Great Trivia Books for a Teenager
January 18, 2015 7:17 AM   Subscribe

A young woman (14 years old) of my acquaintance absolutely loves those "fun fact of the day" trivia phone apps. Now I'm looking for some books I could recommend to her chock full of fun facts, and explanations of the background of those facts, that would be age- and knowledge-level-appropriate. Ideas?

I know a 14-year-old girl who is very bright, and very curious about the world. However, like many girls her age, she absolutely hates school, and her school isn't doing a very good job of engaging her or teaching her anything (she's a person of color attending a low-quality urban public school, if that matters). We're working on that, but in the meantime, I'd like to keep her engaged with the world of learning.

She absolutely loves those phone apps that send you a "fun fact of the day" each day, and she and I have taken to trading "fun facts" by text message most days. Things like "a group of crows is called a murder," or "California consumes more bottled water than any other product," or "1 out of 4 Americans has appeared on television at least once," or "the human heart pumps hard enough to make blood spurt up to 30 feet."

Oftentimes, however, because of the gaps in her formal education, she doesn't really understand some of the facts. She's basically very provincial, and she doesn't have a lot of context for things. So when we got the fact, "the Baby Ruth candy bar was named after Grover Cleveland's daughter, Ruth," she didn't know who Grover Cleveland was. And she didn't understand how it was possible that "the world's most common name is Mohammad," until we talked about Islam and who Mohammad was and just how big the Muslim world is and all of the places in the world where Islam is the majority religion. We end up having great conversations about the facts she doesn't understand, and we look stuff up on our phones, and we both really enjoy learning about new things. She's extremely bright; it's just that her world is really small.

I'd like to get her a big book (or a few books) of fun facts that she can read on her own. I'd prefer books that would be accessible to someone who doesn't have a lot of formal education (so, ones that don't refer to historical figures or scientific terms or other specialized knowledge without explaining what they mean), and I would love ones that give some context for each fact, so that she can learn more on her own. I don't want pop culture facts or books about celebrities; she gets enough of that in her everyday life. Most of the fact books I've found are either for little kids (she wouldn't read anything that says "for kids" on the cover, because she's not a little kid) or they give facts that require some background knowledge she doesn't have, but don't give the information necessary to explain them. I haven't been able to find one that has engaging, interesting facts, and also gives enough extra information that she'll be able to learn to understand the ones that have terms or references she doesn't know yet.

I'm absolutely going to keep trading facts with her, and keep talking about them with her and explaining things to her when she asks. But I'd love it if she had a source where she could learn about her own facts and then explain them back to me. I think she'd really like to be able to teach me something, and I would absolutely love that.

Any recommendations? Thanks!
posted by decathecting to Education (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The Book of Lists series comes to mind, as does the QI-derived book series Book of General Ignorance. Also fun is the Imponderables series of books that I read when I was her age.
posted by inturnaround at 7:30 AM on January 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

This series, with its "gross and useless" characterization, might be really appealing to a teenager.
posted by MsMolly at 7:38 AM on January 18, 2015

This book was just recommended by the head of Enoch Pratt Library of Baltimore and sounds like something she may like. 1,339 Quite Interesting Facts to Make Your Jaw Drop
posted by maxg94 at 7:51 AM on January 18, 2015

It's not flashy, but when I was around that age, I loved reading random pages of the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.
posted by kayram at 7:58 AM on January 18, 2015

Response by poster: See, the problem with some of these like 1,339 Quite Interesting Facts to Make Your Jaw Drop and The Book of General Ignorance is that she's not going to understand what they're referring to. So, just from the random pages I flipped to in those books, she's not going to know what rickshaws are. I'm not certain she'll know what a chameleon or a lemming is, much less know any myths about them that need to be dispelled. She's never heard of Urdu or Mein Kampf or Mary, Queen of Scots. And I'm happy to talk with her and explain those things. But if none of the facts are about stuff she understands, she'll give up and stop reading. And the real goal is for her to be able to teach me something, to get her engaged more than just passively. She won't read something that feels like an encyclopedia; it needs to be pithy. But I think she'd read something that makes her feel smart and clever, like many of the "fact" phone apps do.
posted by decathecting at 8:13 AM on January 18, 2015

Try The Book of List series. They tell you what things are first, and then give you a list of some number of them - think of them like a sort of proto-Buzzfeed.

(Fair warning that some of those lists are about sexual things; when I was twelve I was bookmarking those pages and rereading them the way that other girls my age were rereading certain passages of Judy Blume books or Clan Of The Cave Bear.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:19 AM on January 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

My wife and I were recently gifted a copy of Because I Said So! by Ken Jennings, and found it to be really enjoyable and informative. He's also got a huge trivia compendium that looks pretty awesome.
posted by saladin at 9:40 AM on January 18, 2015

When I was a young, budding teenage trivia freak I read The Book of Lists and The People's Almanac, and to a lesser extent the Guinness Book of World Records.
posted by stennieville at 9:48 AM on January 18, 2015

Do you have a Books-a-million nearby? They always seem to have a ton of those types of books. Maybe you could flip through some to find the right ones for her.

Also, are you guys playing Trivia Crack? I think you can submit your own questions which might be really fun for her!
posted by dawkins_7 at 10:04 AM on January 18, 2015

I have a copy of The Uncommon History of Common Things in my bathroom, and while it's a bit superficial in its coverage of everything, many of the things in there would be known to her in at least their generalities (common symbols, clothes, tools, holidays, etc.), and there are fun historical tidbits about many of them (like that the table fork was denounced as blasphemous by the church authorities of 11th-century Venice). There's obviously a lot of history outside of what she'd be likely to know, but it's contextualized enough that I doubt she'd be frustrated by it.
posted by jackbishop at 10:11 AM on January 18, 2015

How about mental_floss? They have a website and books (e.g., this one).
posted by merejane at 10:28 AM on January 18, 2015

Ken Jennings also has a series called Junior Genius Guides on a variety of topics - haven't read myself but his adult books I've ready have been great, so these are probably pretty good.
posted by ethansh at 10:49 AM on January 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

David Feldman's Imponderables books.
posted by brujita at 1:03 PM on January 18, 2015

Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts is probably half wrong these days but I still loved teh shit out of it.

Puzzled by the bit about 'only words she already knows about', though. We live in an age of google.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:44 PM on January 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've loved all the Bathroom Readers for years, and you don't even have to keep them in the bathroom. They're how I learned margarine used to be pink, by law.
posted by dozo at 5:48 PM on January 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

A former 14-year-old recommends Muse Magazine highly.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:33 PM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

2nd Mental Floss. It's a magazine, not a book, but it explains interesting things deeply without assuming much prior knowledge.

My brother has loved it since middle school, particularly because there are things he can easily turn around and teach adults.
posted by R a c h e l at 8:44 PM on January 19, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks, all! I'll take a closer look at these.

I did want to address:
Puzzled by the bit about 'only words she already knows about', though. We live in an age of google.
We also live in an age where many, many people don't have reliable internet access. The intended recipient of this gift is one of them. I want to bring knowledge to her, not highlight the fact that she's so cut off from so much learning and culture that others take for granted.
posted by decathecting at 4:38 PM on January 21, 2015

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