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July 14, 1996|KATHLEEN KRULL

One in a timely batch of books during this election year, The Smithsonian Book of First Ladies would be welcome whatever the season. Compiled by Edith P. Mayo, curator of the "First Ladies" exhibition at the Smithsonian, this is the first comprehensive, scholarly book for children on these notable Americans. Besides profiling the 43 women and their achievements during service to their country, Mayo sets the scene with numerous historical essays and a generous assortment of 120 photographs and paintings. First ladies from Martha Washington to Hillary Rodham Clinton (who contributes a foreword) reveal much more of themselves than the hairstyles by which they're usually judged, including the ways in which the conflicting demands of the role take their toll. A lavish gift for anyone interested in American history, especially those tired of hearing only the male point of view.

The offspring of these amazing women (and their spouses) get unusual treatment in First Children. Using a more light-hearted approach, this oversize volume collects the stories of 11 kids who have grown up under the world's largest magnifying glass--the White House. An abundance of photos and scratchboard illustrations, as well as plenty of drama, bring dry history to life--a rare glimpse behind closed doors into the lives of Caroline and John John, Chelsea, Amy, Luci and Lynda Bird and the rest.

For serious drama seekers, The President Has Been Shot! provides the kind of focus that grabs kids. Ever since the seventh president (and just why did Andrew Jackson inspire such passionate feeling?), assassins have been trying to change the course of American history, resulting in the most intense presidential stories of all. Author Rebecca C. Jones presents the facts of 10 such attacks, along with photos, to illuminate this horrifying but undeniably riveting slant on our history.

Thrill-seekers with a sense of humor will procrastinate on their history homework to chuckle at Really Weird News Stories. Not to everyone's taste, these are bizarre but true stories written in a tabloid style: religious visions in suburban bathrooms, the Malibu surfer who lives in a cave, strange doings in India (where one-fifth of all mail received by the "Guinness Book of World Records" comes from). Most kids will eat this up.

For more proof that children's books can take on any subject, witness Roman Numerals I to MM: Numerabilia Romana Uno Ad Duo Mila. A picture book about the mathematical concept of Roman numerals? Sounds like a terrible idea, but thanks to Arthur Geisert's delectable etchings of pigs (he is the creator of "Pigs From 1 to 10" and other porcine classics) this is a treat indeed. The etching for "M" actually contains 1,000 piglets.


THE SMITHSONIAN BOOK OF FIRST LADIES: Their Lives, Times, and Issues. Edith P. Mayo, editor . Forward by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Holt: $24.95; ages 10 and up)

FIRST CHILDREN: Growing Up in the White House. By Katherine Leiner . Illustrated by Katie Keller (Tambourine/Morrow: $20; ages 8 and up)

THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT! True Stories of the Attacks on Ten U.S. Presidents. By Rebecca C. Jones (Dutton: $14.99; ages 8 and up)

REALLY WEIRD NEWS STORIES. By Dana del Prado . Illustrated by M. Washington (Random House: $5.99; ages 8 and up)

ROMAN NUMERALS I TO MM: Numerabilia Romana Uno Ad Duo Mila. By Arthur Geisert (Houghton Mifflin: $15.95; all ages)

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