Category Archives: Reference

To board or not to board

Toddler Tollarp is two today. When his mother invited us to an Easter lunch last week (I was very grateful because no one ever invited me/us to a proper Swedish Easter lunch in all my Easters here), we felt we wanted to bring an early birthday present. Daughter had rather fallen for those books we saw in Oxford the week before, and wanting to engage in some massive brainwashing she ordered a few books for Toddler Tollarp.

Let’s just say that they had never expected books like that!

Rocket Science for babies, and General Relativity for babies. Yeah, at two he is slightly too young, but you need to start in time. I think the books are intended for children a few years older, but no self-respecting five-year-old – or his/her parents – would look at a board book at that stage.

Because that’s what they are, and quite sensibly too. Larger than a baby board book, so it fits in with the serious nature of the subjects. And being a board book it should withstand the young genius through some rough times (unlike that train book Son killed over a couple of years) and plenty of re-reads.

However, if the child and his/her adults also see the title XXX for babies, the baby-ness of the board book will be reinforced. And then where will you be? Who is it to be for, and who will buy it? A baby will almost always be somewhat young for Quantum Physics. Even if starting early is good.

(I occasionally suspect that commissioning editors aren’t always aware of the facts of life. Titles like Quantum Entanglement for babies are so attractive. But are they truthful? And then there is the board book aspect.)

It is time we take back control of board books and their juvenile looks. The sturdy quality is good for years, and a child will generally like a beloved book for a long time. All we need is for the adults not to tidy them away prematurely.

Chris Ferrie, who has written a whole host of these clever little books, is on to a good thing. At least if pride doesn’t get in the way.

Chris Ferrie, Rocket Science for babies

(If I seem confused re book titles, it’s because all this quantum stuff is now twirling round in my brain and I no longer recall which book is which. But they are all good, and all seem to be about balls…)



Here is a book about Space for the youngest readers. Well, the over-threes, anyway. It all depends on when someone might show an interest in space.

Heather Alexander’s new book with the usual fun illustrations by Andrés Lozano is like an advent calendar. There are so many doors to open. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know who wouldn’t be interested in ‘reading’ all those doors. What’s behind them, I mean.

Oops, I see they are lift-flaps, and there are 70 of them.

Heather Alexander and Andrés Lozano, Space

Deep questions, such as what is the universe, how did the universe begin and how old is it? Plenty of pictures of cheerful looking astronauts, although I must say I do not want to know what happens to their eyeballs in space. Read the book yourself, to find out.

Despite – or because of? – being aimed at such young readers, the pictures are very appealing. I especially like the heavy rocket launch one. And the telescope.

As you are an adult, you know what the difference between meteors and meteorites is, right? If not, this book can let you cheat, so that you will seem quite knowledgeable.

Was it one of them that killed the dinosaurs? And why isn’t poor Pluto a planet any more?

Bra Böckers Lexikon

Is life too easy these days? Well, obviously not. Not if you consider all of it.

But looking things up? You have all these search engines that will tell you more than you need to know, far too quickly. That’s good, isn’t it? I have just spent a rather short while learning a lot about US army ranks, Jackie Onassis and Antony Armstrong-Jones. And all that goes with it.

When I have time to reflect, I often wonder how I found certain things out, decades ago. I mean, I can remember needing to know something, and eventually doing so, but how did I know where to look?

The automatic response for many years, if you were a Swede, which I was, still am, would be Bra Böckers Lexikon. This encyclopaedia could be found in ‘every’ Swedish home, no doubt often in a Billy, or an Ivar. We ‘all’ belonged to this mail order book club, where every other time (three times a year) you received the latest instalment of the encyclopaedia, and the other three times, you ‘just got books.’ It couldn’t be more frequent, because they were actually making things up, sorry, putting the volumes together, as we subscribed and couldn’t work any faster.

So I remember how pleased I was over a browsing discovery of all the military ranks I could want. I’d had no idea you could look this kind of thing up. Whereas this week, when Purple Hearts made me want to check it out again, I knew where I could find the information within seconds.

After watching another episode of The Crown, we wanted to look up Jackie Onassis, and that too was done in the blink of an eye, and a few more blinks for all the family news, so to speak. Similarly for the Earl of Snowdon from the episode before.

Bra Böckers Lexikon

But was it better before? You got the satisfaction of hunting for information. You had to use your little grey cells to work out where to look.

I was a child who would sit down to read encyclopaedias, and atlases, and telephone directories. You can’t quite read the internet in the same way.

When history repeats itself

In the olden days whenever Mother-of-witch visited her sisters, or the other way round, she/they would slap a pile of magazines on the kitchen table. It was their regular exchange of crosswords. They all did them, and sooner or later they all got stuck, and that’s when they shared them with the others. What one couldn’t do, someone else was bound to manage, or to see where they’d gone wrong and start The Big Erasing.

I reckon this is what kept both Favourite Aunt and Aunt Motta going, and oiled the brain cells and all that. All three had a veritable battery of books to hand; most of them incredibly battered. And pencils, and erasers. Only a fool like your witch does crosswords in ink.

