Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fun, Fast Facts: Five Books Kids Can't Put Down

If your kids crave information but are tired of wading through dull texts, here are five fact books from DK Publishing that will change the way they look at nonfiction.

How to Be a Genius: Your Brain and How to Train It, explores the wonders of the brain, from how it gathers data to how it reads emotions and grows, with puzzles, experiments and illusions to trick the brain, test memory and boost creativity.

109 Forgotten American Heroes spotlights heroes (and a few villains) many kids never learn about, from the high-climbing ear cleaners of the Lincoln Memorial to the inventor of the yellow smiley face to a Massachusetts nurse who almost started the American Revolution.

Open Me Up: Everything You Need to Know About the Human Body details all that it means to be human -- including how cells divide to make bodies grow, how bodies stay warm when it's cold, what happens in the brain during sleep and which joints allow heads to turn.

The Greatest Intergalactic Guide to Space Ever follows the Brainwaves, tiny Smurf-like characters, in outer space as they learn about stars, black holes, nebulae and more. On one page, kids see them steering bumper cars to rotate planets around the sun and on another they get stuck in a soup of particles after the Big Bang.

Ask Me Anything: Every Fact You Ever Wanted to Know answers almost any question kids could ask and many they probably never thought of asking, including: Will the sun shine forever? Why don't haircuts hurt? Why do bones remain for centuries after a person dies? and my favorite: Can a car run on chocolate?

Each book is packed with facts, but doesn't require pages of reading.

What's more, none looks like the stereotypical reference book, in which the layout is predictable and is designed for retrieving information more than settling in for a long read.

With a standard encyclopedia, kids tend to look up something, then close the book, but with these compendiums, there's so much to catch their eye that they want to hang out and explore.

In Open Me Up, even the content pages are fun to look at, with break-out boxes of titles and pages pointing to relevant body parts on a human body diagram.

Authors lead kids into a subject with bold headings, then deliver snappy text and fun angles to keep them interested.

A spread in Open Me Up titled, "Dental Kit," shows foods moving on a conveyor belt into a metal grinding machine with teeth. The teeth are cataloged as tearers, choppers, crushers and so on, as they prepare food for swallowing.

Many of the books also have games and quizzes spread throughout or make kids feel a part of the subject matter in other ways.

In The Greatest Intergalactic Guide to Space Ever, readers experience outer space through the antics of the cartoon Brainwaves, who go everywhere kids can't go but perhaps wish they could.

Brainwaves zoom through space on flying bicycles, surfboards, even a motorized toilet; climb aboard a planetary merry-go-round; and vacation on Mars. There they bungee jump off canyons, ride a cable car to view two moons and attempt a game of fetch with a Mars rover.

In Ask Me Anything, authors connect readers to the subject through a fun feature titled, "What about me?"

In a spread about space flight, kids learn they could book a seat on a spacecraft for $200,000 and in a section on gravity, they discover their sneeze exerts g-forces similar to those felt by astronauts during a space shuttle launch.

Facts are given without long lead-ins or elaborations, and introductions are either spare or nonexistent.

The books are the antithesis of the dull text book and authors aren't afraid to poke fun at the traditional format.

In 109 Forgotten American Heroes, a warning label is posted in bright red above the introduction, "This section is intended only for readers interested in reading a long, laborious, actual introduction." Then when the actual foreword begins, the authors exclaim to the readers, "Still! You're still here!"

Information, whether it's silly or serious, is explored in ways that kids can relate to, with quirky references, imaginative tie-ins to their experiences and eye-catching graphics.

Open Me Up shows pathways of blood as streets on a map, body tissue samples as slices of cake and organs of the digestive system as a colorful series of skinny balloons, while How to Be a Genius depicts the brain as a building under construction with workers adding to the scaffolding.

Sometimes well-known images are repackaged in a hip way or the subject matter is adapted to famous paintings and pop art. Portraits might be pixelated or shown in multiple frames against bright colors like Andy Warhol's silkscreen images of celebrities.

Some spreads look like advertising campaigns. Others resemble old circus posters or political pamphlets, or feature caricatures, blueprints or game boards. A spread on Mary Todd Lincoln's superstitions in 109 Forgotten American Heroes looks like a Ouija board.

And there's usually something to laugh about.

In 109 Forgotten American Heroes, cartoon characters gorge on giant french fries as kids read about a salesman who introduced the idea of jumbo portions to fast food chains.

Later, kids read an end note (literally after the index and credits) thanking all of the "heroic" trees that were sacrificed to make the book.

Sacrificed perhaps, but definitely not wasted.

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