Encyclopedia of Ordinary Things by Štěpánka Sekaninová, illustrated by Eva Chupíková. Albatros, 2021. 9788000061283
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3
What did you like about the book? This visual reference book from the Czech Republic opens with a boy and a girl using ordinary things around their house: 11 in total, including dolls, umbrellas, shoes, and a bathroom and its contents. Then a table of contents refers us to chapters tracing the history of these common items, from ancient times to the present, complete with a pictorial timeline and some detours into related objects. The tone is slightly cheeky but the coverage seems comprehensive. Readers will learn that ancient Egyptian babies sucked on pacifiers, that Emperor Nero watched gladiator matches through an emerald to absorb harmful rays, and that the first European perfume was produced in Hungary. The illustrations are ingenious and highly detailed, vignettes scattered across the pages with paragraphs of explanatory text. Small diagrams with dotted lines also link the pictures to captions. The opening and closing full-page drawings of the main characters have the retro look of Margaret Keane’s 1950s “big eyes” paintings. The two children in the book are White and so are almost all the historical figures pictured (including all the Egyptians, even Nefertiti).
Anything you didn’t like about it? Who decided that these particular objects would be of interest to children? I’ve never had a child ask me about the history of tights, toilet paper, or horse toys. I found the sheer amount of information in each section overwhelming. It bothered me that the author provided no sources and that some of the content seemed fanciful. We’re told that early man slept covered with leaves and grass until someone started whining about it, which led to covering themselves with animal skins. Indigenous Americans supposedly used hammocks to stay protected from dangerous beasts at night, but I think many nocturnal animals would have been able to climb trees. There’s many more examples of statements that seem either too whimsical or too vague for a nonfiction text.
To whom would you recommend this book? Children ages 6-9 who enjoy dawdling over reference books filled with interesting trivia. It’s like an abridged, kid-friendly version of Bill Bryson’s 2011 book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
Who should buy this book? Public libraries
Where would you shelve it? 643.1
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No
Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA
Date of review: October 2, 2021