Despite what postmodernists would have us believe, the study of history is a more or less concrete discipline. That's not to say, of course, that historians and their friends (archeologists, researchers, and others) don't discover new bits in the puzzle of the past from time to time. It is to say that history is made up of facts, and while interpretations of those facts are as numerous as the interpreters themselves, interpretations can't change the facts.
No one wants to sit down and read a list of facts, though. (Well, maybe some people, but they're....interesting.) This is why history textbooks tend to be so dull—often they're little more than lists of facts strung together with minimal sentences that aren't very well written and spark no interest whatsoever. Encyclopedias and fact books, on the other hand (and somewhat ironically), are often quite interesting, very accessible, and likely to encourage further study.
They also serve an important academic purpose: research. If you really want to know about a period, a group of people, or an event, one book won't tell you everything. Fact books won't necessarily reveal exactly what life was like during a given era, but it can fill out details lacking in big-picture accounts (like overviews, spines, and textbooks). A fact book can also give you a good visual impression of dress, homes, tradespeople, etc., as photographs of artifacts or "living history" actors are labeled for easy reference.
Some of the best books to accomplish both of these goals are those in the DK Eyewitnessseries, which are filled with full-color illustrations (of period artwork, photographs, and living history photos and dioramas), more facts than you can read in one sitting, and solid text that lends a sense of coherence to the mountains of information. Each volume is high-quality, and covers a period of time, a war, a particular type of person (cowboys, sailors, etc.), a culture, or just about any other history-related topic you can think of.
Among our most popular offerings (and also among the best) are the history encyclopedias from Usborne and Kingfisher. Both feature wealths of information and full-color artwork, though Kingfisher tends to include photographs and more realistic illustrations. Usborne also has a variety of fact books that focus on cultural history (how people lived, what they ate, etc.), which make great supplements to books or programs that deal primarily with events.
Other books you'll find in this section include timeline products, trivia guides, Fandex cards,History News books that present facts from world history in the form of frontpage news stories, and much more. Obviously, you can't hope to teach your kids all they need to know about history from encyclopedias and lists of facts (especially if they're largely disjointed lists of facts), but there's a real sense in which you can't really teach history without such resources, either.
And of course we would be remiss if we didn't mention probably the best use of these resources—as rainy day books for kids to flip through. Children regularly exposed to the fascinating elements of history are likely to grow into students of the past who want to know more and to make sense of their knowledge. However you choose to use these types of books, we encourage you to make them available to your kids, and not to lose sight of the goal of all history study: understanding of and fluency in the past.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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