August 28, 2008


Greetings from the 50 States: How They Got Their Names. By Sheila Keenan. Illustrated by Selina Alko. Scholastic. $18.99.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2009. Scholastic. $15.99.

      Families interested in American historical trivia will enjoy Sheila Keenan’s name game involving the 50 states (and Washington, D.C.), but should not expect definitive answers to how the states got their names. In many cases, there aren’t any. Arizona, for example, may have come from a Pima Indian word, Alehzon, modified by Spanish settlers to Arizonac; or the name may mean “place of the small spring,” Ali-Shonak; or it could come from the Spanish words for “arid place.” Maine may come from “mainland,” spelled “main,” “Meyne” or “Mayne,” or from a grant from King Charles I referring to “the Mayne Lande and Premises.” But if Greetings from the 50 States: How They Got Their Names is far from definitive, it can be a great deal of fun for families interested in a virtual tour of the nation – with information on when each state joined the Union (although it omits mentioning when the states of the Confederacy left it). The book also includes states’ nicknames, both the official ones and some unofficial ones. Nebraska is officially the Cornhusker State, after an old way of harvesting corn, but is also the Tree Planters State, because Arbor Day started there in 1872; Connecticut is officially the Constitution State because of a constitution-like document written there in 1639, but it is unofficially the Nutmeg State for the very hard fruit seed that residents of the state used to sell. There may be more information here than many kids will find interesting (except perhaps in class during studies of American history); or there may be less than kids want to know, in which case the list of Web sites for all the states, provided at the back of the book, will be a big help.

      It’s hard to imagine a school course that would use the facts in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2009, which are – as always in this long-lasting series – just plain weird. But there remains a certain fascination to these snippets of information on odd things and people. The new edition includes “Ripley Rewind” entries, which look back on Ripley listings of the past, as well as very up-to-date data. The book is laid out in six sections: “Way Out World,” “Flaky Folk,” “Animal Antics,” “Against the Odds,” “Body Oddity” and “Strange but True.” Some of the items are simply coincidences of no significant interest: a girl was born at 3:33 p.m. on the third day of the third month (March) in the year 2003. Others are weird but not strange in the original Ripley “can you believe this?” manner: a patient operated on in 2007 had green blood, not red blood, because he had been taking large doses of a certain medicine. But some items really are wonders: a woman whose sight was restored by transplantation of the cornea from a cat’s eye; a two-headed lamb that drinks milk from either mouth; a four-foot-four-inch-long green bean; the way secret messages were passed in ancient Greece – through tattoos on heads, which were concealed as hair grew over them; panda dung as a souvenir of this year’s Beijing Olympics; and more. As always, there is a mixture here of the old and the new, the amazing occurrences and the groaners, and there are some items that just seem inappropriate – such as the photo of an immensely fat baby whose weight is caused by a rare disease. There will be families that find this latest Ripley’s compilation offbeat, unusual and entertaining; but there will be others that find a lot of it simply tasteless – believe it or not.

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