Reference books tailor facts for little ones


September 24, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

I couldn't find "factoid" in the dictionary. Struck out, too, on "McFact," a nugget of information usually accompanied by a small, full-color graphic, all of which can be ingested faster than you can say, "Would you like hash browns with that?"

Such bites, or bytes, of data are supposed to be geared to today's limited attention spans and the time constraints of modern life. I think both conditions are exaggerated and, to an extent, self-imposed. But that hasn't stopped publishers from buying into the factoid frenzy.

When it comes to reference books for children, the results have been mixed.

If you can afford to build a small collection of non-fiction books to help with homework, try this quick test before buying:

Does the information provided help kids answer the questions how and why? If it's just a collection of who, what, when and where items, it might help fill in the blanks on some homework questions, but will it help them figure out why the questions were asked in the first place?

* The new edition of "The Random House Children's Encyclopedia" ($50, 644 pages, ages 7-12) includes an entry on the Russian Federation. In addition to telling about the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, it says people have had economic troubles since the shift to the free-market system. ("Clothes and consumer goods are scarce and often of poor quality.")

It doesn't just say that the ruble is the unit of Russian money; it points out that the government exchange rate is low, so illegal money changers do a brisk business.

This hefty desk reference is worth the investment if you have a hard time getting to the library. One notch below that is "The Kingfisher Children's Encyclopedia" ($29.95, 816 pages, ages 8-14).

Random House and Kingfisher have other fine non-fiction books. In addition to its popular "Eyewitness Books" (ages 10 and up) and "Eyewitness Juniors" (ages 6-10) series, Random House has put out "Young World" books ($10, 128 pages, ages 4-8). They come in six separate volumes -- about animals, the human body, the planet earth, transportation, plants and how things are made.

* For older students, Kingfisher has published the "Visual Factfinder" series ($9.95, 94 pages, ages 10 and up) with the following titles: "Countries of the World," "Planet Earth," "Science and Technology," "Stars and Planets," "The Living World" and "World History."

As the name implies, the full-color illustrations, diagrams and graphics are plentiful. But sometimes the editors try to pack in a little too much information, and it can be overwhelming, or mind-numbing.

In "The Living World," for example, a two-page spread is devoted the 18 orders of mammalia. I don't remember any biology homework asking the difference between Dermoptera (tree-living Asian mammals, such as the flying lemur) and Pholidota (insect-eaters with scaly bodies, such as the pangolin).

On the other hand, it's fun to browse through quick hits and tidbits in sections on animal movement (a sailfish is faster than a cheetah, though it would be tough to stage a match race) and animals and their young (the record litter for a cat is 19 kittens).

* Younger readers and their parents can get a lot out of Kingfisher's "I Wonder Why" series ($8.95, 32 pages, ages 5-8). Titles are: "I Wonder Why Camels Have Humps (and Other Questions About Animals)," "I Wonder Why I Blink (and Other Questions About My Body)," "I Wonder Why Planes Have Wings (and Other Questions About Transportation)" and "I Wonder Why Stars Twinkle (And Other Questions About Space)."

Every page has at least one question, and every question is listed in the front, on the contents pages. The questions and answers are grouped by subject, and the organization makes it very easy for a curious kid (or a parent who has run out of "I don't know" responses) to do research.

In "I Wonder Why Stars Twinkle," one question is: How hot is the sun? Answer: The outside of the sun is 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. To give readers a frame a reference, the author points out that's 20 times hotter than the hottest kitchen oven.

* Kingfisher also has two heavy volumes to put on a wish list if grandparents, aunts and uncles don't mind giving educational gifts. Both are recommended for ages 8 and up, $35 until Dec. 31 and $39.95 after that.

"The Kingfisher Science Encyclopedia" (768 pages) is well-organized, with plenty of cross-referencing. I like that people are grouped with their subject, so that when you read about the hydrogen bomb, there are fact boxes on Andrei Sakharov and Robert Oppenheimer. If you were to look up the scientists alphabetically, you would be referred to the hydrogen bomb entry.

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