Gargoyles, girdles and giraffes
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The Independent Culture
As with the golden age of children's fiction, which began with Lewis Carroll and fizzled out some 50 years later with A.A. Milne, non- fiction children's publishing is currently enjoying a renaissance. Empowered by laser printing, computer graphics and paper engineering, with the ever- present threat of CD-roms and the Internet at their heels, children's publishers are producing hugely enjoyable, factual, full-colour books which explore all the traditional school subjects - maths, science, history and biology - with the kind of energy and inventiveness that they once devoted to pop-up and pull-out books. Here is a selection of the best this Christmas.

Forget tables and immerse your child instead in Numbers by Richard Phillips (Cambridge, pounds 9.95), an explosively jacketed book which conceals a multitude of intriguing facts and figures. Working from zero to 999, Phillips provides a profile of each number (40, for example, is the fourth star number, the number of days it takes for Puck to put a girdle round the earth, the age at which life begins...) as well as explaining such numerical mysteries as the Fibonacci Numbers (named after Leonardo Fibonacci who lived in Pisa in the 13th century), a Mobius strip and Pascal's Triangle.

Eureka! by Theodore Rowland- Entwhistle (Templar, pounds 7.99) has nothing to do with bathwater displacement problems but is instead an illustrated guide to 12 inventions that changed the world. The first Hoover, invented by an impractical chap named Booth, for instance, was powered by a petrol- driven pump mounted on a horse-drawn van. Try pushing one of those round your sitting-room. Rowland-Entwhistle (who sounds like something of an invention himself) also delves into transport - the first car, vaccinations, the tabulating machine and the world's first computer constructed by Herman Hollerith in 1890. Interestingly, he barely mentions aeroplanes, but Chris Oxlade redresses the balance in Flight Throughout Time (Macdonald, pounds 9.50) a pleasingly illustrated, accessible history of flying from the Montgolfier Balloon which set sail in 1783 to helicopters, airships, gliders and para- gliders and today's supersonic jets with their high-tech cockpits. Riveting stuff for eight-to-10 year olds. Oxlade also helpfully includes a glossary of aviation terms.

One of the most intriguing children's history books published this year is Peter Kent's A Slice Through a City (Macdonald, pounds 10.99), which uses wonderfully detailed cross-sections to show the growth of a city from a circle of stone age mud-huts to a bustling 20th-century metropolis. As one civilisation builds on the ruins of the last, Kent shows how the detritus of each era remains hidden underground - treasure as well as rubbish, even a huge mammoth skeleton, survive through the ages. Highly informative and excellent fun for seven-year-olds and upward. In Kent's book, the Middle Ages are embodied in a teeming market town where boys played football in the streets and miracle plays were popular entertainments.

Sara Howarth explores the era more fully in What Do We Know About the Middle Ages? (Macdonald, pounds 9.99), one title in a series that ranges from the Vikings to the Victorians. Plentifully illustrated with photographs and drawings, Howarth's book is a no-frills study of the houses, clothes, schools and religious beliefs enjoyed by people between AD900 and AD1400. The Englishman in his castle is put into historical perspective in Malcolm Day's Keep Out! (Macdonald, pounds 12.99) which looks at castles and forts through the ages from Mycenaean citadels so vast that the Greeks believed they were built by Cyclopses, to Norman keeps and the camouflaged pill boxes and nuclear bunkers of the modern age. Small boys will love it, especially the grimly explicit illustrations of crossbows, ballistas and jousting knights.

It's a relief to turn to Steve Parker and Graham Rosewarne's intriguing Do Animals Go To School? (Viking, pounds 8.99) a book which shows how the animal kingdom runs on well-organised parallel lines to our own. Animals go to school - flying school, fishing school and, in the case of honey bees, cleaning school - go on holiday (migration), have houses, larders and fridges and visit the doctor. They even eat take-aways and have baby-sitters: aunt giraffes run giraffe creches and mother hens often take on broods of orphaned ducklings. About the only thing animals don't do is pollute the world, as this excellent book sternly points out at the end. Only humans do that. For younger children Nature's Little Builders by John Woodward (Electric Paper, pounds 10.99) is an entertaining pop-up exploration of animals and their homes. A pop-up mole burrows underground, a wasp hovers over a 3-D version of her nest while a spider spins a see-through web - the perfect introduction to the mysteries of natural science.

As well as helping to educate your children, publishers also have plenty of ideas how to keep them busy. This Christmas you can buy books which will introduce your offspring to gardening, drawing, making books and cooking. Count Drawcula's Cartoon Fun by Frank Rodgers (Scholastic, pounds 9.99) is a spooky guide to drawing the basic shapes needed to create bogeypersons, ghosts, gargoyles, monster movie stars and assorted rotters.

Once you have learnt how to do that, you can make your own book to put them in. Bookworks by Gwenyth Swain (Carolrhoda Books, pounds 9.99) explains the history of paper-making and book-binding and then shows you how to do it yourself with clear diagrams for fold-up books, roll-up books, marbling, printing and illustrating. Bookworks is aimed at older children, but for 5-7 year olds who long to join in, there is Making Books by Gillian Chapman and Pam Robson (Macdonald, pounds 4.99), a jolly, full-colour guide to designating page plans and book shapes, stencils and collage.

Outdoor types who have graduated from growing cress in egg shells will be enthralled by Little Green Fingers (Macdonald, pounds 8.99) by Mary An Van Hage. Ignore the sick-making title and concentrate instead on the wealth of information inside on growing straightforward stuff such as tomatoes, pumpkins and hyacinths as well as the more complicated business of encouraging lemon and orange pips to sprout forth, creating model gardens, decorating pots of Christmas tulips and making your own family of grass people.

Christmas present of the year award must go, however, to Ian Dicks and David Hawcock's wildly eccentric Unwrap a Mummy! (Tango Books, pounds 9.99). Buried within this coffin-shaped book is a hideous brown and smelly-looking mummified corpse with spindly pop-out arms, interlocking knee joints and a brief message entitled "How To Live Forever". Just the thing to go with a large glass of sherry and a mince pie.