Bits and Bytes: A Computer Dictionary for Beginners, by Seymour Simon. Illustrated by Barbara and Ed Emberley (Crowell, $11.50; ages 5-9). Ages 5-9, ha! Many a byteless parent will sneak a look at this book while his child is busy booting (starting a computer). The oddity about computer lingo is that it's almost -- but not quite -- real-life English, and the differences can trip up the careless. For example, in computerese a port is what landlubbers would call a socket -- as Seymour Simon puts it, "a place in a computer where a PRINTER, a MONITOR, or some other PERIPHERAL can be connected." (a peripheral, by the way, is "any machine that is connected to a computer.") Barbara and Ed Emberley's illustrations are comical enough to satisfy anyone still bemused by the rapidity with which computers have barged into our lives.
Milk, by Donald Carrick (Greenwillow, $11.75; ages 3-5). Here is a primer for tots alert enough to wonder where milk comes from. Step by step the text and lovely, old- fashioned water-colors trace the action from grazing to gulping. One quarrel: Carrick sloughs over the milking process itself. A closeup of a farmer working on an udder would have rounded out the process. Once Upon a Time! A Story of the Brothers Grimm, by Robert Quackenbush (Prentice-Hall, $10.95; ages 7-10). Jacob and Wilhelm, the inseparable folktale-collecting brothers got their start by listening to a neighbor's nanny. No slaves to authenticity, they sometimes embroidered a tale, thereby injecting themselves into the folk process.
Once they had published an initial volume of tales, people came from all over to sell or trade them stories. (One fellow's price was a pair of the brothers' old trousers.) While writing down one story, "Cinderella," they made a wonderful mistake. In the original French, the pivotal slipper was make of fur, vair, which the brothers confused with verre, glass. After completing the story phase of their joint labors, the brothers started compiling the first definitive German dictionary, a task that wasn't finished until 1962, a century after their deaths.
As befits the brothers' whimsical pursuits, Robert Quackenbush has illustrated his straightforward text with funny brown-and- white drawings and comic strips. At once amusing and informative, Once Upon a Time would make an ideal supplement to a volume of the immortal tales themselves. What Good Is A Tail?, by Marlene M. Robinson (Dodd, Mead, $10.95; ages 5-9). There are tails and tails, author Robinson explains. Deer raise theirs to warn other deer of external danger. Skunks lift theirs to warn other creatures away from themselves. The flicker bird uses its spiked tail feathers as clamps when it hops up a tree trunk. The horseshoe crab's cable of a tail comes in handy when a wave knocks the animal onto its back. "Then it swivels its stiff tail around, jabs it into the sand and turns itself over." The leopard gecko (a lizard) can shed its tail during pursuit. "The attacking animal chases the still-wiggling tail while the lizard gets away." A superior nature book, embellished with extraordinarily well-chosen black-and white photos. Maps & Globes, by Jack Knowlton, illustrated by Harriett Barton (Crowell, $9.95, ages 7-10). A kids' book that can make an adult say, "I didn't know that," is a prize. Jack Knowlton's Maps & Globes had that effect on me. I didn't know the Polynesians had used stick charts for sailing -- with reeds and fronds to represent ocean currents and wave directions and seashells to represent islands. Knowlton leads young readers from early sand scratchings to the specialty maps of today; Harriett Barton's blazing color drawings highlight the text. The authors' combined talents work especially well at explaining how two-dimensional maps distort, whereas globes give true proportions. (On a map, for example, South American typically looks smaller than Greenland; in fact, the continent is eight times larger.) The Sheep Book, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, photographs by William Munoz (Dodd, Mead, $10.95; ages 7-12). Another process book -- on the raising of sheep, all the way from pregnant ewe to spun yarn. The photos are bright and clear -- I particularly liked one of a sheep-guarding llama and its wards -- and the text is a model of biological elucidation. Lights! Camera! Action! How a Movie Is Made, by Gail Gibbons (Crowell, $9.95; ages 6-9). The child in your life might become so engrossed in this book that he'll want to see the movie Gail Gibbons uses as an example throughout: Knights of the Golden Sword. To avoid disappointment, you'd better warn him from the start -- it exists only within the covers of Lights! Camera! Action!, a charming little volume with illustrations in appropriately riotous colors. Laser Basics, by Lawrence Stevens, drawings by Art Seiden (Prentice-Hall, $10.95; ages 10-15). Perhaps wisely, author Stevens has skimped on the complex optical theory underlying the performance of lasers (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and emphasized what they can be used for: killing tumors: repairing torn retinas; industrial drilling and welding; recording sound; and -- if the advocates of Star Wars are correct -- knocking out nuclear missiles. There is also a chapter on holograms, the 3-D images to which laser technology has given birth, along with a conclusion on light- tech careers. Birds, by Maurice Burton (Facts on File, $9.95; ages 11-up). Anyone bemused by the bird-watching craze that has overtaken America in the last few years should peruse Birds, the latest volume in a series called The World of Science. Its splendid color photographs make it plain that most birds are anything but. From Ad,elie penguins