Ugly Bugs by Nick Arnold (Scholastic, Horrible Science pounds 3.50) declares winningly "the best bits of science are the most horrible bits". There are plenty of frissons of disgust in this foray into the nastiest corners of the insect kingdom, and it also packs a pleasing amount of grown-up science, though Nick Arnold is no stickler for nomenclature - he knows knows when to call a creepy-crawly a creepy-crawly. The down- beat tone is typical of the Horrible Science series, whose cheerfully vulgar takes on familiar subjects have been enormously popular with young readers. Ugly Bugs successful exploits the comic mileage in the real-world analogies: "Woodlice lives are full of excitment. Woodlice never go to bed early with a mug of cocoa. They sleep all day and go out every night. And then they break into your home." Speedy shifts between gobbet of information are interspliced with cartoons, quizzes, activity ideas and extended visual gags. One page is mocked up as a spoof Yellow Pages entry for insect services - under "Tree Surgery" the Elm bark beetle asks "Need a bit more light?" Another winner. 7+
The Nastiest Dinosaurs by Don Lessen, illus David Peters (Little, Brown pounds 4.99). Dino-mania is a crucial stage in every young life, and here is more grist to that mill. This slim, well-priced book makes no bones about the mast its fortunes are nailed to, with a dedication to Michael Crichton and many passing references to Mr Spielberg. But there is enough hard science for the real devotee, in palatable chunks; this book focuses on that particularly ill-mannered dinosaur, the Raptor (the real devotee already knows this means thief). The illustrations don't really try very hard - perhaps any attempts at competition with the Dream Factory's visuals were deemed pointless. A handy phonetic punctuation guide will spare parents` blushes, and Lessen's text is meatily gung-ho and redder than usual in tooth and claw. 6+.
NATURE/THE HUMAN BODY
Why do we laugh? Questions children ask about the human body (Dorling Kindersley pounds 4.99). A bright, chunky, durable book filled with colourful photographs that answers the curiosity of the most insatiable tots: why are there twins? why do I have freckles?, and even that hoary old chestnut, why do I have to go to bed? This is basic practical biology for younger children (they're shown how to take their own pulse), with improving advice: "unless you brush well ..." Pitched between fun and learning, this is instructive and accessible for pre-schoolers. 3+
If I didn't have elbows... by Sandy Toksvig, illus David Melling (De Agostini pounds 6.99) posits deliberately silly facts as a way of encouraging children to think about their bodies. There are intriguing staistics (people eat the weight of eight elephants in the course of a lifetime) and cheery drawings of anthropomorphic hearts and lungs, but in the end the book remains a little dry. Its subtitle - "The Alternative Body Book" - strikes a bogus note, and even little ones will soon outgrow the flat cartoon- strip format. 4+
Looking Into My Body (Reader's Digest pounds 7.99) is a better bet. It opts for the popular gimmick of printing layers onto see-through acetate for X-ray eyes to peek into. This is a gentle introduction to anatomy, undemanding enough for pre-schoolers, and presented in a solid and uncomplicated manner with clear illustrations and simple, bold ideas simply stated. Tot-friendly.
PEOPLE & HISTORY
The Greek News by Anton Powell & Philip Steele (Walker pounds 9.99). History is presented in the guise of a newspaper, a fun idea which makes some comic nods to the exesses of papers the world over (this is, of course, "The Greatest Newspaper in Civilization"). Home news reports the fall of Athens to Xerxes with "Our Brave Boys", ("They laughed at death. They will never be forgotten") and the sports pages runs with a familiar story - allegations of match-fixing at the Olympics. The media device works well (the women's pages tells about the food the ancients ate, the arts pages report from the amphitheatre) though journalistic familiarity doesn't always sit very comfortably with the clumps of straight information. But there are incidental amusements like the small ad "Lost For Words? Try our famous public speaking course... " and the book seems suited to the classroom where teachers can encourage debate on subjects like slavery. Younger, brainier readers will find this draws their disparate facts about the period into a cogent whole. 9+
Anastasia's Album by Hugh Brewster (Little, Brown pounds 12.99). Children are always more interested in history when it is vivid: burning cakes hold the imagination better than the passing of Acts, and the story of the Romanovs is certainly gripping. They were a family of keen amateur photographers, and this is an intimate, domestic and affectionate portrait of them. The album provides the kind of history-via-biography that Anne Frank's diaries do - an understanding of world events like wars through their effects on individuals. The grandeur of their lives before the Revolution, the girls nursing soldiers in the Red Cross - all illustrated with an unobtrusive narrative, interspersed with recently translated letters. The book takes us from life at the imperial palaces to exile in Siberia, and up to the bones found in Ekaterinberg and the mystery of Anna Anderson's identity. Girls will doubtless enjoy the frocks more, but good for 9 plus
