Some Genuine Gems

This column is the first of a weekly Children's Bookshelf in which rotating monthly columnists will cover picture books, storybooks, activity books, nonfiction, young adult novels and the occasional classic

A home for neglected children, that's what this column is, a small monthly corner of a five-pound newspaper that will give succor to children's books that aren't written or illustrated by megabuck superstars with agents. Some enchanted evening, you may see . . . an activity book?

Hey, why not? You can't get little Elvis to turn off "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," you can't persuade little Elvira to stop staring into space. Face it--your kids don't read enough and you're beginning to worry about it.

These books may help turn them on to reading. Heck, they may help turn you on to reading. They may sucker-punch the little tykes into--gasp!--even thinking. Thinking about how things work. Thinking about things to do. Thinking about things that just may be of some use now or down the road. Thinking about how much fun is hidden inside those old-fashioned, low-tech, pre-computer/TV/radio objects you hope they will decide to pick up for a change.

I thought I was having a flashback when I came across the "Rocks and Minerals" edition of the Random House series of Collector's Kits by Carol Benanti ($10). Here was the beloved cheapo white plastic tray from my youth--last seen in 1960 or so--reborn in a tiny new version that seemed like a hologram beamed direct from my memory bank.

As a child, I spent untold hours with my tray, carting it from bedroom to den to front lawn to garage to dirt-floor back yard, filing, feeling, arranging and rearranging my gem-like treasures, guarding them from the predations of my older brother.

And I couldn't resist doing the same with the Random House retro package. It will be hard for most kids--adults as well--to resist the simple, infectious tactile pleasure of rolling a piece of scoria around in your hand or rubbing a chunk of cool black obsidian against your cheek. The samples are small enough to jam into a jeans pocket or stash at the bottom of a backpack so a child can take them to school to wow friends and/or charm members of the opposite sex.

Actually, the 4-by-9-inch tray--a mere shadow of the original--fits neatly into a backpack and can be used to snow gullible teachers. It is divided into compact squares and holds 20 "genuine" samples complete with pop-out stamps to identify them. There's also a decent reference guide with its own set of stamps that explains how rocks and minerals are formed and identified and includes such nuggets of information as what common rock is made from skeletons and why jeans are stonewashed with a certain type of lava.

Other works in the series cover fossils, seashells and stamps from around the world. All are priced at $10.

You'll have to get your own kit--as will my son. In the innocence of my youth, I let the first kit get away. The gods have given me a second chance. This one gets hidden in my gym bag, under the soggy sweat socks. Any transgressor unlucky enough to look there will pay a stiff nasal tariff. My rock collection is safe.

Some other book-kits that look worth a try:

"The Complete Wilderness Training Book," by Hugh McManners (Dorling Kindersley: $22.95). Subtitled "Field Skills for Adventure in the Outdoors," it has a bunch of outdoors stuff to try, things to do.

"Watercolor for the Artistically Undiscovered," by Thacher Hurd and John Cassidy (Klutz Press: $18.95). Kid-friendly instruction book and a set of paints and brush.

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