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Stranger Than Fiction

As these intriguing books demonstrate, writing about the real world can captivate.

By Karen MacPherson
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page BW07

Coming of Age in Alabama

Two years ago, Diane McWhorter won a Pulitzer Prize for her adult book delving into the history and leaders of the civil rights movement. She has distilled the key elements of that volume into a riveting narrative for children, A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968 (Scholastic, $19.95, ages 9-up). Young readers will be particularly affected by McWhorter's intimate introduction, in which she talks of growing up as a well-to-do white child in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1950s and '60s and her unquestioning acceptance of segregation.

From there, McWhorter takes readers on an often harrowing tour of the milestones of the civil rights struggle, from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional to the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. She gives brief biographies of the movement's leaders and also shows how children played important roles.

_____Children's Books_____
'Tis the Season (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
Picture Books (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
Bible Stories (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
The Writing Life (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)

Because McWhorter doesn't flinch from unpleasant facts, some of the information and photographs in this book are disturbing. There's a gut-wrenching photograph of a police dog attacking a 15-year-old African American protester, and a vivid description of the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Yet the overall tone of the book is positive. As the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the movement's most vibrant leaders, writes in his introduction, "They can't kill hope."

Beyond the Lab

Readers can explore the mysterious world of outer space in Are We Alone? Scientists Search for Life in Space (National Geographic, $18.95, ages 10-up). Despite its provocative title, this book by Gloria Skurzynski isn't an examination of UFOs, alien beings and other as-yet-unsubstantiated extraterrestrial life.

Instead, Skurzynski concentrates on how some scientists are devoting their lives to figuring out just what types of life could lie beyond the borders of Earth. She tells of scientists who analyze radio signals from outer space to see if they possibly come from intelligent beings, and of those who study some of the Earth's harshest landscapes to see if the organisms that live there could possibly also thrive on a faraway planet.

Densely packed with facts, Are We Alone? isn't for the casual reader. Despite Skurzynski's crisp, clear writing, it takes some focus to digest all of the information. Numerous color photographs help break up the text, as do brief, lively biographies of some of the scientists involved in the search for the real "E.T."

Wow! (KidsCan, $14.95, ages 8-12) provides intriguing facts about how we see, hear, feel, touch and smell. But this book is more than a well-written compilation of scientific data, as author Trudee Romanek incorporates the kind of details that kids like to read. She tells us, for example, that some people's work involves sniffing stinky feet and smelly armpits as a way of developing new deodorant products -- quite a contrast to another man's job of tasting ice cream all day to help create new flavors.

Cartoonish illustrations by Rose Cowles add a humorous touch, while the presentation of the information in manageable chunks on colorful pages helps to make Wow! both attractive and accessible to young readers. For a final flourish, Romanek invites young readers to try some entertaining experiments. Kids will particularly enjoy the one involving blue food coloring, designed to show the number of taste buds on the tongue.

Arts and Crafts

British art educator Gillian Wolfe also offers an interactive experience for young readers in her thought-provoking and fun book Look! Body Language in Art (Frances Lincoln, $16.95, ages 7-10). Using reproductions of 17 artworks, Wolfe asks kids to look at how artists use the placement of hands or a facial expression to portray emotions or send hints to viewers. Some of the body language is explicit; in the twin paintings "Going and Coming," for example, Norman Rockwell clearly portrays a family's emotions before and after a weekend outing. In other artworks, however, viewers must think a bit to understand the artist's implicit message, which may be shown with an outstretched leg or languid pose. Wolfe extends her lessons with suggested activities, including creating a comic strip and crafting a collage.

Kids who want more in-depth information about some of the world's art masterpieces will enjoy Cave Paintings to Picasso (Chronicle, $22.95, ages 8-up). Author Henry Sayre discusses the history behind a diverse group of 50 artworks that range from the burial container for the organs of King Tutankhamen to Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." Each masterpiece is allotted a two-page spread that includes a reproduction of the artwork as well as Sayre's comments on its history, the artist who created it and its meaning. Sayre, an art history professor at Oregon State University, has a knack for condensing lots of information into a few, clearly written paragraphs, making this an appealing book for browsing.

For Sports Fans

Many kids idolize sports stars, but athletes aren't always the best role models. In the series of picture-book autobiographies published by Positively for Kids, however, top professional players underline the importance of character traits such as honesty and hard work as they tell how they have achieved success in sports. Co-written with Greg Brown, the books immediately capture readers' interest with their bold graphic design, fast-paced texts and abundant photographs showing the athletes as children and young adults.

In each book, the athlete-author emphasizes a particular piece of advice, encapsulated in the title: Vince Carter: Choose Your Course; Brad Johnson: Play With Passion; Sue Bird: Be Yourself; Eric Gagne: Break Barriers; Tony Gonzalez: Catch and Connect. The players share stories of their childhood dreams and fears while explaining how they developed the skills that brought them fame. Aimed at ages 7-12, the books cost $15.95 each and conclude with a couple of pages of sports statistics, an index and related Web sites.

Young Environmentalists

"Sustainable development" is an unwieldy term unlikely to seize the attention of young readers, but it's a rare kid who won't be awed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand's stunning aerial photographs in The Future of the Earth (Abrams, $16.95, ages 8-up), which relies on his images to introduce the subject.

Authors Robert Burleigh, Philippe Dubois and Valerie Guidoux describe how overdevelopment of the Earth's resources has contributed to major environmental and economic problems. In lively prose, the authors make a strong case for a new approach that will "balance the needs of modern life with the treatment that our planet can handle."

News of the Weird

O.K., so it's not great literature. But Ripley's Believe It or Not Special Edition 2005 (Scholastic, $14.95) is a surefire winner with young readers, who will be both repelled and captivated by this picture-filled volume celebrating the weird and the wondrous. Written by Mary Packard, the book readily lives up to its claim to contain "hundreds of outrageous new oddities" including "Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy" and a cat that eats with utensils. •

Karen MacPherson writes a weekly children's book review column for Scripps Howard News Service and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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