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Abby McGanney Nolan reviews five new nonfiction books for kids

By Abby McGanney Nolan
Sunday, March 21, 2010; BW04

GODS AND HEROES

By Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart

Candlewick. $29.99, ages 5 and up

From initial startle to final analysis ("How did they do that?"), a well-made pop-up book is all about surprise; it's a further astonishment when the text is worth reading. Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart have dedicated "Gods and Heroes" to "all the educators who have supported our work over the years," and they have crafted concise and lively versions of many of the world's ancient myths and legends. But the ingenious paper structures that emerge from every spread and collapse back again are the big draw. First up -- literally -- is the Egyptian god Horus, whose falcon head extends over the top of the book and whose long human-like legs extend below. On the same spread, smaller and tucked away in corners, are no fewer than four other 3-D scenes, and this is a typical page in this exuberant book. In addition to the Egyptian pantheon, Sabuda and Reinhart pay tribute to such luminaries as the Greek gods, goddesses and heroes, Gilgamesh, the Norse "masters of battle" (including Odin with his flaming red beard and bright purple garment), the Polynesian volcano goddess Pele, China's Heavenly Grandfather, and the Aztec Empire's plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl. They all loomed large for centuries, and now they pop up in a big way.

HOW THE WORLD WORKS

By Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young

Templar. $17.99, ages 9-12

Although not as striking from a paper-engineering standpoint, the visual explanations in "How the World Works" are nevertheless wide-ranging and impressive, covering what truly governs our days: sunlight, fresh water, winds and other key components. Writer Christiane Dorion and illustrator Beverley Young start with the Big Bang (where else?) and end with the food chain that keeps us all going. In between are hands-on displays, such as a dial that reveals some of the thousands of objects that orbit around the earth, another dial that shows the history of the earth squeezed into 24 hours (always late to the party, humans show up 14 seconds before midnight), a flip book that follows Pangaea's dispersal into today's continents, and four pull-tabs that cleverly illustrate what happens when two continental plates come together or move apart. Double-page spreads about the weather, the movement of the sea and the carbon cycle make apparent the interconnectedness of the Earth's populations. Although the clear and informative text carries a pro-environment message, it stays clear of preachiness. The facts are what jump out at you.

FARM

By Elisha Cooper

Orchard. $17.99, ages 4-8

With "Farm," his latest picture book, writer-illustrator Elisha Cooper goes where the buffalo used to roam and shows the workings of a modern-day American institution. He uses watercolor and pencil for delicate landscapes as well as for smaller figures that have the intriguing quality of inkblots. Cooper's text is full of the day-to-day of farming, progressing from early spring to late fall, and features plenty of understated observations: "Sheets of water sweep the farm, hammering roofs and rattling windows. And then it is over. The corn bends in one direction as if to say The storm went that way." With 39 pages to work with, Cooper can take the time to figure out which way the wind is blowing.

MAMMOTHS AND MASTODONS: Titans of the Ice Age

By Cheryl Bardoe

Abrams. $18.95, ages 9-12

In "Mammoths and Mastodons," readers come face to face with the hulking, fascinating prehistoric cousins of the modern-day elephant. Cheryl Bardoe begins her narrative in 2007, when two Siberian boys discover Lyuba, a frozen baby woolly mammoth that lived 40,000 years ago. Lyuba and other recent scientific breakthroughs animate this accessible study, which is being published in conjunction with an exhibition organized by the Field Museum. Although the animals are long extinct, Bardoe makes clear their relevance, not least to the survival of today's African and Asian elephants, and offers up plenty of intriguing sidebars and illustrations. Readers will find out about the amazing capacities of trunks, the human-like behavior of mammoths (linking trunks in greeting, for example) and the unwise behavior of young male mammoths (a fair proportion of them have been found to be victims of slippery slopes). Mastodons and mammoths battled within their own species as they vied for mates, but many scientists now believe that humans did the most to kill off the Columbian mammoth, each of which ate up to 500 pounds of food a day. Perhaps only a certain number of ravenous species can share the earth at a time.

BLACK ELK'S VISION: A Lakota Story

By S.D. Nelson

Abrams. $19.95, ages 9-12

Black Elk lived from 1863 to 1950, long enough to see his people's land and freedom drastically diminished. His story was published in 1932 as "Black Elk Speaks," and S.D. Nelson faithfully draws on it and other sources for his illustrated account of the Lakota-Oglala native's life and times. Wonderfully designed to feature Nelson's engaging artwork as well as generously sized archival photos, "Black Elk's Vision" focuses on his early life, from the age of 4, when "the Wha-shi-choos" (European Americans) were just bogeymen his mother warned the children about, to forced settlement on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Told in first person, the book relates Black Elk's role at Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee as well as his tours with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, but its undercurrent isn't angry; it's based on Black Elk's visions, which focused on reconciliation with the earth and all its creatures. Nelson also makes space for Black Elk's fond memories from childhood, as when the village's clowns, or heyokas, would perform foolish antics and greatly amuse their fellow villagers.

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

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