October 08, 2009


Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2010. Scholastic. $15.99.

Scholastic 2010 Almanac for Kids: Facts, Figures, & Stats. Scholastic. $13.99.

     Apparently facts need lots of dressing up if they are going to interest young readers. In the case of the latest Ripley’s Believe It or Not! volume, they apparently also need a really weird 3-C cover to get people interested in obtaining information from an old-fashioned book rather than online. In truth, the franchise developed more than 90 years ago by Robert Ripley was always presented with an eye toward the bizarre and outré. The man was quite an entrepreneur, being the force behind a nationwide radio show and a series of museums – there are now 30 of them – called Odditoriums. The Ripley’s franchise has changed quite a bit in recent years, moving from its original focus on odd customs and people – a sort of expansion of what used to be called a freak show – into matters that are simply offbeat. The 2010 book includes a cornflake shaped like the state of Illinois (sold on eBay for $1,350); a house made entirely from empty plastic bottles; a 100-year-old paraglider; a blind teenager who finds his way around using echolocation; an 18-inch-high robot with the vocabulary of a five-year-old child; a piece of art made from the small stickers affixed to supermarket produce; a Mud Day celebration at a town in Michigan; and so on. There is very little here that a modern young reader is likely to find unbelievable – even the Dalmatian that rides a bike and the cart-pulling rooster just seem like the animals readily found on YouTube. And of course Web videos have action that no traditional book can reproduce. There is something a trifle old-fashioned and a little sad in the persistence of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in a world where so many almost-unbelievable things can be found on the computer with such ease – and for free. This is a nicely put together book, but perhaps the time for this sort of display has passed.

     There is always time for lists, though, and the Scholastic 2010 Almanac for Kids is full of them: the six systems of the human body, the 10 most visited U.S. national parks, the five largest world religions, all 195 independent countries in the world, and more. There are chapters here on animals, the environment, inventors, math, plants, space, sports, weather, world history and more – nothing in depth, but lots of once-over-lightly facts. This is a place to go to see the flag of Bhutan, find out the length of the Mississippi River, learn common words in Egyptian Arabic, discover how many miles are in a light year, learn which countries have the most cell phones per 100 people (the United States is not even in the top 10), and get the names of all U.S. vice presidents. For all the attempted coolness of the book’s presentation – lots of color, lots of pictures, a jazzy layout – it is at bottom a geek’s delight, of greatest interest to people who find facts interesting just because they’re cool. There are some useful tie-ins to the Web – for instance, you can find out which 10 countries produce the most carbon dioxide, then check your local air quality at www.airnow.gov. But the main purpose of the Scholastic 2010 Almanac for Kids is simply to present a series of more-or-less-random facts in an entertaining, easily accessible way. There’s nothing wrong with that – but it does mean that the book will be of interest only to readers who want to know the 10 top-grossing movies of 2008 or the five highest U.S. mountains, and who would rather have the information in book form than look it up on a computer.

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