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Tell Me Why

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We gave it a B+

Kids think Ben Franklin was neat because he did something they’ve been told never to do: fly a kite during a thunderstorm. But their opinion of Ben may drop a notch or two after they watch ”Beginnings: Civilization and Government,” one of 18 tapes (including 3 new ones) now available in the appealing Tell Me Why series. Unlike most American colonists, Franklin — sorry, kids — bathed frequently. Talk about shocking.

The series, based on the books of the same name by Arkady Leokum, covers a variety of subjects, from birds, rodents, and arachnids to space, energy, and weather. (If Ben had been able to see the part about lightning, he probably would have stuffed his kite into the closet and taken another bath.) The format is simple: In each 30-minute program, grade-schoolers in voice-over ask questions related to the topic. Narrators then provide answers against a backdrop of rapidly changing images.

Most of the questions are good, but a few are worded clumsily and don’t ring true coming from the mouths of kids (”How did eating utensils originate?”). Although the narrators are enthusiastic and use clear, simple language, sometimes their voices stir uncomfortable memories of seventh grade, yellowed window shades, and films about such thrilling subjects as the vital role of textiles.

The vapid background music is annoying, unnecessary, and occasionally even silly. And there are instances of unintentional humor when the pictures don’t illustrate what’s being talked about: During much of a discussion on democracy, two guys in armor bash each other with sticks (hey, Congress at work!). The programs provide plenty of information, though, and ought to satisfy and stimulate children curious about their ever-expanding world. Did you know Ben also found time to create Philadelphia’s first volunteer fire department, in 1736? The man had a thing for water. B+