In Under the Ice (Kids Can, $16.95; ages 8-12), author Kathy Conlan, a marine biologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, vividly describes her underwater research experiences in some of the coldest places on Earth: the Arctic and Antarctic. The many photographs, most taken by Conlan herself, add yet another layer of interest to this hard-to-put-down book.
Conlan's enthusiasm for her work infuses the text, even when she describes her less-than-glamorous assignment in Antarctica: to study how pollution -- including human waste -- affects life at the bottom of the ocean there. Conlan also is frank about the challenges of her work, especially her initial fear of descending through a six-foot ice hole into the Antarctic Ocean. Her description of the heart-stopping few moments when her equipment failed underwater is an unforgettable reminder that scientific research can be perilous work.
These Birds Are a Blast
Kids can check out a very different kind of science in Project UltraSwan (Houghton Mifflin, $16; ages 10-up). Written by Elinor Osborn, this fascinating book details the ongoing efforts to teach migration routes to trumpeter swans. The largest waterfowl in the world, trumpeter swans were nearly wiped out a century ago by the public demand for their meat, feathers and skins.
Fortunately, a few trumpeters survived in the western United States and Alaska. With legal protection, the birds' population gradually increased to an estimated 23,000 in 2000, and biologists have begun trying to re-introduce the swans to the eastern United States. But trumpeter swans, unlike most birds, learn migration routes from their parents, so scientists also must teach them how to migrate, using "ultralights," tiny planes that look like winged, three-wheeled go-carts.
Osborn's book, part of the critically acclaimed "Scientists in the Field" series, is dense with scientific information. But she works hard to keep the main focus on the people (and swans) involved in the project. Readers will find particular delight in Osborn's photographs showing the swans close up and then flying in formation with the scientists in their ultralights.
The High Life
Noted photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand also takes to the air in his quest to gain a new vantage point on the world. The result, as big as a coffee-table book, is Earth from Above for Young Readers (Abrams, $12.95; ages 8-up).
Its 34 remarkable aerial photos are certain to enthrall kids. Author Robert Burleigh has written brief texts to accompany them. Some photos are gems of color and composition, like the one in which a flock of scarlet ibis is silhouetted against a dusky delta in Venezuela. Other photos are triumphs of the trompe l'oeil form, requiring readers to make sense of shadowy camels in a Niger desert or a man lying in the midst of what looks like a giant cauliflower, but turns out to be hundreds of bales of cotton.
Father of Invention
Thomas Edison also created new ways to see the world, through inventions like the phonograph and first motion picture camera. Those devices were just two of the more than 1,000 inventions Edison patented during his 84 years. Yet, as author Marfe Ferguson Delano explains in Inventing the Future: A Photobiography of Thomas Alva Edison (National Geographic, $18.95; ages 8-12), Edison balked at being called a genius, contending that "sticking to it is the genius."
And stick to it Edison did, working day and night with a team of assistants at the New Jersey research laboratory he designed himself. This stubborn persistence, combined with Edison's natural genius, explains how he was able to overcome a lack of formal schooling. Even as a child growing up in Ohio and Michigan, he found science fascinating, especially chemistry and electricity, and he loved doing experiments. At the age of 12, he talked his parents into letting him work full-time aboard the Grand Trunk Railway, where he sold newspapers, magazines and candy, and surreptitiously conducted chemistry experiments in the baggage car until a chemistry spill sparked a fire.
But Edison had, as Delano puts it, an "irrepressible urge to experiment." When he was 22, he received his first patent, for an electric vote recorder. Tireless, he spent the next 60 years inventing one device after another and developing a national name for himself. Some of his inventions, like the light bulb, are famously familiar. Others, such as a "talking" doll and concrete furniture, are less well known.
Period photographs complement Delano's engrossing text, including a two-page photo spread showing Edison taking a catnap atop a lab table. This book offers a well-rounded portrait of a prolifically creative man whose motto was "the more to do, the more done."
A Jungle in There
There's plenty to do every day at the Bronx Zoo, as Edward R. Ricciuti recounts in his chatty, engaging book A Pelican Swallowed My Head and Other Zoo Stories (Simon & Schuster, $17; ages 8-12). Just caring for 4,000 animals keeps the Bronx Zoo's nearly 500 employees busy. But Ricciuti stresses that zoo workers must learn to "expect the unexpected" from their wild animal charges. Otherwise they might, as some of their colleagues did, find their head in a pelican's pouch or get slashed by the bill of an Andean condor aptly named Mrs. McNasty.
With its black-and-white photos and grainy paper, this isn't a flashy book. Readers also may be confused -- or annoyed -- by the bold-type phrases in the text, which are meant to be picture captions. But these are minor flaws in a book filled with memorable anecdotes about the zoo's residents, from Timmy, the silverback gorilla who finally finds gorilla friendship at the age of 33, to Mary, the naked mole-rat who requires an emergency cesarean to safely give birth to her pups.
Go Ahead and Jump
Author Veronica Chambers explores a different aspect of New York City in Double Dutch: A Celebration of Jump Rope, Rhyme, and Sisterhood (Hyperion, $18.99; ages 8-12). Chambers, a double Dutch devotee since childhood, opens this treasury of lore by telling readers that "I feel as if I came out of the womb with my sneakers laced up and ready to jump rope!"
As Chambers explains, recently renewed interest in the centuries-old sport can be traced to a Harlem police officer named David Walker, who created a double Dutch tournament in 1974 to build the confidence and athleticism of the young girls in his neighborhood. Since then, the sport has gained an international following, and today the double Dutch world championships are dominated by Japanese teams.
Lots of photographs and a lively design make Double Dutch fun to read. Particularly interesting are anecdotes of Chambers's double-Dutch childhood experiences, as well as her inspiring look at how one team currently trains for competitions.
Fun Begins at Home
The whole family will be inspired to get creative with FamilyFun Homemade Holidays (Disney, $14.95; ages 3-up -- with adult help). Edited by Deanna Cook and the staff at FamilyFun magazine, this book is packed with simple crafts, gifts, recipes and party ideas to celebrate the slew of holidays around this time of year, including Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year's and even Three Kings' Day.
A full index at the back of this photograph-filled book makes it a snap to find the right holiday craft or gift. Kids then gather their materials and follow the clearly written directions. Designed to appeal to kids, this book also offers ideas for creative family activities that can help slow down a traditionally frenetic season.
For kids and families who like word games, Palindromania! (Farrar Straus Giroux, $15.51; ages 8-up) is a guaranteed hit. Written and illustrated by Jon Agee, this clever stocking-stuffer-size book takes word play to new heights -- even the price is a palindrome. Agee, a genius at creating wacky palindromes (words that spell the same backward as forward, e.g. Mom), extends the humor through his comic-book-style illustrations. Kids will especially enjoy the silly humor of such palindromanic phrases as "As I pee sir, I see Pisa" and "Sit on a potato pan, Otis." *
Karen MacPherson writes a weekly children's book column for Scripps Howard News Service and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.