TEST scores for America's schoolchildren are low and flat, with cultural illiteracy allegedly on the rise. Beefing up ``dumbed down'' textbooks is one solution, but parents, teachers, and youngsters need not wait years for textbook companies to come up with better fare. Instead, they can turn to trade books like the ones discussed in Eyeopeners! How to Choose and Use Children's Books About Real People, Places, and Things (Viking Penguin, New York, $16.95 hard-cover, $7.95 paperback, 317 pp.). Beverly Kobrin displays plenty of common sense as she trumpets the pluses of children's nonfiction for both entertainment and information. Included in this helpful guidebook are chapters directed at parents, grandparents, teachers, and librarians, with catchy acronyms to pave the way. Grandparents, for example, are counseled to READ - Relax, Enjoy, Appreciate, and Dream - with their young charges. There are also lots of great tips on book-related activities and ways to evaluate works of nonfiction.
The extensive annotated list of 400 nonfiction titles provided here raises an occasional question, but Kobrin's goal is persuasion, not perfection. Mostly, she wants to get her message out: Fiction and nonfiction deserve equal time, and children need them both in a total literature connection.
As it happens, there are some outstanding nonfiction titles appearing on publishers' lists this fall. One of the most intriguing is Let There Be Light: The Story of Windows, by James Giblin (Crowell, New York, $14.95, 162 pp., ages 8 to 12). This fine social, political, and architectural history is the kind of ``eye-opener'' Beverly Kobrin would love. From tepee smoke holes to sky-scraping walls of glass, from Gothic stained windows to Chinese paper panels, Giblin shows readers that in every time and place people have tried to bring light and air indoors. Some well-placed diagrams might have gone well with the black-and-white photos and prints. Still, as always, Giblin delivers a remarkable book on a most unusual topic.
One of the best new historical titles is Buffalo Hunt, by Newbery author Russell Freedman (Holiday House, New York, $16.95, 52 pp., ages 8 to 12). Color reproductions of paintings by 19th-century artist-adventurers like George Catlin and Karl Bodmer lend a ``you-are-there'' feel to Freedman's readable account of a buffalo-centered society. It is fascinating to see how every segment of the Indian community on the American Plains took part in the do-or-die hunt. This is first-rate nonfiction.
Author Suzanne Haldane blends activity, art, and anthropology in Painting Faces (Dutton, New York, $12.95, 32 pp., ages 8 and up). This is one how-to book that won't stay smudge-free for long, however, with the many easy-to-follow directions for face painting that accompany the stunning color photographs. Kids will love copying the designs that are included from such diverse worlds as Japan's Kabuki theater and Broadway's ``Cats,'' from the Nuba people of the Sudan to the Huichol of Mexico.
A fine example of illustrated biography is the newly published Shaka, King of the Zulus, by Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema, illustrated by Diane Stanley (Morrow, New York, $13.95, 40 pp., ages 6 to 9). As in an earlier book about Peter the Great, author-illustrator Stanley delivers spectacular art along with a tight and textured tale. Here, veld-tone paintings, bordered in typical Zula beadwork, help to present the dramatic life of a unique 19th-century African warrior-king. Shaka rose to unimaginable power that eventually corrupted, and in this rendition his story is told with restraint and respect.
For a kid-size coffeetable book, it's hard to beat Kenneth Lilly's Animals: A Portfolio of Paintings, with text by Joyce Pope (Lothrop, New York, $16.95, 96 pp., ages 8 and up). This is both handy and handsome, a sumptuous album with 60 paintings that present a dazzling array of animal life in six habitats, ranging from hot forests to high mountains. Along with Lilly's beautiful gibbons and pandas is a wonderful compendium of information on nature's ever-amazing animal adaptations.
Finally, there's Volcanoes (Morrow, New York, $12.95, 32 pp., ages 5 to 8). Once again, renowned science writer Seymour Simon has taken a difficult subject and made sense of it for younger readers. Here he explains why, how, and where volcanic action occurs, always with the underlying theme that ``Volcanoes do not just destroy. They bring new mountains, new islands, and new soil to the land.'' Twenty-five color photographs help to illustrate this dynamic process of eruption and renewal.
Susan Faust is the children's book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and a school librarian.