November 09, 2006


Saving the Buffalo. By Albert Marrin. Scholastic. $18.99.

Our World: A Country-by-Country Guide. By Millie Miller. Scholastic. $16.99.

Scholastic Book of World Records 2007. By Jenifer Corr Morse. Scholastic. $9.99.

     Strictly factual books for young people fall into two broad categories: narrative and lookup.  The narrative books take information and present it in story format, providing, at their best, much of the pacing and intensity of good fiction.  The lookup books, not intended to be read straight through, offer informational snippets, to be looked up when needed or glanced at a little bit at a time.

     Saving the Buffalo is a narrative, and a good one.  It is the story of the great herds of bison that once thundered through the United States midsection – since long before there was a United States – and of how the young nation’s westward expansion nearly brought these once-common large land animals to extinction.  It is also the story of their return from the brink – a tale of a conservation effort that succeeded.  The story is somewhat marred by political correctness and the modern tendency to take a Rousseauian view of life before mechanization: the railroad and the white settlers who rode it west are the bad guys here, supplanting the far more collegial (if scarcely trouble-free) life of the Indian tribes in the days before European settlement.  Still, if Albert Marrin tends to overdo the demonization of white settlers, he has reason: it was their massive hunts, often organized by the railroads themselves, that virtually wiped out the great bison herds.  It puts the heroes of the Old West into perspective when Marrin points out, in the context of conservation, that Buffalo Bill Cody once shot 4,280 buffalo in 18 months.  The final part of this book, the story of the survival of the buffalo – thanks to conservation efforts initially led by white people, if that matters – is truly inspirational, indicating the importance of bison not only ecologically but also for the spiritual renewal of many Indian tribes.

     The narrative tale of bison in the U.S. stands in contrast to the lots-of-facts-per-page approach of Our World: A Country-by-Country Guide, in which the United States gets a few pages of facts – and so do France, Germany, India, China, the Philippines, Japan, New Zealand and even Antarctica.  This book is scarcely comprehensive – there are nearly 200 countries in the world, and no attempt is made to discuss all of them.  The idea is to give some interesting facts about individual nations and the areas where they are located.  The pages on Oceania, for instance, show a Samoan using a conch shell as a trumpet, a Northern Australian frilled lizard, and the white sand beaches of Bora Bora.  The book indicates that the Near East includes Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, and that “most people…are Muslims who follow the Islamic religion.”  Clearly, this is not an in-depth book or one fraught with political insight: the discussion of Afghanistan and Pakistan mentions the Khyber Pass and tea drinking, but says nothing about war.  As a generic once-over-lightly look at a number of countries, the book can be helpful to young children just starting to learn about the world.

     Scholastic Book of World Records is designed less for learning than for amazement.  The 2007 edition contains a number of items that are not likely to change (world’s longest ship canal, world’s highest city) and a number that, at some point, probably will (runner with the world’s fastest mile, NBA player with the highest salary).  The book’s pop-culture emphasis is pervasive: there are 64 pages of sports records, 29 relating to popular culture other than sports, but just 18 on money and business.  The net result is a book that is not to be taken too seriously: the information is accurate, and some entries can be fun to read (the world’s top-grossing movie for children is still the 1937 Disney Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), but the data are highly selective and presented in a way that emphasizes visual impact without too much distracting in-depth backup.

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