Title: Fact Monster
Publisher: Information Please Group of Pearson Education
Tested: Feb. 18-20, 2004
Fact Monster (known earlier as Infoplease Kids' Almanac) has received many praises in the press and in Web directories, but I am not going to join the chorus. Its backbone is the superb Information Please Almanac (IPA) Web site merely dressed in clown garb with some extra fun facts, quizzes and lists thrown in. It reminds me of Al Gore speaking to elementary school children about how the government works. After starting with a few scripted kiddie jokes, he switched to his fundraising mantra honed for the $1,000-a-plate audience, spiced with a few grimaces and funny gestures when he saw the kids' eyes glaze over.
The IPA site is one of the top ready-reference sources and one of my favorites. Beyond its excellent content, it has an ever-improving interface and layout to bring out the best of not only the three excellent IPA almanacs (General, Entertainment and Sport), but also the Columbia Encyclopedia, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary and Magellan's Atlas. With that said, this good collection is definitely not for kids, but rather more for college students and their parents.
About 90% of the material in Fact Monster is the same as in IPA, such as the feature article about Al Gore, where the only difference is that (perhaps as a nod to the fact that this resource is pitched to kids) the link to the entry about Monica Lewinsky leads nowhere.
Even so, there is still a lot to be explained by parents, teachers or librarians for the average kid who reads this article, not only about Ms. Lewinsky, but also about the meaning of words such as alienating, repulsed, rectitude and moral compass — all of which appear in the first paragraph. Most are defined in the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, but again, that is not exactly a kids' reference tool.
And neither is the Columbia Encyclopedia, whose entry about Copernicus (the biography of the day when I started this evaluation) is used both in IPA and Fact Monster. The only difference is the "kiddie" frame around the entry in the latter. Even mature students would have trouble reading the article and may wonder what canon law and De revolutionibus orbium coelestium are. The Latin title of his seminal book without an English translation does not make reading the entry any easier. At least the Britannica Student Encyclopedia's entry about Copernicus provides a clue by giving the English translation of the title. The Grolier's New Book of Knowledge comes closest to what kids would understand with an even better translation of the title.
Most of my test searches yielded the same results from both IPA and Fact Monster, as illustrated by the search on caucus. Sometimes IPA had a few more hits from sources not covered by Fact Monster. Even when I believed that only Fact Monster would have an entry about a topic, such as pets in the White House, it turned out that it was the same entry as in IPA. Even for something labeled Special Feature in Fact Monster, I found the original entry in IPA. The much-touted Homework Center of Fact Monster is also part of IPA, not merely a link from it, of which the most prominent is, by the way, Fact Monster.
Exceptionally, after slaloming across many pages filled with bright colors and wacky comic book figures, I found unique entries in the funny sections of Fact Monster, but not all of these were unique, such as the wacky town names, and the few that were unique were not so funny, except for the desperation to add funny things and for some remarkable sloppiness.
I encountered this obsession with being funny in the Searchasaurus system, which had a Funny Facts section with short articles about earthquakes, acid rain, erosion and other side-splittingly humorous events and phenomena. Similarly, in Fact Monster's Rank and File subsection People Fun Facts, I failed to find out what makes it funny to see the succession line that happens in the not-so-funny and not-so-exceptional case when the president dies (or is incapacitated).
Neither was I amused by the Religions subsection of People Fun Facts, which shortly describes Buddhists, Hindus and (the followers of) Judaism, but ignores Christians and Muslims. True, a page later you can find the file and rank of the Roman Catholic church, although without any narrative explanation or any mention of the many Christian denominations, but Islam is totally ignored. In an age when kids hear about that religion everyday, as well as its extremely influential leaders, teachers and preachers, it must have been difficult to overlook this second-largest religious group in Fact Monster.The free companion site to the World Almanac for Kids is a far better alternative. It does try to be funny and wacky, but it is still engaging. It has a simple, well-organized interface with information tailored for kids. A look at its section about religion shows how much better its approach is (except for the once misspelled headline for Buddhism as Buddism), including the informative, fact-filled sidebar and the summary pages about the major religions. It is a genuine kids' site, as opposed to Fact Monster which "added" a kids' room by hanging some graffiti on the wall of an adult conference room.