Nonfiction for Children

By Karen MacPherson
Sunday, December 11, 2005

In ER Vets: Life In An Animal Emergency Room " (Houghton Mifflin, $17; ages 9-12), Donna M. Jackson offers a captivating behind-the-scenes look at the emergency unit of Colorado State University's veterinary teaching hospital.

Jackson introduces readers to the vets and technicians who staff the unit and provides case studies of animals whose lives they have saved, including "Paco the Taco," a tiny foal who nearly died at birth and now is a "healthy handful." There also are stories of animals who didn't survive, including Lucy, a snake who crawled behind a car's dashboard and suffered such severe hypothermia that the vets couldn't revive her.

In Jackson's capable hands, readers get an overview of the history of "vets and pets" and learn about "toxic treats" for animals. For example, chocolate, raisins and grapes can be fatal to dogs if eaten in large enough amounts. Jackson's discussion of how to deal with the death of a pet, as well as the color photos of sick and injured animals, may trouble some readers. But most will be filled with admiration for these skilled, dedicated docs.

Abandoned in Paris

Author/illustrator Isaac Millman also writes about those who have saved lives -- including his own -- in Hidden Child (FSG, $18; ages 9-12). In this picture-book memoir that also will interest grown-ups, Millman tells how courageous adults risked their lives to protect him, a Jewish child, in France during World War II.

Millman writes in a matter-of-fact style. But his story -- augmented with photos and double-page illustrations of his intense and often painful memories -- is steeped in tragedy. Just 7 years old when the Nazis invaded France, Millman saw his world slowly close as he and other Jewish children were forbidden to attend movies or even play in the park in their Parisian neighborhood.

He eventually found himself orphaned and abandoned on the streets. It was there, miraculously, that he met Hena Sztulman, the woman who saved his life. Sztulman, herself a Jew, found Millman a safe wartime haven in rural France, where he lived as a Christian child with a new name. After the war ended, he was adopted by an American couple and began a new life in the United States, eventually becoming an art director and children's book author/illustrator.

Millman's story is stirring, especially because he tells it through the eyes of his young self. Personalizing history this way helps ensure that young readers truly understand -- and remember -- the toll of the Holocaust, as well as those brave souls who fought against it.

In Country

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Caputo details the horrors of another war in 10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War (Atheneum, $22.95; ages 10-up). Featuring hundreds of photos, plus helpful maps and easy-to-digest fact boxes, Caputo's well-organized volume is an excellent introduction for both kids and adults.

Caputo, a Vietnam veteran, uses clear, authoritative prose to describe how the United States got involved in Vietnam, what it was like to fight there, and what motivated the anti-war protesters back home. He presents his information in one- or two-page chapters, each centered on a particular aspect of the war, from key battles to such topics as Agent Orange, the Viet Cong and the protest music inspired by the war.

Caputo is particularly good at selecting facts that will interest young readers. For example, he notes that the children of U.S. government advisers in Vietnam during the early 1960s were shuttled to school in a bus with two armed guards and windows covered with wire mesh to keep out Viet Cong grenades. It's a minor detail, but a memorable one.

Dangerous Lessons

In 1833, a white woman named Prudence Crandall fought a lonely battle against racism when she opened the first New England academy for young African American women in Canterbury, Conn. In her riveting book, The Forbidden Schoolhouse (Houghton Mifflin, $18, ages 9-12), Suzanne Jurmain highlights the huge odds faced by Crandall, a young single woman in a world run by men.

Crandall knew that operating a school for African American girls would mean certain ostracism and possible financial ruin. But she couldn't turn her back on anyone -- whatever her skin color -- who wanted an education. The outraged town elders attempted to close Crandall's school through political and legal means. Others responded more directly -- hurling eggs at the school's windows and refusing to sell Crandall food and other goods. Although Crandall won her case in court, a mob invasion of the school forced her to shut it down a year after it had opened.

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