sliding off an Antarctic ice-shelf like dominoes, to a barn owl in silky-feathered repose, these are creatures that command attention. The admirable text is rich in little-known facts, such as: "If a hummingbird lands on the ground it will be unable to walk, because its legs are small and weak." The only drawback to giving a child this book is that he'll soon be clamoring for his own pair of bincoulars. Auks, Rocks and the Odd Dinosaur: Inside Stories from the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, by Peggy Thomson (Crowell, $13.95; ages 8-12). There are a million stories in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History -- no, make that 68 million, one for each item in the collectiom. Peggy Thomson has chosen to tell 20 of them, some edifying, some less so. But let's get right down to business. The one all of us, young and old, care most about is the history of the Hope Diamond. No one knows for sure if it was stolen out of the French crown jewels. But one thing is clear: it isn't cursed. That was a canard invented by a Paris jeweler who sold it to a Washingtonian, Evalyn Walsh McLean. His motive was to ice the sale: "Mrs. McLean thought unlucky things brought her good luck." Thomson has written a book one can get lost in like a museum. Slimy, Creepy, Crawly Creatures, by Joe Kaufman (Golden Books, $7.95; ages 7-11). My favorite childhood stop at the St. Louis Zoo was the snake house, and so this book is right up my dank alley. From frilled lizards -- imagine Anne Boleyn wearing a ruffled collar and showing a forked tongue, and you'll have some idea of what these little monstrosities look like -- to Komodo dragons, the cream of the creepies are here, explained in sprightly prose and depicted in stylish cartoons. Nature Hide and Seek: Oceans, by Norris Wood, illustrated by Mark Harrison (Knopf, $8.95; ages 3-7). Apparently part of a series devoted to natural furtiveness, this volume on the ocean is an irresistible page-lifter. Yes, lifter: periodically you come to a page with a folded-over foreground -- usually a plant -- that must be lifted to expose the barely-visible creature lurking behind it. Illustrated in brilliant submarine color by Mark Harrison, the book would make a fine briefing document for a visit to the Baltimore Aquarium. Planet Earth, by David Lambert (Facts on File, $9.95; ages 10-15). One of a series called Your World 2000, edited by Isaac Asimov, this volume is crammed with instructive graphics. Take the long lineup of people standing next to a lone fellow, all of them positioned to illustrate a shocking statistic: one citizen of Switzerland "consumes as much of the world's resources as 40 citizens of Somalia." Or the bar graph that shows a new ice age to be just about a thousand years around the corner. The text pulls no punches: China's giant panda, it warns, "seems headed for extinction" (I would add the qualification "in the wild"). Other titles in this fine series include Cities, Technology, and Health. Kipling: Storyteller of East and West, by Gloria Kamen (Atheneum, $12.95; 8-11). Here is a short biography of the English writer who brought India to life for faraway readers. The book's set-piece is a chapter on Kipling in Vermont (Kamen summers not far from the house he and his wife lived in for several years). By keeping to himself, the author managed to alienate his neighbors. By refusing interviews with the press, he unwittingly ensured that a family quarrel would become a tabloid sensation. In Gloria Kamen's capable hands, Kipling becomes an object-lesson in the penalties of fame. The Elephant Man, by Frederick Drimmer (Putnam, $13.95; ages 10-13). When little Joseph Merrick's normal brother died of scarlet fever, more than one family friend said, "loudly enough for Joseph to hear, 'What a pity! Why couldn't the Lord have spared William and taken the cripple instead?'" The cripple was Joseph himself, a horribly disfigured victim of neurofibromatosis -- the Elephant Man. The only conceivable answer to the question is that Joseph was meant to serve as a kind of test: those who could (or can) extend sympathy to one so grotesque will be less likely to discount other humans on the basis of their appearance.
All of which makes Frederick Drimmer's The Elephant Man seem more didactic than it is. Drimmer tells the story that has also riveted adult play-and moviegoers with compassion but no preaching and has included photographs showing Merrick as he was. The book may make some children uneasy, others more humane. Koko's Kitten, by Dr. Francine Patterson, photographs by Dr. Ronald H. Cohn (Scholastic, $9.95; ages 5-10). Koko the signing gorilla is a living disturbance. Those who would prefer a world in which humans and animals are separated by a moat of differentiation find her ability to express herself perplexing. The fresh minds of children, however, seem to have little trouble accepting Koko's hard-won skills, and this true story should delight them. It's about the accidental death of the gorilla's feline friend, Koko's sadness on being told of the event, and the arrival of a replacement -- all depicted in sharp photographs. The Fun of Cooking, by Jill Krementz (Knopf, $14.95; ages 6-16). Photographs abound in this how-to book, as well they might -- the author is one of our premier photographers. The idea was to get kids to contribute recipes and to pose like Julia Children for pictures of young cooks at work. In some cases parents are there to help, and the results are well-calculated to encourage culinary development. The book ends with my favorite entry, Jason's Doggie Biscuits, to which the leaping pooch in the very last photo is eloquent testimony that here is a surefire recipe.