Series: Good Times Travel Agency by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Bill Slavin

In each book, the Binkertons are transported by one of Julian T. Pettigrew (of the Good Times Travel Agency) back in time. In each adventure, the Binkerton family gets into trouble, meet some of the locals, and taste some of the various flavours of the culture. To escape back to the modern era, they must finish reading Pettigrew’s book, seen at the bottom of each page.

My son is still pretty young (today was his first day of Kindergarten!), but I try to pick up educational books here and there so that I can have a good stock of suggestions to make when the time is right. While we do read educational books together now, they tend to be geared more for his age range and attention span.

I had just finished reading Adventures in the Ice Age when I brought my son to the library to get Adventures in Ancient Egypt. My son saw it, and he asked if we could read it at bed time. I figured that we’d get a couple of pages in and he’d get bored. The adventures themselves (told in comic book style) are pretty interesting, but the Pettigrew book pages at the bottom of each page seemed a little too infodump-y for a four year old.

But he loved it. We read the whole thing, and then he asked for Adventures in Ancient China the next night, which he also loved. Even more wonderful, he’s absorbing quite a lot of the information.

What I really love about the series is that it doesn’t bother with trivia – with the names and the dates. Rather, each book gives you a little taste of the atmosphere. What did each culture feel like? What did people eat? What did they wear? What did their homes look like? What might it have been like to live in Ancient Egypt, or Ancient China, or during the Ice Age? That style gives kids a context into which they can slot the trivia later on, when they encounter it elsewhere.

So today, my son was telling me about weaving silk, and chattering about children’s sidelocks.

I was a little surprised that he took to the books so young, but in retrospect, I think that the quality of artwork and the entertaining action of the trouble the Binkertons get themselves into are well suited for a wide age range. If a kid is getting fidgety in the Pettigrew book portions, the books can still be read without them (though I found them to be a very good length, and to be very economical in the way they present information).

I highly recommend the series starting at around 4-5 years old, with no upper cap. Even for older kids, even for 30 year old me, I think the books provide a wonderful sense of place and time into which information from meatier fare can be inserted.

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Icarus at the Edge of Time by Brian Greene

Read: 8 April, 2009

Icarus is the classic story of the boy who flew too high for his own good. The twist here is that the titular hero lives in the future, grew up on a space ship, and flies into a black hole rather than the sun. Icarus is also a rather large board book, illustrated with beautiful images taken by the Hubble space telescope.

POSITIVE: Icarus offers an interesting blend of classical mythology and modern science. It’s a great introduction to black holes and the relativity of time. Finally, the stunning images can only feed a young mind’s interest in science.

NEGATIVE: I don’t know what Icarus was trying to be. Board books are normally associated with younger children, but the diction seems too advanced. I’m all for books that challenge kids, but I think that this would only serve to frustrate. The book is also far too large to be comfortably read to a young audience that wants to see the pictures too. If, on the other hand, Icarus was intended for a slightly older set, I think that kids would find the story too simplistic.

Another major flaw was the choice in representation of the black hole. This is shown as a black dot (literally a ‘black hole’ in the middle of the page) that progressively takes over the entire page and then shrinks back down. I can understand an appreciate that this is supposed to allow the reader to “approach” the black hole as Icarus does, but it’s just plain black and it obscures the beautiful background images (almost completely for several of the middle pages). It’s both distracting and frustrating.

The greatest flaw this book has is its apparent lack of direction. Perhaps the author wanted it to be too many things at once. Who can blame him? The niche for storybooks that also teach science is severely under-filled – but one book alone cannot hope to fill all of it. The result is literary schizophrenia.

This, coupled with the unfortunate design choice, makes this book somewhat of a disappointment. It’s still worth getting, though, if only because of how sparse the genre is.

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Kashtanka by Anton Chekhov

This is a children’s book illustrated by Gennady Spirin. The ISBN is 0-15-200539-0. The reason I mention this is that I want to talk about the presentation of the book – something that is obviously very important in a children’s book.

Spirin’s illustrations are absolutely beautiful. The are detailed and have a great amount of depth and character. Unfortunately, they are also very dark. This wouldn’t be a bad thing except that the pages are very glossy, meaning that I had to struggle and essentially read in the dark just so that I could see them at all. It was such a shame and obviously a huge downside if this book is to be shared with kids.

The other big issue I took with the presentation of the book is that the text boxes looked too simplistic. There was no relationship between the illustrations at the text. Rather, half the page would just be white with text or, at best, there would be a thin and undecorated yellow border.

The story itself was so-so. As far as Russian classical authors go, I might be least familiar with with Chekhov. Because of this, it’s rather difficult to judge what the story might have been like in the original language. That being said, I think it would have taken more than just changing the choice of wording to save the story. It was just very superficial. For example, when Kashtanka’s masters find her again, the man who had taken her in is never mentioned again – despite the fact that he had spent a lot of energy to train her, may well have grown to like her, and would be left without an act once the dog left. In that sense, the story is very much incomplete.

I wouldn’t bother buying this book.

Saints by Ruth Sanderson

The text was awful. It was written in a very point-by-point fashion that is barely interesting to an adult with a passion for religious tradition – I can imagine how dull it would be for a child who has a smaller tolerance for dullness. Take this sentence from the biography of Saint Lawrence for example: “Valerian hoped that if the flock of Christians had no shepherds, they would hopefully scatter” (emphasis mine).

That being said, the illustrations were beautiful – significantly raising my rating of the book. It’s worth it if we intend to use it as a picture book, or if parents fill in their own stories based on the text rather than just reading it out.

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Wild Animals in Captivity by Rob Laidlaw

Read: 17 September, 2008

I read this recently as part of my job and I must say that it was really quite interesting. It’s a quick read with lots of good pictures (some cute, some heartbreaking) and I feel that I did learn quite a bit reading it.

Wild Animals is written with a young (tween to early teen) audience in mind. Unlike most reference book authors for that age bracket, Laidlaw never comes off as condescending and certainly never minimizes the role children have to play in animal welfare. Quite the opposite, he challenges young readers to examine zoos for themselves and determine whether they are animal-friendly or not. If not, he provides a list of steps even the youngest animal welfare advocate can take to fix the situation, which includes such “grown-up” things as writing to their local newspapers.

I think my favourite part of the book comes near the end where he juxtaposes good conditions with bad ones. Rather than just say that zoos are bad or complain about everything that can go wrong, he actually cites examples where zoos (or parks) have had the right idea and improved conditions.

Because the book avoids talking down to the reader, it is certainly appropriate for adults. I recommend it for anyone, of any age, with a budding interest in animal welfare issues.

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Medieval Games by John Marshall Carter

Read: 20 October, 2007

Discuss the role of games in Medieval society, including its role in gender and class barriers and the way in which games reflected a society that was organized for war (Carter discusses the three estates as being formed around war). The book also touches on the cult of reputation (identified as a remnant of the Greco-Roman tradition) nurtured by sportspeople.

The purpose of this book is to argue rather than inform. If you would just like to read about the types of games people played, what they looked like, what the rules were, etc… this is not the book for you.

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