Blowing the dust off two great treks

TELEVISION commercials would have children believe that cross-country travel is just a credit card away, with comfort and convenience ranking high on the list of necessities. Two recent books counter that interpretation as they chronicle two arduous, historic treks that shaped the destinies of emerging nations.

Rhoda Blumberg, a Newbery Honor winner, blows the dust off American history in The Incredible Journey of Lewis and Clark (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, New York, $15, 143 pp., ages 9 and up). She draws children right into the vast reaches of Western wilderness with more than 70 black-and-white photographs of artifacts, maps, drawings, and paintings taken from museum and archival collections. Then she gives her readers a lively account of a journey that paved the way for the expansionist doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

Young readers will learn that President Thomas Jefferson had political, commercial, and scientific aims for this ``voyage of discovery'' that lasted from 1803 to 1806 and covered 7,000 miles from the Missouri River to the Pacific, and back.

But Blumberg is at her best when she stretches beyond the basics to blend little-known facts into the narrative. Thus children - and their parents and teachers - will make some startling discoveries of their own.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition is standard fare in American history texts, but recent reports suggest that lots of youngsters may be a little foggy on the subject. After all, 66 percent of 17-year-olds surveyed in one study couldn't even place the Civil War in the correct half-century.

What, then, might American children be expected to know of Chinese history in the 1930s? Practically nothing. That is why China's Long March, by the acclaimed history writer Jean Fritz, and illustrated by Yang Zhr Cheng (Putnam, New York, $14.95, 124 pp., ages 10 and up), is both important and problematic.

It is important because American youngsters ought to know something about an event that changed the history of China and the world. It is problematic because these same youngsters will come to the book without the background that Fritz unwittingly assumes they have about the year-long march undertaken by the Chinese Communists.

In fairness, the story is tough to tell. The size and scope of the march boggle the mind. Wonderfully detailed maps do clarify the circuitous march route, while the powerful black-and-white paintings simply echo a mood.

As always, Fritz gives human dimension to the sweep of history with personal details and anecdotes, many collected from interviews she conducted with 11 survivors of the march in 1986.

Fritz is among the best history writers for children, and this book is a good example of how she blends fine scholarship with lively storytelling. She grew up in China, the daughter of missionary parents, and here she brings a special love for the country to an immensely interesting and important subject.

Still, although her story is both stirring and touching, it can be confusing.

In a subtle way, it makes a strong point: Without compromising richness, introductory history needs to be elementary.

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