Living Books for children offers delightful surprises


March 22, 1993|By MICHAEL J HIMOWITZ

I've been fooling with computers for more than a decade now, and just when I thought I couldn't be surprised anymore, along comes a program that brings back that old "Gee whiz" reaction.

If you have kids and you haven't invested in the CD-ROM drive and soundboard required for multimedia software, Broderbund's Living Books series will persuade you. These programs are dynamite. They'll keep your kids occupied for hours -- if they can get you away from the computer.

Broderbund has packaged copies of well-known illustrated children's books with CD-ROMs that bring them to life with a delightful combination of voice, music and animation. For beginning readers, there's "Just Grandma and Me," from Mercer Mayer's Little Critter series, while slightly older children (7 and up) will enjoy "Arthur's Teacher Trouble," by Marc Brown.

The programs, available on the street for $50 to $60, run on multimedia-equipped IBM-compatibles that use Microsoft Windows. They're a snap for kids to use: All they need is a mouse and a little curiosity.

Each program displays pages from the book and reads the text (with different voices for each character). Point and click on any word or sentence, and the computer reads it back or even spells it -- in English or Spanish. "Grandma" can do Japanese.

But that's not the real magic. Instead of standing there on the page, doing nothing, the characters are delightfully animated. And when kids start pointing at objects on the screen and clicking the mouse button, they're in for one zany surprise after another.

There are starfish that dance and beach umbrellas that take off like skyrockets. Whales pop up from the ocean. Pelicans drop by to say hello. Open a kitchen cabinet door, and you're likely to find a pig who stayed for dinner, or a can that does the cancan. Click on a platter of cookies, and they turn them into a dancing doo-wop group. Radiators turn into xylophones; teachers turn into Elvis clones.

Virtually every object -- and there are hundreds -- turns into its own little adventure, and youngsters can explore backward and forward to reread and play with their favorite pages.

Like most multimedia titles, Living Books requires some heavy hardware: a PC with an 80386 processor, four megabytes of memory, a VGA monitor and adapter capable of displaying 256 colors, a CD-ROM (compact disk) drive and a sound card compatible with Sound Blaster, Pro Audio Spectrum or Tandy sound devices. You'll also need the Microsoft Windows operating environment.

While the Living Books is educational and entertaining, electronic reference works really show off the power that multimedia hardware brings to the desktop.

It's hard enough to conceive of an entire encyclopedia on a single compact disk. What's really amazing is how quickly these digital publications enable you to get your work done -- and how enjoyable they are to use.

The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia for Windows (also available in a Macintosh version) is a cornucopia of knowledge and sells for $250 to $300 on the street.

It includes the text of 33,000 articles, several thousand photos and illustrations, as well as technical animations, sound recordings and full-motion video clips of events ranging from Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon to Richard Nixon's farewell speech (for some reason, my 13-year-old liked that one best). There's also an atlas with more than 250 color maps.

What makes the encyclopedia so exciting is how easy it makes research, and how it encourages you to dig deeper into any subject you choose. Let's say you want information on the space shuttle. You can search the title index for a space shuttle entry, or just type the words "space shuttle" into a text search box.

In a few seconds, you'll see every article that contains those words, and a click of the mouse button brings each article to the screen. You can also conduct more sophisticated multiple-term searches. Although CD-ROM drives are much slower than hard disks, and I have a particularly slow CD-ROM, I never had to wait more than 15 or 20 seconds for the results

of any search, no matter how complex. This is a sign of excellent indexing software.

Once an article is on the screen, you can cut and paste its text contents into another document (if your word processor is running at the time). Small icons at the top of the text show whether there are photos, illustrations, animations, sound bites or videos attached. If there are, a click of the mouse brings them to the screen. I imagine there must be some limit, but I was able to display windows with 20 different articles, photos, sound files and videos simultaneously.

All the major encyclopedia makers offer yearly updates -- which have another major advantage over printed versions. You get an entirely new encyclopedia every year, instead of an old encyclopedia with add-on volumes that require year-by-year

searching for updates on a subject.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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