September 08, 2005


Scholastic Book of Firsts. By James Buckley, Jr. Scholastic. $8.95.

      The publisher Scholastic is now a huge fiction factory – it is the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter books, after all – but its roots are in nonfiction, and it really ought to handle facts very well indeed. It usually does; there is certainly a lot of fascination and pleasure in this book of “more than 1,000 of the coolest, biggest, and most exciting first facts you’ll ever read,” as the cover none too modestly asserts. But there are some disturbing lapses here as well – not too many, but enough to warn parents away from accepting everything in James Buckley’s book at face value.

      The good stuff first, since there is lots of it: the book consists of 13 chapters of things that came first or were done first in such fields as exploration, food, medicine, money, sports and technology (the chapter called “Grab Bag” includes items that didn’t fit anywhere else). A few samples: The first flight across the English Channel occurred on July 25, 1909, when aviator Louis Blériot flew the route in 37 minutes. The first automatic clothes washer was invented by John Chamberlain in 1937. The first handheld pencil sharpener was invented in 1897 by John Lee Love. Ginger ale was first sold in 1850, Dr. Pepper in 1884, Coca-Cola in 1886 and Pepsi-Cola in 1898. The first U.S. president born in the United States was Martin Van Buren.

      You get the idea: this is a compendium of odd and not-so-odd facts, arranged by topic and presented in a breezy, easy-to-digest format with plenty of graphic illustrations to keep the pace up. Kids probably won’t read a book like this cover-to-cover, but it’s fun to dip into it for the interesting and unusual (some of which involves kids: the first kid to win X Games gold was 13-year-old Ryan Sheckler, in 2003).

      There are problems, though. One caveat is that, alas, not everything is accurate. The famed set of museums in Washington, D.C. is the Smithsonian Institution – the book says Institute. The book says all lasers are red, but the newest are blue. One country from the former Soviet Union is listed as “the Ukraine,” but it is simply Ukraine. Another caveat is that some of Buckley’s writing could use a lot more editing: “Army policies in those days did not permit Japanese Americans and others from receiving such medals.” Because of problems like these, which are scattered throughout the book, parents can’t really just turn kids loose and be sure they are learning interesting, little-known facts. It’s too bad that a book with so much potential doesn’t live up to it all the time.

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