Wild Things

Salon magazine: Reference books don't have to be boring anymore.

Published September 4, 1997 7:42PM (EDT)

quick -- which U.S. zoo has the most species? What year was
the electric battery invented? What's the longest bridge in the world?
Facts are relatively easy to come by. But packaging them in a form that's
kid-friendly and interesting is a different story. There's certainly
no shortage of children's reference books. Bookstores are bursting with
these fact-filled, heavily illustrated tomes that range in subject from general
reference -- such as encyclopedias -- to specific interests, like cars or insects.

It used to be "reference" meant boring. Today's picture-filled volumes are
often light on text and look like fun -- but that doesn't mean they're missing the facts.
The graphics aren't mere decoration -- instead, they're part of the information
being conveyed. In the most successful volumes, the text and pictures work together
to convey knowledge.

The just-revised, 864-page Macmillan Dictionary for Children is a
comprehensive edition with an easy-to-read layout. Photos and
illustrations -- 1,100 in all -- enhance the text by illustrating some of the
definitions. The volume has several special features, including language
note boxes, word history boxes and spelling tips. And a highlighted line
warns the reader about homonyms, where applicable (for example, the
definitions for baron and barren each tell the reader that the other
"sound-alike word" exists). ($16.95; for ages 8 to 12, Simon & Schuster
Books for Young Readers)

The Kingfisher Children's Encyclopedia is a solid introduction to
information-gathering that will teach kids how to use an encyclopedia
without inducing reference-phobia. It would be difficult to crib a report
from the short nuggets of information presented in this alphabetically
arranged volume, but there are 24 special feature sections designed to help
with school projects. Those sections cover a range of topics, such as aircraft,
insects and American history. ($32.95; for ages 8 to 14, Kingfisher Books)

Visually stunning and chock-full of facts, The Eyewitness Atlas of the World is
in keeping with the tradition of DK Inc. (formerly Dorling Kindersley), the company
largely responsible for creating a market for visual
children's reference books. One look at the oversized, 160-page atlas
will show you why. Small photographs of the countries supplement
the maps to convey a sense of what the places actually look like. For example,
the spread on China and Mongolia includes photographs of the Great Wall,
the Mongolian Steppes and the Kashi market along with a standard map.
($24.95; for ages 9 and up, DK Inc.)

The World Almanac for Kids 1998 is an
eclectic collection of facts and more facts. The source of the questions above
(and the answers that follow), the almanac is both a handy guide and an
entertaining source of information, including puzzles and games.
The 320-page 1998 edition includes Web site addresses where relevant. And now,
the answers you've been waiting for: the San Diego Zoo, with 900 species, wins;
the electric battery was invented in 1800 and the Humber Bridge in England
is the longest bridge. ($8.95 paperback, $16.95 hardcover; for ages 8 to
12, World Almanac Books)

By Andrea Gollin

Andrea Gollin is a freelance writer living in Miami. Her children's summer book special continues next Thursday.

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