Most homework assignments are straightforward: Solve the problems on pages 48 and 49 of the algebra textbook, read chapter 10 on the industrial revolution, fill out the spelling work sheet.
The tough part often comes when some originality is required. My 10th-grade English teacher thought we would craft wonderful essays on the natural world after he let us choose the animal/plant/insect we wanted to write about. I put off picking my topic. The day before the paper was due, I went to the library and cribbed a bunch of stuff about penguins out of the Encyclopedia Americana -- and got an A.
Is there a better way? In an ideal world, kids wouldn't wheedle their parents into helping them come up with ideas for last-minute research. In a semi-ideal world, kids would browse through one of the following two books and find a topic that arouses their curiosity enough to coax them into doing the work on time, and on their own. Maybe.
* Almanacs are a browser's delight. Here's one that can become addictive: "The Information Please Kids' Almanac" by Alice Siegel and Margo McLoone Basta (Houghton Mifflin paperback, $7.95, 363 pages, ages 8-14).
You can start by looking up answers to some of the teaser questions on the back cover. How many muscles does it take to smile? Turn to page 41 for the answer (14 muscles), and before you know it, you're finding out that you have 120,000 hairs on your head, and that most people shed 40 pounds of skin in a lifetime (we could all do Jenny Craig ads).
The lists and factoids usually don't provide enough in-depth information on a topic to complete an assignment. But they do help get you rolling: Look up the seven wonders of the natural world, and right next to that list is a section on "monumental places." Reading the paragraph on Angkor Wat, the ancient temple in Cambodia, might just pique a student's interest enough to spark further research.
The chapter on books and inventions has a lot to recommend it. In addition to including Eloise, star of the book of the same name, in "20 characters you should know," the authors won me over by listing 12 kids' books that have been banned at one time or another. The best way to encourage kids to read a classic such as "Harriet, the Spy" is to tell them that some adults have objected to it because it "teaches children to lie, spy, talk back and curse."
Looking up stuff can be frustrating, because the index is not very extensive. A sports fan looking for any note on Michael Jordan won't find his name in the index, although he is included in the list of "famous players and their numbers."
But if you flip through the short chapter on sports, you'll pick up at least a few nuggets. Ever heard of The Owl Without a Vowel? He was Bill Mlkvy, who played basketball for the Temple University Owls. Each of the 11 chapters -- from "animals" to "world news and wars" -- yields such tantalizing trivia.
* Another book to check out is "Know It All!: The Fun Stuff You Never Learned in School" by Ed Zotti (Ballentine paperback, $8, 256 pages, ages 8 and up).
Like "Kids' Almanac," this is a browsing book, not a you-could-look-it-up book. Mr. Zotti is the editor of "The Straight Dope" syndicated feature that runs in many newspapers, and here he tackles questions that require more explanation. The book also allows him more room for digression and wisecracks -- and he indulges in both.
The book is divided into 10 chapters. Topics include animals, the body, the earth, space, food and drink, the weather and history and politics. Each chapter is a collection of burning questions -- why is the sky blue, for instance -- and their answers (because the sunlight bounces off particles of air, and the blue part of the light's spectrum bounces the most).
Mr. Zotti delights in debunking myths. If you dropped a penny off the Empire State Building, he tells us, it would not be going as fast as a bullet by the time it hit the ground. It would be going about 190 mph, compared to 550 mph for the slowest bullet. "On the other hand," he writes, "There's still a chance it might give somebody a pretty good rap on the noggin. So promise me you won't try it."
He also says you can not see the Great Wall of China from the moon, that kangaroo is not an Aborigine word for "I don't know," and that one dog year does not equal seven human years (here's the real formula: the dog's first year equals 21 human years; each subsequent dog year equals four human years).
You'll learn that those little squiggles you see floating on your eyes when you look at the sky are actually bits of the hyaloid artery, which carried blood to your eye when you were in your mother's womb. When the eye was finished developing, the artery withered and broke into pieces that will float around in your eyeball all your life.
You'll also learn why some hair is curly and some is straight, why your toes wrinkle in the bathtub, why worms crawl on the sidewalk after it rains, and why you shouldn't eat green potato chips. There's bound to be something that will impress the biggest know-it-all you know.
* Signing sightings: Lois Nicholson, author of "Cal Ripken Jr.: Quiet Hero" will be signing her book at the Waldenbooks at the Towson Town Center from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. tomorrow, and then at Waldenbooks at Hunt Valley Mall from 2 to 4 p.m. On Sept. 25, she'll be at Waldenbooks at Harford Mall from noon to 3 p.m.