Like the proverbial buses, single volume encyclopedias for children have been scarce – and then three come along at once – from Oxford, Kingfisher and Usborne. Extremely useful for ready reference information, single volume encyclopedias have to squeeze a large amount of information into a small space. How accurate and current are they, and what depth of coverage have they managed? John Farndon investigates.
The Oxford and Kingfisher single volume encyclopedias are aimed at the same market and age group (9-12 year olds). They are identical in format and price – big, substantial books clearly aiming to be as comprehensive as possible within a single volume. But the Oxford is considerably thicker than the Kingfisher with 672 pages to Kingfisher’s 492.
Consistently clear and concise
A huge amount of work has gone into both encyclopedias. In the Oxford Encyclopedia this has been amply rewarded by a book in many ways as good as Oxford’s excellent good multi-volume encyclopedia. It is organized alphabetically, with 850 long articles 300-2000 words long on everything from aborigines to zoos. The balance of topics covered works remarkably well, allowing substantial entries on major subjects, so that you rarely feel a topic has been sold short, despite the limitations of a one volume encyclopedia. Most of the entries are clearly, concisely, elegantly and lightly written, and it is a real tribute to the editors that they have achieved such consistency using such a wide range of authors – almost 70 all told. Neat little chunks of additional information in sidepanels plus a highly effective cross-referencing system make this the kind of encyclopedia a child could get a deal of information from with ease. The design too, while never wildly exciting, is a model of elegance and clarity. Unusually for a book like this, there is rarely a poor artwork and some are very good indeed.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Kingfisher Encyclopedia. They have tried to be far more adventurous visually than Oxford, and sometimes this comes off very well indeed. There are some superb and exciting artworks in here. But they are let down by a cluttered design, a mishmash of artwork styles and a number of substandard pieces. Like Oxford, Kingfisher have organized their encyclopedia alphabetically, with long entries on each topic. But they have imposed a discipline of devoting either one or two pages to every topic, which means it covers only half the number of topics while a large typeface combined with overlarge subheadings and big pictures means many topics are covered in fairly scant detail. While a few entries are well written, all too many manage to be either oversimplistic and lacking in authority – or far too pedantic for a child to easily understand.
On Cells, Kingfisher’s introductory sentence reads: ‘Cells are the smallest units capable of all the functions of life. Some living things are single cells, while others (such as ourselves) are made up of billions of cells.’ That first sentence would be a killer for most children. Oxford’s, on the other hand, reads. ‘Cells are the building blocks of life. Some very simple plants and animals have only one cell but most living things are made of huge numbers of cells. A newborn baby has about 5 million million cells in its body, and an adult has over 10 times that number. Most cells are so tiny that they can be seen only by using a powerful microscope.’
The next entry in each Encyclopedia is on Celts. Kingfisher’s starts with ‘The Celts are a group of people who lived in Europe from about 2,500 years ago. They were fierce warriors who fought frequently.’ Oxford’s reads: ‘The Celts are an ancient European people. They are known as a fierce and warlike people, but this may be because they left no written records and the Greeks and Romans who wrote about them were, for most of the time, their enemies.’ Not so concise, maybe, but which would you trust?
Both the Kingfisher and the Oxford are dated 1998 and seem to have gone to great trouble to be bang up-to-date. But the more rigorous approach of the Oxford gives it the edge in describing up recent events. Kingfisher sums up Bosnia this way: ‘Savage civil wars began in 1991, and the former Republic of Yugoslavia broke up. It is now divided into five independent countries.’ Oxford says, after explaining about Tito, ‘As the Serbs seemed to be trying to take over the whole country, a bloody civil war broke out in 1991. Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia became independent states. A cease-fire was arranged in 1995 and United Nations troops went in to try to keep the peace.’
Usborne’s Animated Children’s Encyclopedia is a very different book from either the Kingfisher or the Oxford, and comes with an ‘animated’ CD-ROM (which works only on PCs, not Macs). The book is short compared with the others, just 136 pages long. It is much more friendly and aimed at a younger market. It is organized thematically under headings such as Our Planet and Science around Us, rather than alphabetically, and is clearly intended for browsing rather than reference.
Most of the information in the book is presented in the form of comic strips and producing this many artworks must have been a huge task. Although most of the artworks have immense charm and humour and give this book an appeal for younger children they turn out to be simply print-outs of the stillscreens from the CD-ROM. Perhaps this explains why the design lacks the flare of most Usborne books and actually looks quite old-fashioned. Every bit of information in the book is broken down into 30 word picture captions and this means that it is never quite as informative or as witty as we have come to expect from Usborne.
It is when you open up the CD-ROM that you see the real joy of Usborne’s Encyclopedia. There are literally hundreds of animated sequences, at least one on every one of 250-odd screens and some of the sequences are surprisingly long. Only a few of the animations actually help with explanation, but they are all so funny and charming with a complete range of whacky sound effects that adults and children will simply want to keep on clicking them. And some of these animations are quite exciting – going down beneath the seas to explore ocean trenches, for instance. Very few young children lucky enough to be given this Encyclopedia will not be captivated enough to go on browsing for hours, picking up little snippets of information as they go. While some of the explanations are just a little too brief and bald, many are engagingly simple. This is not a deeply serious reference work, thank goodness, but the information is mostly there, and presented in such an attractive, easy way that young children will pick up an immense amount of knowledge from it. Thoroughly recommended.
The Oxford Children’s Illustrated Encyclopedia, edited Oxford University Press, 672pp, 0 19 910444 1, £30.00
The Kingfisher Children’s Encyclopedia, Kingfisher, 492pp, 0 534 0109 6, £30.00
The Usborne Animated Children’s Encyclopedia Book & CD-ROM, Jane Elliot and Colin King, 0 7460 3355 9, £19.99rrp
John Farndon is a non-fiction author and consultant.