Hey, Kids! You Can Look It Up!

CHILDREN'S reference books are definitely in.

Gone are the stodgy tomes of the past, those drab volumes of dreary text relieved only by the occasional black-and-white photograph.

Today, bookstores and library shelves groan under the weight of a broad selection of well-written, expertly edited, and, best of all, dynamically designed reference books aimed at children - from dictionaries and thesauruses to compact encyclopedias, atlases, almanacs, and more.

The dramatic makeover reflects the overall renaissance in children's nonfiction - one of the most noteworthy spinoffs of the past decade's boom in juvenile publishing. Faced with a growing demand for information from a visually sophisticated audience - an audience raised on MTV and computer games - publishers have responded with a veritable flood of eye-catching reference books on nearly every subject imaginable.

One of the more pocketbook-pleasing new developments in this field is the single-volume encyclopedia. While there's certainly still a need for the more in-depth coverage only a multivolume set can provide, the budget conscious can rejoice in these less costly alternatives, such as The Random House Library of Knowledge First Encyclopedia (Random House, 189 pp., $18, ages 7 to 11). The easy-to-read text is complemented by "Did you know?" and "Life Story" sections, as well as by lively maps and diagrams. Co lorful pages invite readers to explore topics such as the Middle Ages, making rubber, and space flight.

Another good choice comes from Kingfisher, a new United States imprint of the international publishing company CKG Inc., which made its American debut this fall with a series of 32 mostly reference and nonfiction titles. The centerpiece of its ambitious launch is The Kingfisher Children's Encyclopedia, edited by John Paton (Kingfisher Books, 803 pp., $29.95, ages 7 to 12). From aardvark and abacus to Zimbabwe, zinc, and zoo, its 1,300 clearly written entries are extensively illuminated by photographs, il lustrations, maps, and charts.

In addition to a comprehensive index, special features include referencing by symbol (entries are divided into 16 subject areas, such as "Travel and Transportation" and "Sports and Pastimes," and have an appropriate logo for quick visual identification) and a helpful double-spread explanation of how to use the encyclopedia. "See It Yourself" panels - boxed suggestions for hands-on experiments and projects - accompany a number of entries.

No home should be without at least one dictionary. New this fall are a pair of editions created specifically for children: Webster's New World Children's Dictionary (Prentice Hall, 896 pp., $15.95, ages 8 to 11), edited by Victoria Neufeldt and Fernando de Mello Vianna, and Webster's New World Dictionary for Young Adults (Prentice Hall, 1,040 pp., $18, ages 11 to 14), edited by Jonathan L. Goldman and Andrew N. Sparks. Both offer updated, age-appropriate vocabulary and a lively, user-friendly design.

The line between straight reference books and "information" or more general nonfiction is often blurred. A good example is Knopf's visually sumptuous "Eyewitness Books" series, the latest of which is Ancient Greece, by Anne Pearson (Alfred A. Knopf, 64 pp., $15, ages 8 to 12). Page after lavish page of photographs, illustrations, and text share in-depth, nearly encyclopedic knowledge about the history and customs of this early civilization.

Another example of this crossover trend is the new "Living History" series from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The Vikings, Pyramids of Ancient Egypt, and Knights in Armor, edited by John D. Clare (Gulliver/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 64 pp., $16.95 each, ages 8 to 12) all use photographs of live models dressed in authentic garb and engaged in realistic situations to bring history to life for young readers. The results are remarkably fresh, a fascinating glimpse of what daily activities - from the mummificati on process to a typical Viking raid to the making of armor - in these ancient cultures likely involved.

From the travels of the ancient Phoenicians to the conquest of space, The Great Atlas of Discovery, by Neil Grant, illustrated by Peter Morter (Alfred A. Knopf, 64 pp., $20, all ages), is a treasure-trove of delights for armchair explorers. Crisply designed and filled with thumbnail biographies of some of history's most famous explorers as well as an abundance of maps for tracing their journeys, this engaging book is equally suitable for home or classroom use.

Animal lovers will appreciate the variety of creatures that scamper, slither, swim, and fly across the pages of The Animal Atlas, by Barbara Taylor, illustrated by Kenneth Lilly (Alfred A. Knopf, 64 pp., $20, ages 8 to 12). Lushly illustrated double-spread pages are classified according to habitats that reach into just about every corner of the world - from Australia's Great Barrier Reef to the Pampas of South America. Facts about each region's wildlife are presented in a lively and colorful manner. The book concludes with a section on animals in danger of extinction, as well as a section of fun facts on amazing animals (the world's noisiest land animal, for example, is the red howler monkey, whose roar can be heard as far away as three miles).

Any child (or adult for that matter) who's ever wondered what a baby turkey is called (poult), or how to say "read my lips" in Latin (labra lege), or whether French fries originated in France (they didn't; they were first made in Belgium in 1876) will be entranced by The Information Please Kids' Almanac, by Alice Siegel and Margo McLoone Basta (Houghton Mifflin, 363 pp., $7.95 paper, ages 8 to 14). Chock-full of intriguing facts and information on such subjects as animals, law, sports, and war, the book is as much fun for browsing as it is for tracking down specific information. Siegel and Basta strike a good balance between the light-hearted and the truly useful, and their book fairly vibrates with unbounded enthusiasm and curiosity for the world around us. Here's one book that won't languish on the shelf.

And it seems that dinosaurs have lost none of their allure for the younger set. Two new volumes on the prehistoric creatures are available, both of them fairly exhaustive.

Rand McNally's Picture Atlas of Prehistoric Life, by Robert Muir Wood, illustrated by Tim Hayward (Rand McNally, 64 pp., $16.95, ages 7 and up), embraces much more than dinosaurs, beginning with the earliest signs of life in the Precambrian age and continuing on up the geological time scale (a clear delineation of which flanks the left-hand side of each double-spread page) through the present day.

Children's Guide to Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, by Philip Whitfield (Macmillan, 96 pp., $16.95, ages 7 and up), is also organized chronologically but focuses specifically on dinosaur boom times: the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous eras. This adeptly illustrated compendium of creatures both familiar and arcane is accompanied by brief but detailed information for each dinosaur on such things as size, habits, food preferences, and body structure. It's a valuable reference for the committed d inosaur fan.

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