CHILDRENS BOOKS / Why the dragon-slayer sucked his thumb: For the answer to this and many other questions, Candice Rodd chooses reference books that take the slog out of discovering things

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The Independent Culture
Atlas of Ancient Worlds by Dr Anne Millard, Dorling Kindersley pounds 10.99. Slim but sumptuous guide to long-lost civilisations, built around Russell Barnett's vivid pictorial maps. The author strikes just the right balance between the generalised overview (the peoples she includes range from the Pharaohs and the Celts to the Samurai and the Mayans) and the kind of infobite that can snag the imagination and, with luck, trigger real curiosity: the name of Alexander the Great's favourite horse, who first trained horses (the people of the Russian Steppes), the design of Assyrian siege machines, Mohammed's day job, Ancient Rome's graffiti problem . . .

Fakes & Forgeries by Ian Graham, Evans Brothers pounds 8.95. Riveting survey of the world's best scientific and artistic leg-pulls, from Piltdown Man to the Turin Shroud, the Loch Ness Monster (are they sure he's not real?) to fake Van Dycks. Splendid stories brightly illustrated, plus surprising amounts of palatable hard science (carbon dating, isotope analysis, dendrochronology) and vivid history: did you know that the explanation of crop circles currently favoured by Japanese researchers - lightning explosions - was first proposed by the aptly named Professor Robert Plot in 1686?

The Children's Illustrated Bible by Selina Hastings & Eric Thomas, Dorling Kindersley pounds 14.99. Handsome and copiously illustrated, this edition goes halfway to solving the problem of how to give the Bible shelf appeal. The chapter headings - Joseph's Dream, Peter's Denial - and the little fact pockets, explaining such arcana as the meaning of 'diaspora' and the money-changing customs in the time of our Lord, are useful, but there remains the problem of language. Like others before her, Hastings can't quite get away from that ersatz oh-yea tone - and if you are going to the bother of re-writing, you ought to explain (re Noah's Ark) what a cubit is.

The Usborne Book of Discovery by Struan Reid, Patricia Fara and Felicity Everett, pounds 10.99. Excellent bumper edition of three books - on inventors, explorers and scientists - which are also available separately at pounds 6.99 each. Amazingly encyclopedic for a really quite modestly-sized volume - you can find out here about everything from Morse code to compact discs, the quest for Timbuktu to modern oceanography - and, despite one of those busy-busy layouts designed to appeal to short attention spans, far from superficial. Given the subtitle - Inventors, Scientists, Explorers - and the many illustrations of the chaps (always chaps of course) concerned, a bit more about the personalities behind the achievements would have been welcome; but that would have been icing on an already richly satisfying cake.

The Children's Step-by-Step Cookbook by Angela Wilkes, Dorling Kindersley pounds 9.99. Good value, beautifully designed proper cookbook with the kind of crystal-clear instructions many adults would value in the kitchen. Proper food too - healthy kebabs, fish pie and loads of fruit and veg - as well as the more predictable gingerbread men and milkshakes; and much encouragement in the matter of presentation, with opportunities for the kind of fiddly, artful chopping and paring that younger fingers do so well. Buy them this book and you may never have to slice your own onions again.

Animals by Design by David Burnie, Simon & Schuster pounds 8.99. For the younger fact freak, a bright guide to what makes animals tick - and snakes slither and ears hear and wings flap . . . How many adults know, for instance, that a toucan's huge beak is light as air because it's built like a honeycomb, or that the 'thread' on a spiral-shaped mollusc always runs in the same direction as the one on a wood-screw?

The Usborne History of the 20th Century, ed Christina Hopkinson, pounds 6.99. All modern life in 96 pages comes perilously close to soundbite (or, given the generous number of pictures, eye-blink) history, but how else is a child coming fresh to what his elders have been up to this past century to begin? It's shocking to see issues that obsessed a generation, such as Vietnam, reduced to a few lines, but at least those lines are accurate; the entry on South Africa inexcusably stops at 1991. Some mistake surely?

The Eyewitness Guides, Dorling Kindersley pounds 8.99 each. Once it was the pocket-size Observer guides or nothing. Now you can choose from a bewildering range of look-and-learn series, few more impressive than the Eyewitness Guides, with their imaginative subject range - not just the likes of Insects, Fossils, Trains and Fish, but Flags, Castles, Aztecs and much more - and their commitment to intelligent design. Wherever possible, good photography is used, even when it means getting models to dress up as Norsemen, and the editors have a fine instinct for what has child-appeal: 'Why did some Vikings go berserk?' and 'Why did Sigurd the dragon-slayer suck his thumb?' are two pressing questions addressed by Vikings. Also new, Prehistoric Life and Desert.

Looking at Paintings by Jude Welton, Dorling Kindersley pounds 9.99. More Eyewitness-ing, this time from the Eyewitness Art series, produced in collaboration with the National Gallery. Definitely for teens rather than tinies, this book, with its brief but cogent illustrated essays on composition, light and shade, the nude, allegory and so on, would not disgrace an adult's bookshelf, and the lucid, unflowery explications of narrative paintings

(for instance Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Judith Beheading Holofernes') make the Sister Wendy approach seem pointlessly windy. Also newly available in this admirable series is Alison Cole's The Renaissance.