies in the title.

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