Dinosaurs, whales, and prehistoric tales

It can happen almost overnight. One evening, you're reading a sweet bedtime tale about fluffy bunnies - and the next morning at breakfast the conversation has shifted to dinosaurs and whales. Suddenly your child wants to know all there is to know about large beasties, living and prehistoric.

You can head for the library - and supplement your visit there with several new titles that provide a good number of answers for the budding paleontologist.

The Largest Dinosaurs, by Seymour Simon, illustrated by Pamela Carroll (New York: Macmillan, $10.95, 32 pages, ages 6-10), is one good choice. The author has more than 100 science books for children to his credit, and Pamela Carroll complements the engaging text with clear black and white line drawings.

Here we learn about the six most common ``sauropods'' and some of their nicknames. The descriptions are tangible, as Mr. Simon writes about dinosaurs with shoulders ``high as a telephone pole'' and bodies ``longer than a big bus.'' New concepts are introduced in convincing contexts, and the point is made that scientists sometimes change their ideas - good for young minds to know. It's comforting, too, to find out that ``young sauropods traveled in the middle of the herds, where they were protected from danger.''

Giants of Land, Sea & Air, Past & Present, by David Peters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, and San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, $12.95, 74 pages, ages 10-14), is a big book with plenty of full-color, fold-out pages. In addition to the well-researched text, author/illustrator Peters has found a clever way to help youngsters judge the heights of the giants under discussion: On each page, two human figures jog or swim past bowhead whales and Triceratops, drawn to scale. There are plenty of facts, and, true to Sierra Club style, there are also eloquent pleas for preservation of dwindling species.

100 Dinosaurs From A to Z, by Ron Wilson, with illustrations by Cecilia Fitzsimmons (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, $8.95, 62 pages, ages 7-10), is a reference book that will probably satisfy young readers who are more interested in facts than story line. It's a fairly comprehensive listing of the most familiar dinosaurs - what they ate, how they got their names, etc. Unfortunately, the color illustrations do little to boost the appeal of the rather limp text.

Curious young naturalists are likely to spend hours with Do Animals Dream?, by Joyce Pope, illustrated by Richard Orr and Michael Woods (New York: Viking Kestrel, $14.95, 96 pages, ages 10-14). This lively account has been compiled by a staff member of the Natural History Museum of London, in response to questions most often asked by visiting children. Great questions they are, too: Are crocodiles good mothers? Why are birds' beaks so many different shapes? How do spiders use their silk? Ms. Pope takes her time in providing answers that go a step beyond the immediate queries.

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