It was the accepted thing to sink down onto a chair and help yourself to the nearest crossword and start rearranging it. We could keep going for hours like that.

A few years ago when my trusted Vi magazine began offering an easy crossword, I had a go, thinking it’d be just the thing to exercise my tired brain cells. Because I can’t do English language crosswords. I just don’t get how they work. But while I do understand the Vi style of crosswords, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that I’ve wasted my brain powers on the wrong stuff, and also that I’ve been away for too long and no longer get the clues, unless pre-historic.

So these days I merely pull all the crosswords out and post them to the Retired Children’s Librarian for her to sigh over at her kitchen table.

And now, Daughter has returned home for Christmas, bearing a crossword book. And she sits there at breakfast wanting help with the clues. It’s more sociable than crocheting, but it requires me to think, and to visualise those Cross Words in my mind, having only partial access to the actual page. (Although it’s easier than doing it via Skype…)

Daughter feels it’s cheating to look things up, but I say that any way that helps you learn new words is a good way, and today all you need is a mobile phone, not piles of reference books, held together with cellotape.

Doune done

It’s not a bookshop, but alongside all the tea sets and silver and old furniture, they do sell books, as I mentioned yesterday. Last week they had Harry Potter 4 and Harry Potter 5. Both first editions, and reasonably priced. £20 for HP4 and £10 for HP5.

Well, we all have those first editions, but at least no one is trying to demand a fortune.

Before leaving the Antique’s paradise, I just had to go and check on one of the most fascinating items they sell. I’ve seen it there for the last year, at least, and they still haven’t sold it.

I’m not sure they even know what it is, apart from a sort of bookcase. It’s the bespoke bookcase for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in one of its early editions.

We know this, because we have one just like it, except we also happen to have the actual encyclopaedia on the shelves in ours. And we have tried, and failed, to sell it for £100.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Here they are asking £145 for the bookcase alone. It’s down from £165, and still not selling…

The Story of Paintings

There is so much beautiful art in this book on History of Art for Children, that at first I didn’t see Mick Manning or Brita Granström in there, and they are the ones who made the book.

I ought to be used to their style of educating children with the help of art and carefully researched facts, but still I saw only the classic art. And that’s perhaps as it should be.

From cave paintings to Jean-Michel Basquiat, it’s all there. The adult reader will not be surprised to see all the classic paintings, and this is a fine way for children to learn.

Mick Manning and Brita Granström, The Story of Paintings

Each page has a work of art alongside information about the artist and then some of Brita’s drawings to show how the artist might have looked as he/she worked, and with individual comments that make each painting special.

There is a glossary at the end, explaining the bare minimum of arty words. Enough, but not so it gets boring.

Fantastic book and so beautiful to look at!

Dumbing down?

In the pre-Google maps days it was harder to find [some] places. I well remember how Mother-of-witch and I searched for Henley. Yes, that Henley. The one with the regatta. A teacher at Mother-of-witch’s school (where she worked; not the school she attended) had told her to take me to Henley on holiday. So she booked the trip, without knowing much more than that Henley was a nice, small town and very child-friendly.

But where was it? We pored over the England page in the atlas. Oh, how we pored. And finally, one day I found a place called HenleyEton. Turned out it was only very tightly spaced print, so Henley was just to the left of Eton, making it look like the one placename.

So that was fine. Now we knew where we were going. We weren’t the only ignoramuses, though. Once actually in Henley we ran into the sister of a friend, and she had absolutely no idea where she was, straight off her coach for a brief break.

But the poring. I did that a lot, with atlases, even without any holidays planned. I loved maps and could spend hours staring at the pages of the new atlas Mother-of-witch had invested in, to replace her school atlas from the 1930s.

The more I pored, the more I learned* in a passive sort of way. That’s how I knew where Nicosia was. These days I expect a child would know it from a holiday, and not a map. Although, Daughter’s friend at school only knew her family’s holiday destination began with the letter T and was on the Mediterranean.

I’m not sure whether we ever found out if it was Tunisia or Turkey. It’s a shame, really. Unless it mattered so little to the adults that the child knew where they went that it became meaningless.

I’ve reviewed a number of children’s atlases. Most of them good in a picture book kind of way. But one that I received some time ago tipped me over the edge. They are skimpy, with bare outlines of whole continents and a few strategically placed polar bears or culturally appropriated native peoples and their traditional dress and well-known items that ‘belong’ somewhere.

It suddenly struck me that if the young Witch was capable of looking at and enjoying a real map, then so are today’s children. But their parents probably don’t think of giving them a grown-up atlas, and the publishers offer us endless polar bears. I mind less what the children don’t learn, and object more to what they do learn if they pay attention to these books. Because I could see in this recent one that my part of the world was inaccurately depicted.

And it is hard to unlearn accidental knowledge.

Here’s to more HenleyEtons!


*When the Resident IT Consultant went to Samara for work, I was so ashamed! I didn’t know it. What was wrong with me? (No need to tell me.) It was only as I did some detecting that I discovered it was good old Kuybyshev. Which I ‘knew’ very well. Not sure why they have to keep renaming places so much. Well, I do, but…