The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, by Phillip Hoose (Farrar Straus Giroux, $20; ages 12-up). Is wildlife conservation boring? Not necessarily. There is probably more passion, sadness, villainy, heroism and sheer suspense in this account of the decline of the ivory-billed woodpecker than in any other book, of any genre, destined for young readers' shelves this year. Two centuries ago, the enormous black, scarlet and white bird that John James Audubon dubbed the "Van Dyke" for its dramatic appearance was already scarce in the United States. (Hoose explains that the better-known nickname in the title echoes a common reaction: "Lord God, what a bird!") Now, it is presumed extinct outside Cuba, with no confirmed U.S. sighting since 1944, though teams still trek into what's left of Louisiana's swamps hoping to spot or record one. Hoose, a naturalist, chronicles its disappearance with full regard for the ironies (the earliest ornithologists, who revered the bird, were also among its most relentless hunters) and the lessons learned in the futile battle to save it (an appreciation of habitat, for instance). Lucidly written, packed with historic photos, this is a magnificent book, and not just for kids.

Picture Books

The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, by Jacqueline Davies, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin, $15; ages 5-9). Audubon, of course, was among those who contributed to the demise of the ivory-billed woodpecker. In the mid-19th century, no one tracked the fates of entire species, and the great bird painter had little compunction about working with stuffed and wired specimens. Yet Phillip Hoose quotes passages in which Audubon worried about over-hunting of the ivory-bill, and later the society that took his name led the battle to protect birds and their habitats. This delicately illustrated book shows the Haitian-born Audubon as an 18-year-old in Pennsylvania, already crazy about birds and clearly more interested in watching them in the wild than studying them in books. Thus, curious to see whether some pewee flycatchers nesting near his home were the same ones who had built the nest the year before, the teenager became the first person in North America to band a bird. Davies does full justice to this tale of intellectual precocity and single-mindedness.

Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein, by Don Brown (Houghton Mifflin, $16; ages 4-8). If Audubon was precocious, what was Einstein? A puzzle and a handful, apparently, at least in his less-than-auspicious early years. In Don Brown's whimsical telling, the groundbreaking physicist was a funny-looking baby, an ill-tempered, unsociable child and an indifferent student (his teachers wondered if he was dull-witted, and he once failed a college entrance exam). Albert had his own interests: He built fabulous card houses, was mesmerized by a compass needle, played Mozart on his violin and proved a mathematical prodigy. Eventually this "odd boy" blossomed into the greatest scientific thinker of the 20th century. Brown's humorous watercolors stand in nice counterpoint to the spare text, with its subtle message that genius finds its own, often subversive paths.

Mr. Maxwell's Mouse, by Frank Asch, illustrated by Devin Asch (Kids Can Press, $15.95; ages 4-8). Speaking of geniuses, how about this tale of a mouse who played with a cat and lived to gloat about it? Always playful (Happy Birthday, Moon; Monsieur Saguette and His Baguette), Frank Asch has a lot of fun with the one-sided battle of wits that ensues when Mr. Maxwell, a sleek feline businessman, celebrates a recent promotion by ordering raw mouse instead of baked at the tony Paw and Claw. Turns out that his quick-thinking entree has one too many tricks up its sleeve. Devin Asch sets the scene in a rainy, brooding, 19th-century-European-looking city and a restaurant that is all heavy, dark furniture, string trios, starched napkins and chandeliers. It's not just one fat cat but the entire self-satisfied bourgeoisie that gets its comeuppance here.

-- Elizabeth Ward