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How Our Bodies Work

By Abby McGanney Nolan
Sunday, November 2, 2008

THE WAY WE WORK Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body By David Macaulay with Richard Walker | Houghton Mifflin, $35; ages 10 and up

After grappling with the biggest and most complicated structures man has made -- cathedrals, mosques, pyramids, dams, bridges, skyscrapers and more -- it is fitting that David Macaulay has now turned to the building blocks of life and a feat of engineering that man did not create. Macaulay wants his readers to understand and appreciate the human body's inner workings. As he puts it in his introduction, "why wait for trouble to stimulate curiosity?" Macaulay begins with the cell and ends with the imminent birth of a baby, along the way exploring the body's various systems and their interdependence.

The appeal of Macaulay's books is not limited to 10-year-olds, of course, and the daunting amount of information here (explaining such phenomena as actin filaments and antibody attacks) is balanced by his playful and ingenious pencil-and-watercolor illustrations. These pictures offer great detail and helpful analogies. One page, for instance, likens the liver to an industrial manufacturing plant, with the gallbladder drawn as a water tower. After journeying through the amazing world he's created here -- complete with a well-run factory town (the endocrine system) and amusement-park rides that make their way through several systems -- one can forgive Macaulay even for bad puns like "Pumping Ions."

THE HUMAN BODY By Seymour Simon | Smithsonian/Collins, $19.99; ages 5-9

Featuring such wonders as a full-page cross section of human skin (looking a little like a kitchen sponge that's outlived its usefulness), Seymour Simon's explanation of our bodily systems is another compelling marriage of images and facts. The sleek design includes a number of tinted electron microscope images that seem so otherworldly that they demand careful study. (One may wonder, though, why they need to be colored and why captions aren't on the pages; all image information is at the back of the book.) Like Macaulay's sturdy book, this slim one starts with the cell and covers the systems cooperating so nicely within the body. Though far less detailed, it provides clear and concise explanations as well as plainspoken analogies (bone joints are coated with a thick fluid "like the oil on a door hinge") for those not ready for actin filaments.

YOUR SKIN HOLDS YOU IN A Book About Your Skin By Becky Baines | National Geographic, $14.95; ages 5-8

This body book does not go deep (it's about skin, after all), but Becky Baines's introductory lesson gets the terms and attitude just right for the younger set. The cheerful stock photos are mostly of kids (an adult male exhibits facial hair and freckles, an adult female shows how pregnancy stretches your skin), and the book's lively design features bright, chalk-like markings on the photos, quick captions and useful facts. The book offers up concepts in an appealing way ("A scab is like a Band-Aid made of blood!") and ends with some unanswered questions, like "Why are there lines in the skin on your hands?," that

PHENOMENA Secrets of the Senses By Donna M. Jackson | Little Brown, $16.99; ages 9-12

With her opening description of a rare illness that cuts off communication between brain and body, Donna Jackson seems to be writing "The Way We Don't Work," but her goal is to explore how our senses affect our perceptions. She touches on everything from intuition (or what Malcolm Gladwell calls "rapid cognition") and stereotyping to earworms and musical hallucinations. In a section on coincidence, she conveys the paradox involved: "They seem to be the source of our greatest irrationalities -- seeing causal connections when science tells us they aren't there." Great scientific discoveries (such as Halley's comet and the source of cholera epidemics) came about because people noticed coincidences, but coincidences combined with faulty reasoning can lead to wacky conspiracy theories. With these topics and others, such as the human ability to compensate for the lack of one sense or another, Jackson succinctly debunks myths and directs interested readers to further information and investigation.

Abby McGanney Nolan regularly reviews children's books for Book World.

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