November 25, 2015


The Ultimate Book of Randomly Awesome Facts. By Penelope Arlon, Tory Gordon-Harris, and Karen Hood. Scholastic. $8.99.

Watch Out Below! 3-D Battle of the Sharks. By Lisa Regan. Scholastic. $12.99.

Thomas Flintham’s Book of Mazes & Puzzles. By Thomas Flintham. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $12.99.

     The word “factoid,” meaning a trivial or insignificant piece of information, dates only to the 1970s, but it seems to have been around forever – perhaps because so many stories and books that say they are fact-packed are actually factoid-stuffed. Indeed, The Ultimate Book of Randomly Awesome Facts could just as easily have been called The Ultimate Book of Random Factoids, because it is a compendium of true, odd, interesting tidbits of information arranged pretty much at random – a kind of feast for trivia lovers. The book is divided into sections called “The Natural World,” “Science & Tech,” and “Everyday Life,” and there is a table of contents allowing readers to look up, say, “Extreme survivors,” “Cyborgs,” “Potato chips” or “What prehistoric beast are you?” But the contents list tells little about which specific trivia appear where. A list of “10 of the Most Valuable Natural Materials on Earth,” for instance, is not in “The Natural World” but in “Everyday Life,” although the average person’s likelihood of encountering ruthenium or osmium on any given day is vanishingly small. And if you want to know which is the fastest train, that is not in “Everyday Life” but in “Science & Tech,” in a list called “9 Supercool, Superfast, Hold-on-to-Your-Hat Supervehicles” (it is the Shanghai Maglev Train, which travels at 303 miles per hour). Despite the less-than-ideal arrangement of the factoids, though, the information here is quite intriguing, and the serendipity of finding an unexpected, amazing piece of data while perhaps looking for something else, or for nothing in particular, is an experience difficult to duplicate on the Internet – where, of course, all the information in this book is available, albeit in widely scattered form. A book that lists five nearly extinct languages (led by Magati Ke, which has only three speakers, all in Australia), four ridiculously expensive toys (one of which is a $2 million Monopoly board encrusted with gold and jewels), and six unusual animal senses (including an elephant’s ability to feel thunderstorms that are 100 miles away), is full of fascination. And the book’s multiple quizzes add something participatory to reading The Ultimate Book of Randomly Awesome Facts. Based on answers to various questions, readers learn not only what prehistoric beast they are but also which endangered animal, volcanic eruption, element of the periodic table, world-changing invention and famous scientist they are or could be. There are also quizzes on where you should live, what job is right for you, and how long you would survive if a disaster happened. This last, for instance, asks (among other things) how many zombies you could fight off, what you would take with you if your house were on fire, and which of four pictured meals sounds best. The quizzes are nonsense, of course: the one on volcanoes asks what color apple and Greek god or goddess you would be, and what you do when it snows. But the answer key does include some additional interesting factoids, noting (in the volcano quiz) that Kilauea is the most active volcano on Earth and that Mount Tambora had the biggest, deadliest eruption in recorded history (in 1815). The Ultimate Book of Randomly Awesome Facts is indeed random, sometimes awesome, and certainly fun for trivia fans.

     For trivia fans who like 3-D – specifically, fans of trivia about sharks – there is a very cool-looking book that comes packaged with its own pair of 3-D glasses and is called Watch Out Below! 3-D Battle of the Sharks. As usual in books about sharks, this one reminds readers that shark attacks on humans are very rare (“you are much more likely to get struck by lightning or involved in a car accident on your way to the beach”) – and then proceeds to be as scary as possible about what sharks could do to humans and sometimes do do. The idea here is to set up a “competition” between sharks and have readers figure out which of a given pair would be deadlier to people. Obviously the Great White will be included – the book asks about it and the Whale Shark, pointing out that the Whale Shark is the largest shark of all. But the Whale Shark is so gentle, the text notes, that “divers have been known to hitch a ride on its back!” Still, the picture of this huge-mouthed shark is impressive, to say the least – but no more so than the excellent photos of other sharks shown here. Sharks less commonly seen in books for young readers are the most interesting ones on display. For instance, under “Basking Shark vs. Bull Shark,” the book notes that the enormous-mouthed Basking Shark is the second-largest fish in the world (after the Whale Shark) and swims close to land, but is not dangerous to people – while the Bull Shark is the most dangerous of all to humans, because it is aggressive and can leave salt water and swim into freshwater rivers and thus get closer to human settlements. The pairing of the sharks is well-considered, although quite arbitrary. There is, for example, “Leopard Shark vs. Oceanic Whitetip,” which points out that the Leopard Shark often comes close to land and therefore may encounter people, but is not dangerous – while the Oceanic Whitetip, which lives in the deep, open ocean, was described by famed diver Jacques Cousteau as “the world’s most dangerous shark.” The 3-D glasses do make the sharks seem to “pop” from the book’s pages, although they do not really make them seem any more realistic than they already do in the photos. Still, for young readers fascinated by sharks and intrigued by the frequent TV programs about them, Watch Out Below! 3-D Battle of the Sharks is a good opportunity to learn a bit more about many shark species and understand a bit more about which ones truly are, and are not, dangerous to human beings.

     Books of mazes and puzzles are not usually fact-filled, but there is at least one interesting factoid as well as a lot of fun to be had in Thomas Flintham’s Book of Mazes & Puzzles: one page has a boy asking what the difference is between a labyrinth and a maze, and getting the answer that “mazes have various branching paths and lots of dead ends,” while “a labyrinth has only one long, winding path that leads to its center.” Elsewhere in the book, which was originally published in Great Britain as two separate books in 2011 and 2012 and is now available as a single volume in the United States, there are some delightfully conceived mazes in which shapes contain multiple possible pathways. One maze is a group of octopuses – readers must find their way through the crowd by avoiding places where tentacles touch and block the way. Another maze is really two: a hot-air balloon on one page and a cloud blowing air toward the balloon on the facing page. Still another maze is a spider web – the baby spider has to find its way to the center for dinner. Also here are adventure mazes: in one, Astro Pete searches for the perfect planet, which gives readers the chance to solve multiple planet-based mazes plus ones in outer space; in another, the Little Knight must rescue a king from an enchantment by getting rid of a cursed crown – which provides a chance, during the knight’s journey, to go through a map maze, several mazes on land and sea, one in a thunderstorm, and others on the king’s own body and within a spell cast by the evil wizard who made the cursed crown. These story mazes are particularly clever, but no more so than what readers will find upon leaving Mazeland and entering Puzzleland, the second half of the book. The types of puzzles here are straightforward enough: connect the dots, find the differences, match pictures, and so on. But the presentation is special: entangled worms need help figuring out which body is whose, mushrooms have to be sorted based on their markings, two island towns are identical except for 10 small differences, two characters named Tim and Daisy need connect-the-dots, coloring and word-finding help in order to design a video game, and so on. There are adventures here, too: one involves playing the video game (well, a static version) after it is completed, and another is the story of “The Giant Knight & the Gold Thief,” in which every page has a different puzzle to solve in order to get to the next part of the tale. Flintham’s book takes some very old approaches to puzzles and mazes and gives them enough of a contemporary twist to make them plenty of fun for kids who are used to living in a visual age but can enjoy slowing down their fast-paced lives enough to do some enjoyable problem-solving on old-fashioned paper.

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