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Children's Books That Are as Fun as They're Educational

July 04, 1991|MARY YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES, Mary Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High School. Her education column appears weekly

Now that your children have had a week or two off from school and are starting to get restless for new adventures, it's a good time to give them some good books to read.

Of course, books that tell stories are always popular, but this summer I urge you to add to your child's reading list some books that are fun and educational--and I happen to have a few to recommend that are suited to grade-school and middle-school students.

It is a popular belief that most American students don't know as much about science as they really should. I think part of the problem is that many science books are dry and hopelessly technical.

But I have found a wonderful series of "user-friendly" books on some general topics in science.

The "Magical School Bus" series consists of four books that explore the human body, outer space, Earth and water.

The school bus is magical because, in each book, it suddenly becomes microscopic so that the children on board can actually enter whatever it is they're exploring, for a close-up tour.

"At the Waterworks," for example, explains how water is provided and used on Earth, from the formation of clouds to distribution to farms and cities.

Writer Joanna Cole uses simple language, humor and real-life examples: Bruce Degen's vibrant watercolors give every page some drama and clear demonstrations of scientific concepts.

Other "Magic School Bus" books include "Lost in Outer Space," "Inside the Human Body" and "Inside the Earth." Each one sells for $3.95 in paperback.

For girls and boys whose scientific interests point toward the heavens, try the "Library of the Universe" series, by noted science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

Each thin paperback in Asimov's series includes a glossary of terms, discussions of current theories and recent discoveries, an "Unexplained Mysteries" section, and gorgeous color photographs on every page.

I recommend "Quasars, Pulsars and Black Holes" and "Unidentified Flying Objects." Asimov also includes several books on dinosaurs in his series. Each title costs about $4.95.

History is another topic that tends to put many young people to sleep. Not so with these next titles!

Show me a child who likes cartoons, and I'll show you a budding historian--once he or she has read "The Cartoon History of the Universe," by Larry Godnick.

This giant paperback (360 pages) takes the reader on a fast-paced and entertaining trip from the Big Bang to Alexander the Great.

In between the child learns about man's earliest tools, early civilizations, the Trojan War and Athens.

Godnick includes some sophisticated puns and humorous allusions that adults will enjoy, too.

"The Cartoon History of the Universe" has won praise from Carl Sagan and Richard Leakey--and from Monty Python for its wit. It costs $14.95.

For a look at some heroes of more modern history, try the biographies in the "History of the Civil Rights Movement" series.

The book about Thurgood Marshall, the first black to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, is especially timely since he announced his retirement just last week.

Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X are among the other leaders featured in this series.

Each paperback contains black-and-white photographs and costs $7.95.

"Faithful Elephants" is also a look at history, but describes a specific and rather heartbreaking event: the killing of some beloved animals at a Tokyo zoo during World War II.

Fearing that some animals might escape and hurt people if the Ueno Zoo were bombed, the Japanese government ordered that all "dangerous" animals be destroyed.

Written by elephant keeper Yuko Tsuchiya, the book sells in hardcover for $13.95. Ted Lewin provides beautiful and poignant watercolor illustrations.

Your son or daughter can make history much more personal by exploring "Do People Grow on Trees? Genealogy for Kids and Other Beginners."

It invites the reader to "be an Ancestor Detector and discover your family heritage." He or she will learn how to interview relatives, decipher old-fashioned penmanship, interpret origins of surnames, and make a family tree.

Dubbed the "Official Ellis Island Handbook," this guide also provides a lot of fascinating information and photographs about Ellis Island and the general immigration experience. There's also a special section on the unique circumstances of the "Involuntary Americans: The Africans."

Written by Ira Wolfman, with a foreword by Alex Haley, "Do People Grow on Trees?" costs $9.95 in paperback.

You're never too young to start caring about other people, and "Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen" can help nurture your child's social awareness and compassion.

In the book, a boy visits a soup kitchen where his Uncle Willie serves meals to the homeless.

At first, the young narrator is a little frightened and disdainful of the homeless men and women. But by the end of the story he learns that they are indeed human beings deserving of dignity--and that, as Uncle Willie says, "sometimes people need help."

"Uncle Willie" was written and illustrated by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan and sells in hardcover for $13.95.

There's been a lot of talk lately about "values education." And while most parents want their children to acquire honorable ethics, some aren't sure how to teach something so abstract.

"The Kids' Book of Questions," by Gregory Stock, can help.

This paperback is simply a collection of fairly profound questions that will help you and your child begin discussions about right and wrong, why adults act the way they do, the temptation of money, and the nature of power.

These "deep" topics are made simple and applicable to daily life through questions such as "Do you think boys or girls have it easier?" and "If you could be invisible for a day, what would you do?"

My favorite in the book is, "Of all the things you have been told about God and about religion, what do you think is true and what do you think isn't?"

"The Kids' Book of Questions" costs $4.95.

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