Discovering nonfiction -- a neglected area for young readers

Children's nonfiction books? You scarcely ever hear about them. You won't find many mentioned in review media, nor will you find many more on recommended reading lists in libraries and schools. In part, that's because courses on children's literature give nonfiction short shrift; so reviewers, librarians, and teachers aren't familiar with this area. In bookstores, if you ask for suggestions - something to read aloud or to ''hook'' a child on books - you'll probably be told, ''You want a good story.''

What a shame - because children are fascinated by facts. Fiction alone can't satisfy their innate curiosity about the real world. Talented writers and artists realize this. Some publishers do, too, and together they have produced books that intrigue youngsters, spellbinding nonfiction books that keep readers' noses buried in their pages. You should be aware of such books.

In workshops I conduct and in my monthly newsletter about children's books, I encourage educators to use them. I use them in my own elementary school classroom. I urge you to share them with your children. When the Children's Book Council chose ''Nature'' as the theme for its current year-round reading program , I was provided a made-to-order opportunity to recommend a few that both you and your youngsters will enjoy. Try these six:

The larger-than-life emerald green snake staring out from the cover of ''Snakes'' is captivating; once they see it, youngsters have to look inside. When they do, they continue to be intrigued. Striking color photographs and drawings illustrate the unique features of fascinating creatures.

''Snakes'' is one of an engrossing series of Zoobooks (Wildlife Education, 930 West Washington, San Diego, Calif. 92103, pages not numbered, paperback, $1. 50 singly or $12 a year), by nature writer John Bonnett Wexo, and including the work of first-rate photographers, artists, and zoological experts. You can buy the 20-page booklets in zoo and museum bookstores, or you can have them mailed, one a month, to your child. ''Whales,'' ''Bears,'' and ''Birds of Prey'' are among the titles currently available. (Ages 7 and up.)

David Lambert's First Picture Book of Animals (New York: Franklin Watts/War-wick, 61 pp., $8.90) is an excellent introduction and overview of wildlife for primary grade children. The book is divided into 25 chapters, each a self-contained, double-page spread illustrated with full-color drawings.

Girls and boys will discover ways animals sense their environment, build their homes, and share common habitats; they'll learn of the remarkable variety of creatures within animal families, such as the big cats, birds, and apes. Completely indexed, this will remain a useful source of information throughout elementary school. (Ages 7 and older.)

To Joel Holland, growing up to be a farmer comes naturally: He lives on Illinois land bought by his great-great-grandfather; he drove a tractor in the fields when he was 8. By 12 he was buying and feeding his own calves, and at 13, when a book was written about him, he was head of a hog operation that grossed over $40,000 a year.

Patricia and Jack Demuth moved to a nearby farm and shadowed Joel for a year to produce their absorbing photo essay, Joel: Growing Up a Farm Man (New York: Dodd, Meade, 144 pp., $12.95). They describe him working in the fields, caring for his animals, and living in the country. (Ages 11 and older.)

You don't have to live on a farm, as Joel does, however, to enjoy nature. In her book, Beastly Neighbors (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 128 pp., $9.95), Mollie Rights explains that nature is everywhere. She shows city children how to observe it on their window-sills, in sidewalk cracks, and on items found in the refrigerator. She suggests experiments with plants and ants, and she gives directions for bird nests, wind vanes, and milk carton boats. All of her practical projects are clearly illustrated with line drawings by Kim Solga. Throughout, Rights laces her text with information about how plants and animals have adapted to urban life thriving in apparently hostile environments. (Ages 8 and older.)

The ordinary becomes extraordinary when you look through a scanning electronic microscope (SEM): The head of a pin resembles a moonscape; a scrap of aluminum looks like a thick slab of concrete! Lisa Grillone and Joseph Gennaro bring Small Worlds Close Up (New York: Crown Publishers, pages not numbered, $7. 95) in their collection of micrographs - photographs taken with the SEM. Animal, vegetable, and mineral matter is magnified from 100 to 16,000 times, providing youngsters a view of nature they would ordinarily never have.

For example, children can see why cork floats, why cactus spines aren't so easily shaken off, and why a gecko can walk across ceilings or along the sides of a glass jar without falling off. (Ages 8 and older.)

Comparisons (New York: St. Martin's Press, 240 pp., $15 in cloth, $9.95 in paperback) is unlike any other book I've seen. When I bring it into my classroom , it becomes as popular as the Guinness Book of World Records - in itself a record! Hundreds of illustrations show how people, plants, animals, and objects both natural and man-made compare in such relative characteristics as size, speed, and weight, with each of 10 chapters devoted to a measurable attribute.

Prepared by a creative team of researchers, writers, editors, designers, and artists, the drawings and bite-size copy blocks inform with brevity and occasional humor. For example, a giant earthworm from South Africa, drawn life-size, drops off one page to reappear 30 pages, or 22 feet, later. (Ages 10 and older.)

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