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Hey, You Could Look It Up

October 23, 1994|MARTIN ZIMMERMAN

With the looming specter of Back to School trauma hovering last month, I naturally felt more than the usual pressure to purchase a first dictionary for my 6-year-old son when I walked into my friend Joel's house and noticed that his 6-year-old daughter was already on her second , having graduated from "The Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary" to "Words for New Readers" in the blink of an eye. Was I being remiss?

Not to worry, says Bonnie Smith, an experienced bookseller in the children's book department at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena. " Anytime they are doing any sort of writing and/or reading is a good time to purchase a first dictionary."

Among other tips, Smith recommends that parents look for large type for younger children because their "eyes are undeveloped" and to "look for words they'd be using for reading books"--with the caution to "shoot for slightly above the child's level" so you don't have to run back in a year and buy a more advanced dictionary.

When I mock-played belligerent customer, demanding she pick a specific title " 'cause I'm in a rush and I don't have time to shop," Smith recommended the "American Heritage First Dictionary" (Houghton Mifflin: $12.95), calling it "pretty good, very comprehensive and easy to access."

And, just to keep me nervous (and get even), she pointed out that publishers are starting to comes out with thesauruses for children at the third grade level.

Kay MacDonald, one of the children's librarians at the Beverly Hills Library, recommends that parents do a little homework: "We suggest that they take the classic dictionaries we have here and pick five to seven words and look them up in each dictionary. The basic information is about the same: Look to see how clear the examples are, ease of use for the child and the like. The way the book is laid out, the examples given, may make a big difference for a child--ESL kids usually need examples that use the word in a sentence, in context while others may need just description."

Anne Connor, coordinator of children's service at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, pointed out the difference between preschool picture dictionaries ("The Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary," "Good Morning Word"), whose "purpose is to help children make the association between printed words and actions and feelings," and "more authoritative works" for older children who are "reading already and need to feel a sense of accomplishment of looking something up." The preschool works tend to group words by category (animals, food, etc.) and are more fun as a lure to kids who are just dipping their toes in reading waters.

For my son's age group, Connor likes both the American Heritage volume and the "Macmillan Dictionary for Children" (Macmillan: $14.95), saying "both are good, both are well-regarded." She also would like parents to test-drive the dictionaries before buying, stressing that the books must be "attractive so that children kids feel invited to use them."

Anticipating the next dictionary I'll be shopping for, Monica Holmes, co-owner of Hicklebee's children's bookstore in San Jose, says the staff recommends the "Macmillan Dictionary for Children" because it "seems to be the most legible for 8- to 12-year-olds, most kid-friendly" and it makes a good "first serious dictionary," with the added bonus of "neat things" in the back of the book like an atlas, a timeline of world history and flags from around the world. (She also thinks it is better for 8- to 11-year-olds, despite what the publisher says: "Sixth graders need something more intensive than this.")

And, like librarians MacDonald and Connor, Holmes thinks parents should do some sleuthing: "Open the dictionary and look for a definition with easy-to-pronounce words and understandable meanings." She'd also like to see a "good dictionary in paperback to make it just a little more available" for folks who can't afford to buy one (publishers, are you listening?).

I wound up buying "The Macmillan First Dictionary". It was a toss-up between that and the "American Heritage" volume: Both had lots of entries, supported by plenty of illustrations and photographs. I just liked the feel of it better, a not-so-subtle reminder that in book-buying--heck, in most of life--the subjective has as much clout as the objective.

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