Technophobes and wannabes

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The Independent Culture

The Oxford Children's A to Z of Geography by Dick Bateman, one of a trio in a series which includes Science and the Human Body, (OUP pounds 4.99), offers more than 300 definitions of geographical words in a satisfying alphabetical format. Included among the definitions of scree and savannah are topical, environmentally aware terms such as acid rain, waste disposal and bypass (complete with photographs of anti-bypass protesters), all explained with over eight-year-olds in mind. Bright, colourful and eyecatchingly presented, with well-chosen photographs, reader-friendly diagrams and easy-to-follow cross-referencing, this book even manages to make the Greenhouse Effect look cheerful. 8- 12

One book designed to give a taste of life's infinitely rich tapestry is Philip Steele's The World of Festivals (MacDonald pounds 9.99). A comparative approach is taken here, with festivals from around the globe grouped together under disparate categories such as family and national day celebrations to produce an effect of multi-cultural diversity. A section on religious festivals provides brief accounts of the key doctrines of the world faiths, with maps indicating the main areas in which each religion is concentrated, although, somewhat misleadingly, it appears that Judaism is confined to Israel. Mothers may want to steer their children's attention to a section on Mother's Day which suggests that children serve their mother a cup of tea in bed. 10 +

A timely addition to the Ladybird series is Olympics 96 (Ladybird pounds 2.99). The gamut of events at this year's global sportsfest in Atlanta is alphabetically presented from archery to yachting. This information-saturated booklet packs a good punch for its size and price, incorporating descriptions of each event, dates for when they were first included, charts listing the 1992 winners, photos of star competitors, a natty fold-out of Atlanta and a "did you know?" series full of nerdy facts that can be usefully reproduced in the school playground. Did you know that one of the most remarkable performances in Olympic gymnastics history was by the American George Eyser, who in 1904 won three gold medals despite having a wooden leg? 8 +

Ian Graham's How Things Work, in the Discoveries series (MacDonald pounds 9.99) deploys the effective device of explaining scientific principles in real- life, child-friendly contexts, illustrating gravity, for example, through the workings of a rollercoaster. This is a high-tech, bang up-to-date book that uses terms like "energy efficient" and "labour saving" and asks how modern devices such as mobile phones, fax machines and CDs work. Intelligently written and sumptuously illustrated with super-slick graphics and diagrams that immediately make sense, this is an admirable book with more than a little appeal for the technophobic adult, too. 10 +

Definitely designed with the national curriculum not in mind, Ivan Bulloch and Diane James's I Want to be an Actor, the latest in the "I want to be" series (Two-Can/Watts pounds 7.99) is aimed at budding young thesps looking for some good creative fun. This chirpy book skips merrily through the stages leading to performance, and covers warm-up exercises, performance scenarios, suggestions for "instant costumes", rehearsals, even tips for combating first night nerves. Zinging with clever ideas reminiscent of Blue Peter, and brightly presented with a photographed cast of kiddies showing how it's done, this is a fun-loving book, which should nonetheless carry a warning to parents - beware disappearing household objects! 4-8

Andrew Langley's contribution to the Eyewitness guides, Medieval Life (Dorling Kindersley pounds 8.99) is a lavishly illustrated social history that includes chapters on social relations, the role of the Church, lifestyles of lord and peasant, trade and commerce, profiles of craftsmen and the role of medieval women. Gorgeous double-page spreads packed with choice items plundered from the medieval heritage are accompanied by digestible chunks of text with winningly catchy sub-headings such as "holding the fort" and "lance a lot". 8-12

Yuck! by Robert Snedden (Collins pounds 6.99) proves that there really is bliss in ignorance. This sinisterly tactile flap book transforms the familiar into the nightmarishly alien through the use of microphotography, magnifying objects by several thousand times. Flip open a page and discover the gory debris inhabiting a speck of dust, or the bacteria-infested cosmos of a toothbrush's bristles. While some of Snedden's lurid, fluorescent tinted images are possessed of an eerie beauty, others - such as his odiously magnified kitchen mite - look like stills from a ghastly B-movie. Guaranteed to give your own little mites a thrill. 7 +

Continuing in a cheerfully gruesome vein is the Bouncing Bug series on ants, bees, beetles, flies, spiders and wasps by David Hawcock and Lee Montgomery (Tango Books pounds 4.99). These hard-backed entomological delights illustrate the anatomy, habits and habitats of the various insects, providing the odd surprising fact - such as that beetles actually eat fish. Small but hardy, these brightly illustrated booklets have a hands-on appeal, offering fold-outs, flaps, and - in a sensational final spread climax - an all too accurate pop-up model of the insect in question which can also be converted into a mobile. Ingenious. 4-8

Eyewitness Natural World, written by zoologist Steve Parker for this deservedly acclaimed series (Dorling Kindersley pounds 19.99), is an authoritative and visually spectacular guide to the animal kingdom. A compendious anatomy of the animal world, organised into subjects including skeletons and body structures, the cycles of life from courtship to birth and adulthood, camouflage, self-defence, migration, evolution and extinction, and resplendent with animal photographs that jump off the page, this book is to the human eye what a passion fruit is to a toucan: divine. 8+

Ariadne Birnberg