Children's books / Christina Hardyment has fun with facts

Pop-ups, holograms, and even scratch 'n' sniff are now all par for the course in educational books for children. But now that packaging is all, are messages getting lost in the medium? Do today's ingenious aids to learning improve or merely amuse? And are we descending to a Fascinating Facts approach that puts success in pub quizzes ahead of real illumination?

History is a notorious casualty of modern curricula, a subject distorted by a mania to prove relevance and with an ever lower take-up at GCSE. Its relentlessly zany presentation by children's publishers can't help matters. Rock bottom is touched by Smelly Old History: scratch `n' sniff your way through the past (and yes, that first omission apostrophe is printed the wrong way round). All good dirty fun, you might think, but the sub-Asterix illustrations, doggerel verse and absurdly synthetic and inaccurate smells of Roman Aromas (OUP, pounds 4.99) will do absolutely nothing for Year Five's appreciation of Roman Britain. That the series, which includes Tudor Odours and Victorian Vapours, is selling as well as smelling like hot cakes is no comfort at all.

We should be inspiring children, not joining them in the playground. History needs heroes and heroines. Two books by Rebecca Hazell, The Barefoot Book of Heroes and The Barefoot Book of Heroines (Barefoot, pounds l2.99 each) have both in abundance, illustrated by the author in a static but highly decorative style skilfully adapted to suit times and places ranging from seventh-century Japan to 20th- century Mexico. Exquisite maps set the characters in context.

Fast and furious food for thought is offered by Usborne's newspaper format Egyptian Echo (pounds 3.99), "a heady mixture of historical facts and excitable tabloid journalism, served piping hot on 32 crispy white fun-packed pages", and Medieval Messenger (pounds 3.99), "a rollicking romp through yesterday's shocks, horrors and sensations". Both are well researched, enticingly illustrated, and very funny - especially if you already know your history. But shouldn't children be making their own tabloids as a digestive exercise rather than being presented with them in a more professional form than they could ever achieve?

For the same reason, I approached More Shakespeare without the Boring Bits (Viking, pounds 5.99), the second of Humphrey Carpenter's effervescent reworkings of the bard, with more than a smidgeon of doubt, though I rapidly found myself giggling over the "Secret Diary of Hamlet aged Nineteen and a Half", and Iago as the inner self-doubt of "O.T." Othello. All good fun, and certainly no boring bits, but don't expect the good bits of the Bard either - there is only one direct quotation.

Comprehensive summaries of the real plots - and a whole lot else besides - are provided in Anna Claybourne and Rebecca Treays' The World of Shakespeare (Usborne, pounds 9.99). This is an excellent overview of Shakespeare's life and times, including rather more than is officially known about his private life, a lucid account of Elizabethan thought and language, and a richly illustrated kaleidoscope of the different ways in which the plays have been presented across the centuries. Generously studded with quotations, the book would be a real asset for any child (or adult) involved in studying or acting in the plays.

Douglas Steer's Mythical Mazes (Templar, pounds 7.99) is also good news: a graceful retelling of some of the most famous myths in the world, each matched to a maze designed in the style of the culture of the story. The illustrations, by five contrasting hands, are quite superb, and the tales range from Egyptians to Inuits, Celts to Native Americans, China to Greece. They are carefully calculated to spur greater interest in such legends. Besides being a visual feast, it is (judging by the time it took me to review it conscientiously by following all the mazes) outstandingly good value for those who like to see their children curled up, totally absorbed in the book on their knee for a very long period.

The Read and Wonder series (Walker Books, pounds 4.99 each) is also outstandingly good for poring over. Titles include A Piece of String, The Wheeling and Whirling Around Book, What is a Wall After All?, and A Ruined House, and the aim is to present the basic facts of science by making children look at the familiar world around them with fresh eyes. The themes are imaginatively explored with excellent illustrations and words which romp and rhyme and writhe around the pages with all the oomph and panache of Dr Seuss.

Attractive and challenging learning is also provided by Atarah Ben-Tovim's The Flute Book (Random House, pounds 12.99). This cleverly designed little volume is ring bound for easier use on the music stand and includes a CD for listening and playing along to. It is necessarily hortative - playing a musical intrument well is not a soft option - but also genuinely inspiring. The book gives the playing of a musical instrument the historical, social and professional context that many children would fail to appreciate unless their parents were themselves musicians.

`But a spiralling curve can also be observed in the coil of a snake or a butterfly's nose ... can be as flat as a spiral galaxy, or the coil of a spider's web, or go funnelling in like the whirlwind of water that glugs from a tub' Illustrations

Clockwise, from top left: a procession of fierce, slow, meek and fat dinosaurs by Paul Stickland in `Dinosaur Roar!'; a thuggish trog prepares to defend Trog Tower in Misery Wood, taken from Nick Harris and Andy Dixon's fantasy adventure story, `Dragon Quest' (Usborne, pounds 7.95); an under-the- bed tea party taking place in `Hiding' by Tudor Humphries; sky news for Chicken Licken in `A Wickedly Funny Flap Book' by Jonathan Allen; Pa Punkrock, weighed down by his boots, explains the intricacies of the punk rockers' dance in `Scribble Boy', illustrated by Chris Riddell; `Yum Yum Yum!' said the giant, rubbing his mountainous tummy in `The Giant Pie' illustrated by Nick Schon; first sighting of the eponymous vegetable in `Rosie Plants a Radish' illustrated by Alex Scheffler, and Mary Wormell's wonderful lino-cut illustration of Peter, the blotchy hero of Dick King-Smith's `The Spotty Pig'.

Quotations, left to right from: `The Spotty Pig' by Dick King-Smith; `The Wheeling and Whirling Around Book' by Judy Hindley, and `Butterfingers' by Roger Collinson