FOR youngsters who spent the summer devouring books they chose for themselves, the return to school and assigned reading lists may not be all that appealing. But parents as well as teachers can find books that will help to make the ``real world'' an adventurous place for kids to explore, even if it means writing a book report about it. Some recent biographies, for example, introduce well-known pioneers in the physical and social sciences, photography, writing, and aviation. What is more, there's a good balance of male and female role models.
One welcome new addition to American Indian lore is Indian Chiefs, by Russell Freedman (Holiday House, New York, 151 pages, $15.95, ages 10 and up). Freedman, who has won the Western Heritage Award for previous books for children on the Wild West, here profiles six chiefs of the Plains and Northwest tribes. All six - Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux, Santana of the Kiowas, Quanah Parker of the Comanches, Washakie of the Shoshoni, Joseph of the Nez Perc'es, and Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Sioux - recognized that their traditional way of life was headed for inevitable change as white settlers moved into their territory during the middle and late 1800s. Some chose accommodation; others opted for war. But all reached their conclusions with dignity and courage - and it's this process of decisionmaking that is the focus of Freedman's book.
Although the author makes a conscious effort to be nonjudgmental in presenting the facts, the protracted suffering of the Indians and the compounded lies told by white military and government officials won't escape the notice of thoughtful readers. When they start to see these chiefs as family men, poets, and visionary prophets, as well as fierce warriors, they're bound to have questions, and there is an approachable bibliography for those who will want to do some follow-up reading. Striking black-and-white photos complement the articulate text.
Like ``Indian Chiefs,'' the latest book from prize-winning film writer and biographer Mark Sufrin is a collection of mini-biographies. Focus on America (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 162 pages, $13.95, ages 10 and up) takes a concise look at nine American photographers who recorded history in the makingSufrin gives readers a feel for photography as a developing art form, zooming in on the more glamorous side of their professional lives. But he doesn't ignore the challenges they often faced in trying to make a living. The result is a portrait of personal lives in conflict. The book's black-and-white photos are varied and moving, but one wishes there had been more. And youngsters no doubt will wonder why there aren't any pictures of the photographers themselves.
The longest and most descriptive biography of the recent releases unfortunately falls short on several counts. In Carl Sagan, Superstar Scientist (Dodd, Mead, New York, 168 pages, $12.95, ages 10 and up), author Daniel Cohen looks at the well-known astronomer and media personality from an admiring angle but fails to generate much lasting interest in Sagan's ideas. It's a shame because the Cornell professor has been involved in some of the most intriguing projects of modern times, including the Mars probes, the search for extraterrestrial life, expansion of radio astronomy, and the development of the so-called ``nuclear winter'' theory.
At a time when Soviet and American scientists are renewing their efforts to cooperate in space research, a book about Sagan's steps to internationalize similar projects could offer timely and encouraging help to students. But by writing and talking down to his readers, Cohen gives them only a superficial notion of how Sagan uses his popularity to stir up interest in many fields of science.
Two new additions to the ``Women of Our Times'' series (Viking Kestrel, New York) continue to pack plenty of interest and facts into a brief format for younger readers. Margaret Mead: The World Was Her Family, by Susan Saunders (58 pages, $10.95, ages 7 to 11) is a fairly well-balanced portrait of the provocative anthropologist. The author includes some of the professional criticism of the conclusions Mead drew from her work in the South Pacific and dips briefly into her personal difficulties and failed marriages. Overall, however, it's a complimentary view of Mead, one that ought to spark some enthusiasm among would-be social scientists.
By comparison, Laura Ingalls Wilder: Growing Up in the Little House, by Patricia Reilly Giff ($10.95, 56 pages, ages 7 to 11) has more tangible warmth and affection. In fact, this biography of the pioneer-writer echoes the down-home style and attention to detail that have made Wilder's ``Little House'' books so popular for so long. The author gives a glimpse of the events that inspired each book and also quotes from Wilder's letters to her family.
Lerner Publications of Minneapolis likewise has two new titles in its ``Achievers'' series, both of them about women pioneers in aviation. Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Pilot and Poet, by Roxane Chadwick (56 pages, $7.95 hardcover, $4.95 paperback, ages 9 to 12) is the stronger of the two and gives a well-rounded portrait of the shy Smith graduate who became the first American woman to get a glider pilot's license and who was a full-time copilot on her famous husband's many record-breaking flights. Author Chadwick touches on the tragic kidnapping and dwells at some length on Mrs. Lindbergh's well-known antipathy to publicity. More could have been said about her equally well-known gift for language and the lasting beauty of her own books.
Amelia Earhart, also by Roxane Chadwick (56 pages, $7.95 hardcover, $4.95 paperback, ages 9 to 12) covers the standard legendary fare about ``Lady Lindy'' and her many aviation ``firsts.'' There are no surprises here, no new theories about the flyer's disappearance in the Pacific - thankfully so, since the facts of Earhart's lifework are intriguing enough without added hype. Chadwick provides a good introduction that ought to stimulate further reading.
Diane Manuel reviews children's books regularly for the Monitor.