December 03, 2009


The Random House Book of Bible Stories. Retold by Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce. Illustrated by Michael Welply. Random House. $24.99.

Scholastic Book of World Records 2010. By Jenifer Corr Morse. Scholastic. $10.99.

     Timeless Bible tales, sanitized for young readers, can make a fine seasonal gift for families that want to emphasize the religious elements of the winter holiday season (elements that stretch back to long before Christ). The Random House Book of Bible Stories is a sort of “greatest hits” summation of well-known Old and New Testament tales, most of them being exactly the ones parents will expect to find: “Adam and Eve,” “Cain and Abel,” “Noah and the Ark,” “Jacob and Esau,” “Moses and the Burning Bush,” “The Birth of Jesus,” “The Sermon on the Mount,” and so on. Inconveniently crass elements of the Bible are, as usual, left out: “The Destruction of Sodom,” for instance, excludes Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters to the unruly crowd if the people will spare his guests. Michael Welply’s illustrations are exactly what families will anticipate: an Egyptian flailing at frogs brought on as a plague (although the amphibians, truth to tell, look quite inoffensive); Moses in a Hollywood-style pose as he parts the Red Sea; Jesus always looking humble and holy; and so forth. Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce, who are sisters, tell the stories in simple modern language: “A woman named Hannah was happily married to a good man. But both of them were very sorrowful about one thing – they had never had a child.” There is no blood here and nothing overtly descriptive of suffering, not even in the tale of David and Goliath or of Jesus’ crucifixion. Intended for ages 8-10, The Random House Book of Bible Stories seems rather tame for preteens, unless it is their very first exposure to the Bible and its stories. The book may make a good gift for younger children – perhaps ages 4-6 – if parents will read it to and with them and explain some of what is here glossed over or left out. It will be parents, after all, who will be their kids’ best religious teachers.

     On the other hand, kids themselves will quickly gravitate to Scholastic Book of World Records 2010, which has the sort of high-impact modern book design that is intended to grab young readers immediately. But if Bible stories, even when indifferently told, have tremendous staying power, the information in Scholastic Book of World Records 2010 is far more transient. True, some of the records listed here will likely stand indefinitely: the giant spider crab will remain the world’s largest crustacean, the whale shark the biggest fish, and the Komodo dragon the world’s largest lizard. But even the records that are subject to change do not seem interesting enough to bring young readers back to the book again and again. As of the publication of this volume, the NBA player with the highest salary is Kevin Garnett; the country with the most cell-phone accounts is Italy; the world’s largest restaurant is Damascus Gate in Syria; the world’s tallest apartment building is Q1 in Australia. These are interesting tidbits of information, presented with striking photos of the record holders and with graphics comparing the top five finishers in each category: the world’s fastest plane, for example, is the X-43A, followed by the X-15, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, MiG-25R Foxbat-B, and X-2. A short paragraph gives details about each record holder: the world’s busiest subway system, for example, is Tokyo’s, which carries 3.1 billion passengers a year to 282 stations, using more than 2,500 cars; the system opened in 1927; and so on. All this is interesting but scarcely compelling – a statement that describes Scholastic Book of World Records 2010 as a whole. There is something pleasant about paging through a book of records instead of searching for the same information on the Internet; and the presentation of Scholastic’s annual volume is certainly striking enough to motivate some young readers to check it out. But this is not really a reference book, and it cannot be as up to date as a Web search; so although it makes a nice gift item, it is one that is unlikely to see much use after any initial enthusiasm for its format and presentation wears off.

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