"You could look it up."
No one ever confused my mother with Yogi Berra -- except when it came to the use of reference books.
Try as we might to squeeze homework answers out of her, my brothers and I always wound up trudging over to the bookcase to look it up.
It could be a dangerous business. Open the encyclopedia to find out about the Louisiana Purchase, and the next thing you know, you're discovering how Louis XVI lost his head. Such browsing could cost valuable TV time. There was nothing worse than knowing my younger brother had finished his homework in time to watch "Lost in Space" while I still had math and science problems to slog through.
If you're lucky, you might find a fairly current set of "World Book" encyclopedias at a thrift shop or yard sale. Otherwise, prepare for a hefty investment. Here are a couple of single-volume desk encyclopedias plus a "visual dictionary" worth checking out for ages 7 and up.
* "The Kingfisher Children's Encyclopedia" packs a lot of facts for the money -- $29.95. It has 780 pages, 1,300 entries and more than 2,000 full-color illustrations, including plenty of USA Today-style maps and graphics and some cutaway diagrams.
There are "see it yourself" panels that suggest simple experiments, such as making a flower press (next to the "botany" entry) or investigating "friction" by letting different shaped objects slide down a tilted board.
It's easy to use, with 4,000 things listed in the index and a friendly cross-reference system. In the "weather" entry, for example, the words rain, cloud and equator appear in capital letters, which means they have entries of their own if you need more specific information.
As with any one-stop-shopping convenience, the Kingfisher isn't all-encompassing. John Major, the British prime minister, is listed in the index because he's mentioned in the Margaret Thatcher entry. But Malcolm X is nowhere to be found. Indira Gandhi gets her own entry, but Golda Meir isn't mentioned anywhere. There's an entry on Jesse Owens, but not a word about Frederick Douglass or Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
Still, this is a useful -- and affordable -- book. Junior can't use it to plagiarize a report on metamorphosis for fifth-grade science class (he won't find Franz Kafka in the index, either), but he will learn enough about the life cycle of butterflies to toss around the word "pupa."
* The granddaddy of the desk encyclopedias is "The Random House Children's Encyclopedia" (644 pages, $60). It has 2,000 entries and more than 3,500 illustrations, plus a 22-page quick reference section that includes a history time chart, scientific classifications of plants and animals and lists of writers, presidents and other famous folks.
The excellent illustrations dominate most entries, and the format iscsimilar to the "Eyewitness Books" series, which, like this encyclopedia, was created by Dorling Kindersley Limited. I prefer my text in one big helping, but kids seem to enjoy wandering around the page, picking up "info bits" here and there.
* If those encyclopedias are too wordy, try the ultimate browsing book: "The Macmillan Visual Dictionary" ($40 through Jan. 1, 1993, $45 after that). There are no mundane definitions here, just 832 pages of incredibly detailed illustrations -- everything from Gothic cathedrals to manure spreaders, from a cross-section of a rocket to a cutaway diagram of a clothes dryer.
Chapters range from geography to clothing, and no detail is too small. You can learn where the tang of a knife is at the same time you're learning the difference between a carving knife and a ham knife. After studying the innards of a faucet, you'll never have to use the word "doohickey" again. There are three pages devoted to women's undergarments (compared to one page of men's underwear) as well as a double-spread map of a symphony orchestra.
Learn the parts of a fire truck, discover what a dibble is (I always called it a bulb planter) and see what a hockey player's girdle looks like. With 600 subjects and 3,500 illustrations, there truly is something for everyone here. Your kids will have a hard time wrestling it away from you.
A reminder: Author and poet Karla Kuskin will speak about writing for children this Thursday beginning at 5 p.m. in the Glass Pavilion at Johns Hopkins University. Tickets, which include a reception and book-signing, are $30 and benefit the scholarship fund of Downtown Baltimore Child Care. For more information, call Sheilah Davidson at (410) 669-1010.