Wondrous Tales -- All True

Reviewed by Karen MacPherson
Sunday, December 9, 2007

When children's book author/illustrator Peter Sis takes his family back to his Czechoslovakian homeland, "it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies," he writes in his new picture-book autobiography. So Sis decided to write The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (Farrar Straus Giroux, $18; ages 7-14) to convey what it was like to come of age in communist Czechoslovakia four decades ago, when children informed on their parents, political indoctrination was compulsory and culture was censored.

Artistic from an early age, Sis didn't notice at first the closed world in which he lived. As he grew older, however, he chafed at the endless restrictions, especially on what he was allowed to draw. Then came the Prague Spring of 1968 when the government of Alexander Dubcek attempted to loosen communist restrictions. Sis poignantly notes that "everything seemed possible" until Russian tanks appeared, signaling a brutal crackdown. But the brief taste of freedom was intoxicating to Sis, who eventually defected to the United States.

Part memoir, part history and part graphic novel, The Wall makes irresistible reading. Sis, one of the few children's authors to win a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship, combines a well-paced text, detailed line drawings, family photographs and snippets from his childhood journals and early artwork to produce a book that offers young readers a personalized glimpse into history.

At one point in The Wall, Sis writes in his journal, "We all want to be the Beatles." Author Bob Spitz explores why the Beatles struck such a worldwide chord in Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles, Beatlemania, and the Music That Changed the World (Little Brown, $18.99; ages 12 and up). In this revised version of his 2005 book for adults, The Beatles, Spitz takes young readers back to the group's beginnings in Liverpool, when John Lennon still lived with his Aunt Mimi and Paul McCartney had to ask his father's permission to trade his trumpet for his first guitar.

Spitz knows how to tell a tale, and even those familiar with the Beatles' story will find themselves swept up in the chronicle of how the four met and developed their unique musical style. Numerous black-and-white photographs add further interest. One quibble: While Spitz includes an extensive discography and selected bibliography at the end of this book, the copious source notes in the adult version are, unfortunately, jettisoned -- a poor example for young readers learning how to cite their research.

Kids will find plenty of source notes at the back of A Horse in the House (Candlewick, $17.99; ages 5-10). Gail Ablow, a journalist, wanted to ensure she had at least two sources for each of the "strange but true" animal stories included in this enjoyable picture book. Otherwise, who would believe that a Norwegian farmer often dons a rubber pig mask to chat with his pigs or that a Belgian ambulance driver was able to revive a fish with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? Then there's the horse that lives in his own apartment in Mumbai, India, thanks to some extremely indulgent owners. Bright, whimsical illustrations by Kathy Osborn expand the humor in this book, which is sure to be a crowd pleaser.

Pair it with Living Color (Houghton Mifflin, $17; ages 8-10), in which author/illustrator Steve Jenkins blends his trademark collage illustrations with snappy facts illuminating how animals' colors help them survive.

An endangered Sumatran rhinoceros named Emi stars in Emi and the Rhino Scientist (Houghton Mifflin, $18; ages 8-14), an engaging new volume in the critically acclaimed "Scientists in the Field" series. Author Mary Kay Carson and photographer Tom Uhlman take readers into the world of Terri Roth, director of the Cincinnati Zoo's Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife. Roth spent years trying to figure out how to help Emi carry a pregnancy to term; eventually, she took a chance by giving Emi the same hormone supplements she doled out to her pet horses. The gamble paid off, and Emi has since given birth to two healthy offspring.

Science takes center stage in Cool Stuff 2.0 and How It Works (DK, $24.99; ages 10 and up). In this photo-filled book, kids get an inside look at a toilet whose high-tech water nozzle and air drying system eliminate the need for toilet paper, a bed that relies on magnetism to float in the air, and the "vomit comet" used by NASA to accustom astronauts to the nausea-inducing effects of weightlessness. Authors Chris Woodford and Jon Woodcock give each topic a two-page spread filled with short bursts of facts. Some of the items in this snazzily covered book, like the "petcam," are frivolous; others -- such as the LifeStraw, a device that filters impure water as a person sucks it in -- offer hope for developing countries.

Young readers fascinated by space will love Planets, Stars, and Galaxies (National Geographic, $24.95; ages 10 and up). This volume by David A. Aguilar readily lives up to its subtitle: "A Visual Encyclopedia of Our Universe." It features information about everything from UFOs to Pluto's new status as a dwarf planet. Aguilar's clear text, as well as numerous illustrations, photos and fact boxes, make outer space fun for young readers.

And a few more great nonfiction books for kids:

In Face To Face With Dolphins, photographer/author Flip Nicklin and his wife, Linda, recount their adventures photographing these playful mammals. A companion volume is Face To Face With Polar Bears, by author/photographer Norbert Rosing with co-author Elizabeth Carney. (National Geographic, $16.95 each, ages 7-10).

Author Lauren Thompson and photographer James Estrin relate how five girls with muscular disabilities realize their desire to dance in the inspiring Ballerina Dreams (Feiwel and Friends, $16.95; ages 5-8).

Warriors (Atheneum, $21.99; ages 7-10), written by James Harpur, uses fold-out pages, pop-ups and a lively layout to give readers the basics about some of history's greatest fighters.

Karen MacPherson, who writes a weekly children's book review column for Scripps Howard News Service, is the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library.

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