Open House, illus Steve Noon (Dorling Kindersley pounds ?). This is the lastest of DK's sumptuous pictorial records which have engendered a craze for lift-and-look-inside design among the children's publishers. Open House is nice title for this book, which invites us into the nooks and crannies of dwellings from throughout the world and its history - a sort of fantasy estate-agent's tour though time. It's a shame that apart from the 18th- century Japanese house and garden all the others are firmly Eurocentric, from the bustling street in imperial Rome to the burly order of a 15th- century Scotch tower. But the detail is breath-taking as you look inside doors, into adjoining rooms and even in the cupboards. Everywhere is swarming activity: people playing music, roasting oxes, snoring in four-poster beds - even thinking on the loo. There is a real flavour of lives as they were lived, and a vivid lesson in how class structure determines accomodation. Bound to provoke an awareness of architecture. Noon's miniatures are awesome, although occasionally so seemingly perfect as to be a bit soulless. A hit though. 7+
Wicked Words by Terry Deary, illus Philip Reeve (Scholastic Horribble Histories, pounds 6.99). This is the history and development of the English language, accomplished with the usual HH irreverence. The invasion of the British Isles becomes a series of home fixtures: "The Anglo-Saxons were settling nicely into the old Celtic ground when in AD 787 they were challenged by a team from Scandinavia. In a tough match the Vikings looked like winning; then the English brought on a new striker, Alfred the Great, and turned the game around." Deary deals jauntily with difficult concepts like the Power of the Word that will help little ones with their Barthesian theory later on. There are medieval incantations, Anglo-Saxon swear-words like "quakebuttock" and "lobscouse", a glossary of words that have passed into English from other tongues and vice versa (Japanese cities hit "rushawa" at 6 o'clock), plus instructional word-games, crosswords and tongue-twisters. Good fun. 9-12
What They Don't Tell You About Shakespeare by Anita Ganeri (Hodder, pounds 3.50) is a painless introduction to the Bard and a rumbustious portrait of the Elizabethans: derring-do on the high seas, traitors' heads on poles, Bedlam, bear-baiting and the Plague. Add the grimmest details of Titus Andronicus and even the most committed Stephen King fan will prick up his ears. Even the Globe theatre becomes interesting again, with heady descriptions of the riotous atmosphere and unruly audience, happily picking their noses and others' pockets. Choice ammunition to reboot flagging attention spans and humanise a daunting academic prospect: there are good snappy plot summaries with select quotes that may already sound familiar, plus basic introductions to rhetorical figures like metaphor. The author's fib - that 17th-century theatre was an experience akin to getting a video out - is happily redundant by the end of the book. Will be hearten slow learners. 7-12.
The Compact Piano by Barrie Carson Turner, (Macmillan, pounds 12.99). No, not an accordion. The hefty price includes a full-length CD which features some of the music discussed. This little series (there is a small orcehstra) give comprehensive fact-rich histories; here is a tinkle down the history of the piano, from the Greek hydraulos, powered by air and water pressure to the so-called "giraffe piano", and may encourage a little more practice in under-inspired musicians. There is the compulsory lift-the-lid anatomy of the subject and quite technical photographs (reminiscnet of Play School showing you around a factory through the round window) and the second half of the book deals with the lives and works of the great composers. The book illustrates its generalisations - "Soaring is stormy music reflecting Schumann's ambitious and passionate character" with references to the CD - a 90s update of those books with tape that bonged when you had to turn the pages. For 8-14
An Introduction to Pablo Picasso by Matthew Meadows (Macdonald, pounds ?). An intelligent text and handsome reproductions, which bring "the most famous artist of the 20th century" to life. The thumb-nail accounts of new movements like Fauvism and Cubism are lucid, and the supporting paintings well chosen: Meadows manages to convey an idea of how different artists like Picasso and Gaugin were from their predecessors without patronising children. The analyses of seminal works, like the page devoted to "Guernica", are satisfyingly technical, but he also explains what a faun and a centaur are. His account of Picasso's career is neatly divided into different periods and media, and is enlivened with relevant biographical snippets. The author does not shirk from details of Picasso's personal life but embraces them rather nonchalantly ("Picasso's first girlfriend in Paris was a young woman called Fernande Olivier. She lived above his Bateau- lavoir studio. In 1912 Picasso started going out with Eva Gouel"), and Picasso's own difficult opinions care dropped in occasionally. 9-15.
