The parent's annual fall question: Since I...

The parent's annual fall question: Since I was once again too tight to spring for that Acme Inc. Monstro-Pentium mega-computer with the 47 pre-installed reference CD-ROMs included in its One Low Price of several thousand smackers, what kind of reasonably priced (cheap) books can I get to help little Zooey through another year at Low-Test-Scores Elementary School? Herein a few answers:

The most awesome tome on the rack this year is actually a holdover from last year: THE DORLING KINDERSLEY HISTORY OF THE WORLD (Dorling Kindersley: $39.95 , age 10 and up) , written by Plantagenet Somerset Fry (finalist, best Monty Python-sounding author's name), the 50th book from the English historian.

"History of the World" gives new meaning to the word comprehensive: This is an account of humankind's progress from prehistory to the present day that is always fascinating and is capable of suckering you into reading it chapter by chapter as if it were a page-turning best-seller.

The key is Fry's imaginative weaving of the various strands of each country's history into the larger fabric of our common international history. The writing, in bite-sized chunks, is excellent and to the point; complex themes are broken down and explained clearly, diverse subjects are linked in understandable ways.

And the illustrative work--from a publisher noted for artwork that rivals art books--is simply superb. From the look of it, a lot of money and time and talent went into the specially commissioned photographs, drawings, maps and diagrams that pack its 384 pages.

I can't recommend this highly enough for older children--and for adults.

The one-volume KINGFISHER YOUNG WORLD ENCYCLOPEDIA (Kingfisher: $29.95) neatly draws kids into the world outside their windows with a nice, thorough mix of photographs, diagrams, maps and other artwork on each of its nearly 500 pages. This is a solid reference work that doesn't talk over--or under--the heads of its target audience, young children in the first years of school.

The "Young World Encyclopedia" is divided into thematic sections covering topics from "The Universe" to "My Body." Of particular interest are the myths, folk tales and literary characters sprinkled throughout and the activities boxes with step-by-step illustrations for the games, experiments, things to make and puzzles to solve.

Quick, what is the fastest insect in the world? The average amount of water Americans use per day? How many kinds of beetles are there? How many kinds are in my back yard?

The answers to the first three questions can be found in THE WORLD ALMANAC FOR KIDS 1996 (World Almanac/St. Martin's Press: $16.95 hardcover; $7.95 paperback) , edited by Judith S. Levey, a useful tool for parents and kids alike. Topics include art, sports, computers and on and on, with more than 600 illustrations ranging from diagrams to full-color maps--all in all a nice, kid-friendly version of the perennial adult version.

Oh, yes, the answer to No. 4: All of them--and their cousins--as far as I can tell.

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