Environment-themed books, music, and videos -- Eco-friendly subjects teach kids about recycling and saving the earth

If, as kids, the heads of state who have been debating the fate of our planet at the Earth Summit in Rio had learned more about the environment, they might never have had reason to haggle as adults.

The fragility of nature rarely merited attention during the school days of previous generations. But kids, parents, and teachers are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about topics such as recycling, energy conservation, and saving endangered species, thanks in part to a growing attention to environmental issues in movies, videos, books, and even music. Some of the recent green offerings for young people are educational; some, entertaining. The best strike a balance.

Unfortunately, in what may be this summer’s hottest ”envirotainment” release, MISSION TO SAVE EARTH, the scales seem unduly out of whack. Young viewers will certainly learn that it’s elementally wrong to befoul the global nest from Mission, but they’ll glean precious few specifics about the environment. This first full-length videotape featuring the superhero Captain Planet, essentially an over-blown version of the syndicated and cable TV cartoon, features the voices of some major movie and TV stars, including Ed Asner, Whoopi Goldberg, and Louis Gossett Jr. This time around the animated superhero and his pals are out to foil villains bent on plundering earth’s environment. As in earlier Captain Planet adventures, energy conservation, at least among the characters, is practically unheard of: The action often is full bore — in every sense of the term.

At least as entertaining and far more informative — in one-third the time — are two videotapes that focus on single issues: DOWN THE DRAIN (water) and THE ROTTEN TRUTH (garbage). Drawn from the 3-2-1 Contact series on PBS, these productions are fast-paced, funny, and packed with easily digestible information provided as answers to the kinds of questions kids pose. The poised and appealing teenager Stephanie Yu takes viewers on tours of sewage-treatment plants, landfills, and incinerators. Another excellent program in the series, YOU CAN’T GROW HOME AGAIN, explains the problems of rain forests and what can be done to save them.

The denizens of these rapidly disappearing versions of nature’s treasure chests are the focus of RAINFOREST ANIMALS, which offers succinct facts about global warming, species protection, and 33 animals, many near extinction. The vivid drawings show animals in realistic scenes.

Vanishing species are also given their due in Barbara Taylor’s tautly written THE ANIMAL ATLAS. Color photographs, maps, and lifelike illustrations by Kenneth Lilly complement this large (14 x 10 1/2 inch) book. Animals are grouped according to habitat; a short section clearly states how to help protect vanishing species.

A bizarre but engaging take on the same theme, EXTREMELY WEIRD ENDANGERED SPECIES, contains enough substance — and trivia — to hold a fidgety kid’s attention. Written in simple language, this whimsically illustrated paperback includes descriptions and full-page color photos of 21 animals in peril.

Wolves are in danger too, as author Joyce Milton points out in WILD, WILD WOLVES, a 48-page paperback many first graders can read. Skillfully drawn true-to-life color illustrations amplify a straightforward, deftly written text, which employs a simple vocabulary to convey dozens of facts about wolves — including their chances for survival.

Survival — of species and of the planet — obviously is on the minds of children around the country. WHALES, WHALES, WHALES, for example, was written with the help of kids from several elementary schools in New York State. The audiocassette contains 10 songs. Direct, and frequently poi-gnant lyrics reflect the kids’ concerns about what’s happening to their world. (”When we cut down the trees we forget/That the carbon dioxide increases/And this causes the greenhouse effect.”) The music is memorable too: Lead singer and guitarist Fred Gee wi1l remind many listeners of Pete Seeger, in voice and in sincerity of delivery.