August 19, 2010


Chemistry: Getting a Big Reaction! Created by Simon Basher. Written by Dan Green. Kingfisher. $8.99.

Math: A Book You Can Count On! Created by Simon Basher. Written by Dan Green. Kingfisher. $7.99.

Punctuation: The Write Stuff! Created by Simon Basher. Written by Mary Budzik. Kingfisher. $7.99.

100 Facts about Pandas. By David O’Doherty, Claudia O’ Doherty, and Mike Ahearn. Penguin. $13.

     The exceptionally clever Basher Books series is designed to teach abstract concepts in a highly unusual way: by personalizing them, making them concrete, yet communicating accurately what they are all about. Thus, the book about “the wonderful, wild, and sometimes wacky world of chemistry” includes information on ions, polymers, molecules, hydrocarbons and much more, all within a 128-page softcover package. But what a package! Take, for example, the chapter called “Nasty Boys.” This is where kids ages 10 and up will find information on acids, bases, pH and more. Each concept is drawn to look like a Japanese anime character, and talks directly to readers. “Acid,” for example, says, “I’m mad, bad, and thoroughly dangerous to know. Given the chance, I’ll eat away at Metal and burn through your skin!” And then comes the factual backup: “What gives me my acidic nature is my ability to lose hydrogen atoms. I’m a sinister splitter: in the presence of Water, I disassociate, breaking into a negative ion and a positive hydrogen ion.” In contrast, there is “Base,” who says, “I’m a lowdown, cheatin’ gunslinger. Base by nature, base by name.” And the facts: “Acids play fast and loose with their positive H+ ions, but I hoard them. I love them so much that when mixed with Water, I steal them from the H20 molecules!” The drawings of these “characters” are quite wonderful – “Thermometer” is wearing a party hat and “Hydrocarbons” a cowboy hat, for example – but their aim is clearly to draw students into the subject matter, not distract them from it (the “thermometer” page even explains the Greek terms from which the English word is derived). And Chemistry does not shy away from some fairly complex concepts, such as “Reactivity Series,” “Esters,” “Precipitate” and “Avogadro’s Number.” This is an exceptionally clever way to introduce topics that can easily be overwhelming or boring: the book makes them comprehensible, interesting and even fun. Then it is up to chemistry teachers to pique students’ interest further.

     There are Basher Books for younger kids, too – including half-length ones (64 pages each) about math and punctuation, intended for ages eight and up. The basic approach is the same, as is the packaging: each book (including Chemistry) has a poster bound into the inside back cover that displays the concepts in a single place and shows how they relate to each other. Math deals with zero and infinity at the beginning and then delves into “special sum-things” such as Add (“this little fella joins numbers together”), Subtract (“this unhappy character breaks numbers apart”), and the letter X: “I am the faceless one. …I am what’s called a variable – a symbol put in place of an unknown, mystery quantity.” Also here are concepts ranging from pi (“the number never ends and never repeats – spooky!”) to polygon (“I’m the queen of diamonds…and many more”) to percent (“I keep track of things, like your score on a quiz”). As for Punctuation, this book not only includes the period, question mark and exclamation point, but also explains the difference between Contraction Apostrophe and Possessive Apostrophe and between the List-Making Comma and Joining Comma. Punctuation has a format that includes “do” and “don’t” after each item – for example, “DO use an ellipsis to how that you’ve left some words out of a direct quotation,” but “DON’T use an ellipsis just because you’ve run out of ideas on a subject.” As with Chemistry and Math, there is quite a lot packed into Punctuation – even the Chatroom Comma and the Semicolon (“this character’s motto is ‘Fair’s fair’”). Accurate, inventive, clear and clever, the Basher Books are an unusual and unusually attractive way to help kids get easily involved in some subjects that can be far from simple – and that are rarely taught in such a user-friendly way.

     The problem with small-format softcover fact books is that they can be confused with small-format softcover humor books, especially when the humor books go out of their way to spur the confusion. That is just what 100 Facts about Pandas does. There is not a single fact in this book, except presumably for the names of the authors. Using the word “facts” in the title and placing a silly but not obviously we’re-only-kidding picture of a panda on the cover can lead to momentary confusion about the book, and some of the “facts” have just enough plausibility to make a reader wonder what is going on: “The prehistoric ancestor of the panda is the Megalopandor, a six metre, two-ton dinosaur that lived for a short time in the temperate grasslands of Central America during the Miocene era (approx. 20 million years ago).” Certainly a closer reading of the “facts” shows quite clearly that this book is intended to be funny. No. 43 states, “Pandas are not permitted in libraries. This rule applies globally.” And No. 34 says, “Owing to a bureaucratic mix up in registration by naturalist Dr. Joseph Banks in 1831, the panda bear is officially classified not as a mammal, but as a nut.” If this sort of humor is your cup of tea, you will find several cups here. From No. 20: “If forced to move backwards, the panda can run faster than almost any other land animal.” No. 51: “Until 1982 it was legal for infertile couples in Great Britain to formally adopt pandas.” Of course, the illustrations make it clear that the book is a sendup – the “adopt” item shows a panda sitting in a child’s wading pool; a diagram shows that the eyeballs of a panda with chicken pox fall out after 10 days; a panda appears as a chimney sweep, and a miniature one is shown as a good-luck charm being used by chess champion Gary Kasparov. Certainly some elements of 100 Facts about Pandas are funny, or at least wry. But the book still gets only a (++) rating for most people: the authors are not nearly as clever as they seem to think they are, and the reason for using the word Facts in the title – without quotation marks – is difficult to fathom.

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