Biographies of the famous: Why not tell kids the truth?

Trade book publishers seem enormously reluctant to treat children as though they were capable of understanding the true life of a historic person. Instead, they are forever ''fictionalizing'' the famous, interspersing what might have been with cliches about what actually happened.

For the youngster who loves to read, it has made ''growing up'' something of a trauma. The oversimplified fictional biography of a George Washington or a Jack Kennedy runs headlong into the reality of the man, of the events, and of historic analysis.

This has never needed to be. While it's true that a good many children love a story, and cannot get enough about horses, or adventure, or science fiction, it's equally true that youngsters love ''reality,'' and want to be told the truth.

At times, a few publishing houses have attempted to fill the juvenile market with ''true to life'' biographies, but most have suffered from oversimplified writing and the telling of what should be a thrilling story in such a manner as to make it worse than boring - apparently ineffectual.

We're delighted to note a new trend, the beginnings of both print and video productions based on fact and primary sources which engage youngsters in thinking not only about what happened in a great person's life but about the implications of these happenings on a larger canvas.

''Roots'' is an outstanding video example.

The new McGraw-Hill juvenile biographies are a good print example.

Admittedly, the slim volumes do fit a format, they do use simple vocabulary and a minimum of complex sentences; yet they treat the young readers as though they not only knew alot about adults but were capable of understanding a famous one.

Abraham Lincoln, Mao Tse-tung, Napoleon, and Queen Elizabeth are dispatched in 64 pages. Photos, engravings, maps, and illustrations take up at least half the space, but if the volume on Lincoln by Norman Koplan is a sample, the artwork and the text complement each other and the text tells enough of a story to make the choice of historical documentation compelling as well as interesting.

The final pages of Mr. Lincoln's biography provide a chronology and suggestions of further books to read.

There is also an index, another example of treating children as though they had adult discernment and interests.

The map, repeated inside the front and back covers, is excellently done.

A lot of good reading can (and I'm sure will) take place there, as youngsters try to understand the forces leading to a Civil War lasting for four long years and occurring not only up and down the East Coast from Pennsylvania to Florida, but as far west as Vicksburg, Miss., and St. Louis.

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