Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of the World's Best-kept Secrets
By John Farndon
DK Children, $24.99
192 pp; ISBN-13: 978-0756632052
Review by Amy Brozio-Andrews
In this comprehensive and darkly eclectic compilation of weird facts, unexplained phenomena, and quirky trivia, John Farndon offers readers a wild ride through an alternate universe of entertainment (and education -- shh!). Playing up the "do not open" theme gives the content a cache that an ordinary book on say, hoaxes or the Enigma machine, might not.
Each two-page spread presents a diverse cluster of facts, opinion, and speculation about a specific item of interest. For example, the page on the Enigma code includes a diagram of the machine used by the Germans to communicate with their U-boats during World War II, details on how it encoded messages, and how the code was ultimately cracked by the British.
A small blurb at the bottom of every page directs readers to similar topics on other pages. Readers have the freedom to read the book cover to cover, or just jump in anywhere. From the mystery of the Mary Celeste (a sailing ship found crew-less off the coast of Portugal in 1872) to the Rosetta Stone, the keys to body language (how to peg a liar), optical illusions, and time travel, Farndon's book is wide-ranging enough to have broad appeal. Kids can learn how a magician can saw his assistant in half or get a quick introduction to secret and concealed messages in cryptography and steganography. Heavily factual without getting bogged down in minute details, Farndon's writing is concise and engaging.
Most of the pages are crammed with illustrations of varying kinds. A mix of text and art keeps the layout interesting; the pages on brain washing have the headline centered in concentric rainbow circles, with the headline styled like a laundry detergent ad (complete with picture of a brain in a front-loading washing machine). In some cases, the combination of art and text is imperfect, for example a flow chart demonstrating the timeline of events surrounding the disappearance of Lord Lucan, a London man suspected of murder and assault, are slightly confusing. The alignment of the illustrative captions in the spread on satellites is inconsistent, making readers tip their heads to the left and the right as they read the spoke-like captions paired with satellites surrounding the Earth like a the face of a clock. Overall, the mix of art and text varies widely from page to page, giving each spread its own distinct feel apart from the rest of the book.
Do Not Open includes a couple of fold-out pages (what really goes on behind the scenes at the theater) and hidden doors that kids can open on a map of lost treasures, plus a handy glossary and index for quick reference. There are also a handful of puzzles for readers to solve, including a "Magic Eye" picture with a hidden image. The nice thing about Do Not Open is that even though the book is entertaining, the format and subject matter make it really easy to learn something too (although at $25 for the hardcover, I'd probably check this book out of the library before deciding to buy it).
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