Nonfiction Picture Books
Parthenon, by Lynn Curlee (Atheneum, $17.95; ages 10-14). Come the Olympics, children will get to see plenty of what Lynn Curlee rightly describes as "one of the greatest sights in the world -- the lofty, barren, windswept rock encircled by massive ramparts, the flat terraces of its summit encrusted with the weathered stones of ancient shrines": the 2,500-year-old temple to Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis, above Athens. For the curious, this demanding but rewarding introduction to the Parthenon by the author of Brooklyn Bridge, Liberty and Capital is just the thing. Curlee is equally at home with exalted scene-setting, dramatic storytelling and explications of such technical mysteries as the Orders of Architecture. Wielding words like "metopes" and "entablature," he makes the weathered stones live. Helping him in this are his fondness for intriguing asides ("Amazingly, there are almost no straight lines in the Parthenon") and his luminous acrylic illustrations, done in the sun-shot colors of the Aegean.
American Poetry, edited by John Hollander, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (Sterling, $14.95; ages 8-12). Bookstores abound in anthologies for young readers, but this is a particularly nice one, showcasing poems that editor John Hollander (himself a poet) points out are "quite different from each other" and yet all "about the United States of America" -- e pluribus unum in verse. The 25 beautifully illustrated selections range from stalwarts ("I Hear America Singing," "Casey at the Bat," "The New Colossus") to poems that light up obscurer aspects of the land and/or the language: May Swenson's wonderful "A Navajo Blanket," Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar," ("I placed a jar in Tennessee . . . "), T.S. Eliot's "Virginia," Vachel Lindsay's "The Rockets That Reached Saturn" ("Stripes and stars, riding red cars . . . ").
My one quibble: I wish Hollander had included more of Stephen Vincent Benet's "American Names" -- barring only the verse with the racially offensive line. A child deserves the proper buildup to that hair-raisingly moving last stanza, renouncing the names and ghosts of old Europe: "I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse./ I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea./ You may bury my body in Sussex grass,/ You may bury my tongue at Champmedy/ I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass./ Bury my heart at Wounded Knee."
A Subway for New York, by David Weitzman (Crown, $16.95; ages 8-up). Weitzman is a whiz at picture books about modern mechanical or engineering marvels -- the Model T, Old Ironsides -- but here he tackles a much bigger feat. Begun in 1900, the subway system that would grow into the world's largest was completed in just four years -- over the carping of those who scoffed, "New York people will never go into a hole in the ground." Weitzman's passion is for facts, figures, maps and diagrams, but he makes a kind of poetry out of the first two ("Yellow-pine ties were spaced out on a cushion of crushed rock"; "Ordinary steel rails in the Boston subway lasted only sixty days") and art out of the second two. Kids inclined to this kind of thing -- or their dads and moms -- will pore over the map of the original line, running north-south under Broadway, and Weitzman's extraordinarily detailed pen-and-ink drawings of everything from a cross-section of a tunnel under construction to the entrance kiosk at Astor Place, built to look like an antique Persian summerhouse.
Dotty Inventions and Some Real Ones Too, by Roger McGough, illustrated by Holly Swain (Frances Lincoln, $15.95; ages 4-8). This witty, wacky and informative picture book will appeal to kids who like ideas and words. Professor Dotty Dabble plans to enter her entire collection of inventions in a national competition. After all, she brags to her robot helper, Digby, hadn't she thought up every modern convenience from a chocolate cup and voice-activated socks to parachutes and Frisbees? En route to the science museum, skeptical Digby sorts truth from fantasy, offering funny thumbnail sketches of the real inventors behind such items as ballpoint pens and Velcro. Young readers may trip over a few Britishisms (Biro, budgies, peckish) but they should appreciate McGough's bracing refusal to preach to them even as he teaches: "It's not the winning that's important," advises Digby, "but the oodle, ardle, oodle." Kingsley Amis couldn't have put it better.
-- Elizabeth Ward