Books: Top of the pop-ups and wallcharts

Suzi Feay on the factastic world of millennium non-fiction
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The Independent Culture
Yes, it's the M-word. Dorling Kindersley has made the most of this year's marketing opportunity to provide a series of Millennium-themed books. The centrepiece of their Amazing Dome Pop-Up Book (pounds 9.99) is a cross-section model of south east London's giant pimple, complete with masts and cables and details of the floor plan and its zones. The remaining text reminds us how big the Dome is: 17,500,000,000 chocolate bars could fit inside, and the cabling could stretch to Brighton.

Children of Britain Just Like Me by Barnabas and Anabel Kindersley (DK pounds 9.99) features a wildly varied, multicultural crew from up and down the land, from Scottish Ruairidh, Carl, the youngest black belt in the country, Ruby, a Hindu from Sheffield, Francesca from Essex who has cerebral palsy, and 11-year-old tabla-playing Inderjivan from Newcastle. He demonstrates how he ties his patka (turban) and leaves us with the thought: "If I could change anything in the world, I would want to wipe out nuclear and atomic bombs, because they would be bad for my chest."

In the world of children's non-fiction, typefaces get ever more hectic and layouts more elaborate as designers attempt to make vast quantities of information digestible. Busy-ness is the Dorling Kindersley house style, exemplified by Russell Ash's book of Factastic Millennium Facts (DK pounds 9.99). It is divided into Ages - of religion, conquest, expansion, revelation, commerce, revolution, industry and commerce - and is best browsed, ie 1102: Public medical service is introduced in China; 1299: the use of Arabic numerals is banned in Florence.

The Timechart History of the World (Third Millennium pounds 12.99) compresses 6,000 years of history into a 23-foot wallchart. Based on a Victorian original, but updated, it resembles an unusually complicated digestive system, with its lines, loops, bulges and branches. Also in wallchart form is the Amazing Pop-up 3D Timescape from Dorling Kindersley (pounds 12.99), which begins with the Big Bang at the bottom, and demonstrates brilliantly the ever-increasing complexity of the world.

The Reader's Digest Book of Amazing Facts (pounds 24.99) has a rather stodgy format and is visually unexciting, but it is reliably wide-ranging and detailed. The Oxford Children's Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (pounds 12.99) covers similar ground, but is more readable and less soundbitey (also in the series: History, Plants and Animals and Our World). A taste for Schadenfreude can be established early with The Best Ever Book of Disasters (Kingfisher pounds 9.99) with its scary illustrations: did you know that in 1212 there was a fire at both ends of London Bridge that resulted in 3,000 deaths?

Of course, "those who do not learn the lessons of history will be forced to relive them", a sentiment quoted on the cover of The Story of the Holocaust (Watts pounds 10.99), an admirable, unflinching pictorial account of the horrors - and the very few spots of light like Raoul Wallenberg and Miep Gies.

From Blackadder to Time Time, Tony Robinson has cornered the market in irreverent history. His Book of Kings and Queens (Hutchinson pounds 14.99) is factually sound yet gloriously wacky. Henry II was said to have come from the devil, and two of his sons became mondarchs, "so if people were right, England had three devil kings".

The Kingfisher Book of Religions by Trevor Barnes (pounds 16.99) is a delightful book, thoughtfully and attractively illustrated. It covers ancient religions as well as the mainstream, and the traditional beliefs held in Africa, Australia and North America. The British Museum Encyclopedia of Native North America (BM Press pounds 15.99) is a fascinating A-Z introduction to the complex culture of the tribal peoples, their history and art.

Utterly beguiling is the Children's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Heaven by Anita Ganeri (Element pounds 14.99). Spiritual, folkloric and philosophical by turns, it examines heaven as seen by, for example, Jews, Muslims, Chinese and Sikhs; and discusses beliefs in the afterlife and reincarnation, creation myths, sacred spaces, worship and pilgrimages. And, not forgetting the other place, there's a chapter covering Orpheus and Eurydice, hungry ghosts, Virgil's gateway to hell under Mount Avernus, and Hell on earth, with the millennial hope that we each find our own answer to "the big question".

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