March 06, 2008


Extreme Planets! Q&A. By Mary Kay Carson. Collins. $16.99.

White House! Q&A. By Denise Rinaldo. Collins. $7.99.

      Someone out there thinks the best way to get kids ages 5-9 interested in the real world is with lots of exclamation points! And lots of references to Web links! And lots and lots of pictures with a minimum of explanatory text! This may even be true! But it does somewhat cheapen the association of the Smithsonian Institution with these two books! After all, the Smithsonian is a place of careful scientific research! It’s not filled with, as the cover of Extreme Planets! has it, “Universal questions! Cosmic answers!”

      And while we’re at it, the Smithsonian ought to be embarrassed by the grammatically incorrect back cover of Extreme Planets! – which promises kids that they will “read extremely fun facts about planets.” Oh, yuck.

      These books, one hardcover and one paperback, would be easy to dismiss for their overdone pandering to the imagined tastes of children who are admittedly video-saturated but who are young enough to learn about science and history a bit more soberly than the books’ covers indicate they will. But it would be a mistake for parents to fail to look beyond the hype and focus on the books’ content – for the content is very good indeed (and the silliness of the hype can be a valuable teaching moment). Extreme Planets! includes such information as the fact that planets spin like tops, with bigger ones often spinning faster than smaller ones, but that Venus spins so slowly that its day is equal to 243 days on Earth; that Mars, like Earth, has four seasons; that Jupiter’s atmosphere crushes metal the way a person crushes a paper cup; that Saturn is the most distant planet that can be seen with the naked eye; that Uranus spins on its side; that the wind speed on Neptune is 1,200 miles an hour; and much more. Accompanying the facts are all those illustrations – but they are excellent, some taken from actual space missions and others done as artists’ renderings of what scientists have discovered. The Web links mentioned throughout the book are definitely worth checking out – for example, one of them shows images of Pluto and its moon, Charon, and another shows images of Saturn’s moon, Titan, taken by the Cassini spacecraft. A bonus at the book’s end is an interview with an astronomer, Christine Pulliam, whose answers to straightforward questions are anything but bureaucratic: “If I weren’t an astronomer, I think I would like to be a spy.” This book, in sum, is better than its own self-promotion.

      The same is true of White House! – which follows the same format, down to the interview at the end (in this case with White House curator William Allman). In a presidential election year, there is more interest in the White House than usual, and this book can serve as a useful introduction to the political process. In fact, even politically savvy parents may not know everything in this work: it is always at the White House’s north door that the outgoing president hands over power to the incoming one; President Ford’s daughter, Susan, had her senior prom in the historic East Room; President Lincoln’s son, Tad, was so excited when the Civil War ended that he waved a flag from a White House window – but it was a Confederate flag; and a great deal more. A mixture of entertaining trivia and useful-to-know historical facts, White House! also features a wide variety of fascinating photos and illustrations, showing everything from elaborate state dinners to a picture of President Theodore Roosevelt with his wife and their six children. Forget, if you can, the overdone hype on the outside – the inside of both these books fully justifies the word “Smithsonian” on their covers.

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