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Idle Hands Are the Devil's Playthings

May 26, 1991|BARBARA BOTTNER | Bottner frequently reviews books for The Times

There's good news for those of us who worry that our genetic pool is being massacred by dominant Nintendo genes. Although still possible, it is not absolutely certain that future generations will be collectively hypnotized into a semipermanent video stupor.

Publishers are putting up a fight!

Nonfiction workbooks designed to lure kids away from joy sticks and back into creating projects that stem from their native curiosity have been authored by such masters as Hans Christian Andersen Prize-winner Mitsumasa Anno and Delia ("How to Eat Like a Child") Ephron. The good books have several things in common besides subtitles--they all have subtitles--and that is a familiar, hands-on, "let's do this, grow this, build this, learn this" approach.

Long Is a Chinese Dragon: Chinese Writing for Children by Peggy Goldstein (China Books and Periodicals: $14.95; ages 8-12) takes us through the origins of Chinese pictographs and the thinking behind them. We are shown ancient Chinese signs and their evolution into modern ones. Simple drawings often accompany the text.

Goldstein assumes fascination on the part of the reader and thus creates it. We learn the character for electricity, add to it the character for language and, of course, get telephone ! The side effect is a new admiration for the language of another culture. Welcome to etymology!

Anno's Math Games III (a translation of an 1982 text published in Japan; Philomel: $19.95; ages 4-8) is by Mitsumasa Anno, who, in his uniquely gentle, imaginative way, has created many books for children on nature, history and literature. This one introduces mathematical concepts of abstract thinking, circuitry, and geometry. It has four sections. The first, "Changing Shapes With Magic Liquid," deals with topographical concepts and perspective via the characters of Kriss and Kross, who guide us through simple exercises and picture puzzles. Anno's delicate drawings, easy prose and fine design belie his intention to stretch the minds of his readers.

"Exploring Triangles" painlessly introduces geometry to the young reader, using origami techniques, kaleidoscopes and patchwork quilts.

In the afterword, Anno writes: "For me, the mystery of why a red flower blooms is not nearly as wondrous as the ordered beauty of this silent form called a triangle." This is exactly the spirit from which to teach young children.

My Life (and Nobody Else's), invented by Delia Ephron and snappily designed by Lorraine Bodger (Running Press: $10.95), is a diarylike questionnaire addressing the child's emotional state. An expanded sense of identity can potentially be achieved in the detailing of everything from favorite movies to: "I have braces now. This is the name of my orthodontist."

No apology is needed for the self-involvement of the young reader--this is when self-involvement is developmentally correct, isn't it?--so we have categories such as "My Personality," "My Homework," "My Very Best Friend," "My Love Life," "My Parents and Their Rules," "The Angry Page," "The Scariest--the Grossest, the Funniest--Page."

Bugwise: Thirty Incredible Insect Investigations and Arachnid Activities--subtitle of the year award--by Pamela Hickman, illustrated by Judie Shore (Addison Wesley: $8.95; ages 7-12) combines science information with experiments. This 96-page softcover is enthusiastically authored by an insect advocate. Pamela Hickman was educational coordinator for the Federation of Ontario Naturalists.

The black-and-white illustrations are artful and clear, and the overall design, with inserts and various schematic drawings, are a pleasure, as is Hickman's writing. Lots of questions are asked--that's where science begins--and then answered with really interesting facts. You might try them on unsuspecting friends, such as "Spitting is considered rude, especially at the table, unless you're a spitting spider. It shoots a glue-like liquid from its fangs onto unlucky insects. The victims get stuck in their tracks and can't escape the hungry spider." Do-it-yourself experiments, in this case spider-catching, follow.

"Suppose you want a vegetable garden, but you don't have a backyard," asks Grow It!: An Indoor/Outdoor Gardening Guide for Kids (Random House: $6.95). Good question, posed by author Erika Markmann. Before we know it, we can count on dirty fingernails, and with some luck, zucchinis on the windowsill. The illustrations, by Gisela Konemund, are peppy and informative, and in the pictures, at least, all the ministrations yield wonderful herbs, successful cuttings and vigorous plants. The author cheerily expects the kids to carry out the various tasks themselves--I only saw the word adult once, and it seemed to read alien .

We want so much of our children; we need so much from them. Titles such as 365 Ways for You and Your Children to Save the Earth One Day at a Time by Michael Viner with Pat Hilton (Warner Books: $5.95) and Let's Talk Trash: The Kids' Book About Recycling by Kelly McQueen and David Fassler MD, with the Environmental Law Foundation (Waterfront Books: $14.95) underscore that childhood itself has been altered forever. Children are being asked to think about issues that stupefy us.

The foregoing books will help raise self-motivated kids who won't need to attend Nintendo Anonymous meetings but rather will be able to enhance this universe that we shall leave to them, one way or another.

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