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Hey, Kids! You Can Look It Up!

By Heather Vogel FrederickHeather Vogel Frederick is the children's book editor of the Monitor. / December 7, 1992

CHILDREN'S reference books are definitely in.

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Gone are the stodgy tomes of the past, those drab volumes of dreary text relieved only by the occasional black-and-white photograph.

Today, bookstores and library shelves groan under the weight of a broad selection of well-written, expertly edited, and, best of all, dynamically designed reference books aimed at children - from dictionaries and thesauruses to compact encyclopedias, atlases, almanacs, and more.

The dramatic makeover reflects the overall renaissance in children's nonfiction - one of the most noteworthy spinoffs of the past decade's boom in juvenile publishing. Faced with a growing demand for information from a visually sophisticated audience - an audience raised on MTV and computer games - publishers have responded with a veritable flood of eye-catching reference books on nearly every subject imaginable.

One of the more pocketbook-pleasing new developments in this field is the single-volume encyclopedia. While there's certainly still a need for the more in-depth coverage only a multivolume set can provide, the budget conscious can rejoice in these less costly alternatives, such as The Random House Library of Knowledge First Encyclopedia (Random House, 189 pp., $18, ages 7 to 11). The easy-to-read text is complemented by "Did you know?" and "Life Story" sections, as well as by lively maps and diagrams. Co lorful pages invite readers to explore topics such as the Middle Ages, making rubber, and space flight.

Another good choice comes from Kingfisher, a new United States imprint of the international publishing company CKG Inc., which made its American debut this fall with a series of 32 mostly reference and nonfiction titles. The centerpiece of its ambitious launch is The Kingfisher Children's Encyclopedia, edited by John Paton (Kingfisher Books, 803 pp., $29.95, ages 7 to 12). From aardvark and abacus to Zimbabwe, zinc, and zoo, its 1,300 clearly written entries are extensively illuminated by photographs, il lustrations, maps, and charts.

In addition to a comprehensive index, special features include referencing by symbol (entries are divided into 16 subject areas, such as "Travel and Transportation" and "Sports and Pastimes," and have an appropriate logo for quick visual identification) and a helpful double-spread explanation of how to use the encyclopedia. "See It Yourself" panels - boxed suggestions for hands-on experiments and projects - accompany a number of entries.

No home should be without at least one dictionary. New this fall are a pair of editions created specifically for children: Webster's New World Children's Dictionary (Prentice Hall, 896 pp., $15.95, ages 8 to 11), edited by Victoria Neufeldt and Fernando de Mello Vianna, and Webster's New World Dictionary for Young Adults (Prentice Hall, 1,040 pp., $18, ages 11 to 14), edited by Jonathan L. Goldman and Andrew N. Sparks. Both offer updated, age-appropriate vocabulary and a lively, user-friendly design.

The line between straight reference books and "information" or more general nonfiction is often blurred. A good example is Knopf's visually sumptuous "Eyewitness Books" series, the latest of which is Ancient Greece, by Anne Pearson (Alfred A. Knopf, 64 pp., $15, ages 8 to 12). Page after lavish page of photographs, illustrations, and text share in-depth, nearly encyclopedic knowledge about the history and customs of this early civilization.