'IN fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue..."For many children, this jingle is their first exposure to - and in some cases about the extent of their knowledge of - Christopher Columbus. This may well change, however, with the Columbus quincentenary celebrations just around the corner. Not to be outdone by Hollywood (with rival film versions of the great explorer's life already under way) or the adult market (see reviews in Oct. 11 Monitor) children's publishers kicked off the fall season with their own salute to Columbus. Historical, pictorial, biographical, fictional - there's a book for every taste and budget. Recent years have seen a transformation in nonfiction and information books for children, and many of the Columbus books are representative of the kind of lively, creative format, first-rate prose, and, in the case of biographies, unblinking warts-and-all presentation of history's giants that characterize this new breed of books. Here are eight new titles, selected from the dozens (both new and backlist) that will be published this year and next in honor of the intrepid explorer who linked the Old and New Worlds. For the read-aloud crowd, In 1492 by Jean Marzollo, (Scholastic, $13.95, ages 4-8), tells the story of the voyage of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria in rhymed couplets. Buoyed by Steve Bjorkman's jaunty watercolors, the book even manages to sneak in a bit of revisionist history ("The first American? No, not quite. /But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.") All Pigs on Deck by Laura Fischetto, (Delacorte, $15, ages 5-8), with cheerful illustrations by Letizia Galli, takes a humorous approach as well, highlighting Columbus's second voyage (and porcine cargo - hence the title) and less-than-successful attempt to colonize the New World. In a brief foreword to Follow the Dream (Knopf, $15, ages 5-10), Czech emigre Peter Sis links his own personal experience to that of Columbus, who dared to push beyond the boundaries of his day. Sis writes "I, too, grew up in a country surrounded by a 'wall,' known as the Iron Curtain." The straightforward but graceful text is illuminated by Sis's remarkable, elaborately-bordered illustrations, many of them inspired by 15th-century maps that give the pages a lush, Old World look. Middle-grade readers will enjoy Christopher Columbus: From Vision to Voyage by Joan Anderson, with photographs by George Ancona (Dial, $14.95, ages 8-12). Covering the years 1459 through the August morning in 1492 when Columbus set sail, the book combines a fluid narrative with full-color photographs featuring members of the Spanish National Opera in period costume. The visual re-creation brings a sense of immediacy to the years leading up to Columbus's landmark voyage. Two books take a fictional tack on the subject: Pam Conrad's Pedro's Journal (Caroline House, $13.95, ages 8-12) and Miriam Schlein's I Sailed With Columbus (HarperCollins, $13.95, ages 8-12). Both are imaginary, first-person "journals" of ship's boys who sailed aboard the Santa Maria with Columbus. Conrad and Schlein are top-notch writers, and they've deftly woven fact with fiction to create original stories that grab readers by the collar and pull them into the events of the day. Schlein's punchy, exub erant style keeps the action in her tale moving swiftly; Conrad's prose is lyrical as always, and she deals with some of the less savory aspects of the exploration - including the fact that Columbus captured natives to bring back to Spain as servants, and his craving for gold and glory. If You Were There in 1492 by Barbara Brenner (Bradbury Press, $13.95, ages 8-12), widens the focus to include the world in which Columbus lived. Brenner's enthusiasm for her subject lights up the pages, as she presents an engrossing look at then-current events (such as the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews from Spain), and tidbits of information on everything from what people of Columbus's day ate and wore to what they did for entertainment (tennis, anyone?), all shored up in scholarly style with footn otes and a bibliography. Finally, for older readers, Christopher Columbus: The Great Adventure and How We Know About It by Delno C. and Jean M. West (Atheneum, $15.95, ages 10-14), combines a comprehensive history of the man and his voyages with information on how historians go about gathering facts. Meaty without being pedantic, this excellent volume provides in-depth commentary as well as punctures myths about the explorer (such as the old chestnut that Queen Isabella pawned her jewels to finance Columbus's voyage - she had already pawned them to fight the war against the Moors). An abundance of woodcuts, maps, photographs, and other artwork bolster the text.