A Child's Play in Art by Lucy Micklethwait (Dorling Kindersly, pounds 9.99). Another beautiful book from the creator of A Child's Book of Art, and similarly stunning in the simplicity of its central idea - of giving your children picture-books that are illustrated by the world's best-loved artists. As the title suggests, this is a book of games inspired by works from a creditable range of world art: children can play spot-the-difference between Van Gogh's Vincent's Bedroom in Arles (1888) and Roy Lichtenstein's 1992 update, Bedroom at Arles , imitate the antics in Breughel's Children's Games or Gilbert and George looking extra silly, and play match-the-animals on the Grabower altarpiece. The book has the simple charm of a medieval alphabet or bestiary, with single words accompanying the images on otherwise uncluttered pages. Parents see familiar paintings thorugh fresh eyes, and children are guaranteed to be stunned when they happen on a work in the flesh during a bored Sunday gallery trip. From pulling silly faces with tinies to copying artists' techniques with older children, this really is fun for all the family. Now that's what I call interactive. 2 upwards
The Young Inline Skater by Chris Edwards (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 8.99). This is the craze that has swept a nation of street-smart kids, and which sweeps past you at such alarming speed when you're out shopping. Chris Edwards is a suitably hunky champion vert skater who, we are reassured, "continues to thrill audiences" - he's written a book but he's still cool. The book makes noises about "good sportsmanship", "discipline" and "pedestrian awareness", which is so much wishful thinking. The text is well-presented and instructional with sharp photos and friendly diagrams and will see the YIS from first wobbles to full-on swizzling (don't know). But parents beware! You are referred to reputable sportswear shops with regularity; the spending will not stop at the cover price, I feel.
I'm a Genius Vet by Jason Page (Bloomsbury, pounds 3.99) This is a "a no-nonsense guide for kids who mean business" and sets out to test their vocation to its limit. It challenges all romantic associations and digs relentlessly with questions like Do you really want to spend much of your working life with your hand stuck up a cow's bottom? Are you bright enough for the university course? If you love animals, can you cope with the moral discomforts of the job (like inspecting animal testing labs, the compulsory study in a slaughter-house)? This little volume, one of a set of professions, is a treasure trove of apposite information (alternative jobs with healthy animals, for instance) and is thoroughly interactive, for all that the only mice are within the pages: there are regular aptitude tests to see how you score as a potential vet and charts with which to diagnose your pets. A good idea, well executed.
Drugs by Anita Ganeri (Reference Point pounds 3.99). As your children are genetically programmed to start hating you at this age, any book you buy for them will be, like, totally embarrassing so you've nothing to lose in plunging into a new crop of self-help texts for teenagers. And, despite its garish psychedelic cover and poor pedigree (the resolutely tacky ??? series is another member of the Reference Point stable) Drugs manages to impart some sensible advice without resorting to cringy attempts at teenspeak. The layout and graphics are cheap and cheerful, and the cover blurb unforgivably sensational - "share some shocking true experiences" - but the accounts within are sensitively-chosen and sobering, and show the chaos that results for anyone - friend, parent or child - who is close to an addict or who becomes addicted. As well as the information you'd expect - how to spot the effects of drugs in others, their possible side-effects - the book goes further into the social and political realities of the global drugs market: 29,000 people are murdered in Colombia each year because of the cocaine trade.
Speak for Yourself! Finding Your Voice by Rosie Rushton, Picadilly pounds 5.99) This looks at some of the tribulations and anxieties of these delicate years, and is well-organised around topics like shyness, popularity, talking to your parents, dealing with that awful moment when your best friend hates you and so on. There are pithy epigrams which come from a nice range of sources: Shopenhauer's "We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves to be like other people" to Janis Joplin's "Don't compromise yourself, you are all you've got". One great disadvantage is Ms Rushton's distinctly un- PC tone: much of the improving advice is clearly geared towards girls and reinforces the idea that it is chiefly they who suffer from low self- esteem, and the advice on how to talk to the gorgeous guy next door is most suspect - you should decline his offer of a go on his rollerblades with "I'd rather sit here and watch the expert" - "That's a clever way of declining the offer but making the guy feel important." Hmm, rumblings from the sisterhood.
Incredible Comparisons by Russell Ash, (Dorling K, pounds 14.00). A parent was complaining to me only yesterday (after sitting up all night over biology homework) about his 8-yr-old's vastly superior general knowledge. This book will widen the gap still further, as contained here are more arcane facts than anyone could ever need to know: how many humpbacked wales can fit in a space shuttle, how many people holding hands it would take to encircle Pluto, how New York's rainfall compares against teh height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This book is stunning, immaculately turned out as ever and dauntingly full of measurements and statistics. A delight for serious students, but you may be condemning them to a life of addiction to pub quizzes. For swots, 10+.