Unputdownable Nonfiction

Secrets of the Sphinx, by James Cross Giblin, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (Scholastic, $17.95; ages 9-12). Giblin is one of our best juvenile nonfiction writers, the author of compulsively readable books on subjects ranging from the Rosetta Stone to Adolf Hitler. Ibatoulline, a Russian immigrant, is a chameleon of an artist whose style varies to match the place or period of the book he is illustrating; you can't easily pick a picture as his, except for that telltale sense of awe at its near-photographic precision. For Giblin's meticulous account of Egypt's 4,500-year-old Great Sphinx, Ibatoulline resorts to textures as soft as worn stone and a palette of desert colors: sand, glaring white and sunlit blue. Most memorable, though, is his panorama of the smog-smudged city of Cairo, its ragged edge now less than 200 yards from the Sphinx's paws.

Gargoyles, Girders and Glass Houses: Magnificent Master Builders, by Bo Zaunders, illustrated by Roxie Munro (Dutton, $17.99; ages 8-up). A real treat for a child who has taken a shine to building or who enjoys other books about design and construction, such as David Macaulay's. With a sprightly, anecdote-rich text and lively, detailed drawings, Zaunders and Munro introduce six architects and engineers -- and one architecture-loving family -- whose feats span five centuries: Filippo Brunelleschi, creator of the Santa Maria del Fiore dome in Florence; the great Turkish mosque builder Sinan; Brazil's "Little Cripple," Antonio Francisco Lisboa; the Roeblings, who made the Brooklyn Bridge happen; Gustave Eiffel, Paris's "Magician of Iron"; Antoni Gaudi of Barcelona ("the architect who didn't like straight lines"); and William van Alen, the wizard behind New York City's Chrysler Building, with its spire that suggests a radiator grille and gargoyles modeled on the 1929 Chrysler Plymouth's hood ornament.

In Your Face: The Facts About Your Features, by Donna M. Jackson (Viking, $17.99; ages 9-up). In this "tour de face," Jackson explores all angles of that one-of-a-kind part of us that everyone notices first. Starting with the matter-of-fact (the thinnest skin on our bodies covers our eyelids), she moves on to increasingly arcane and absorbing topics: how our faces alter as we grow; facial recognition technology; the musculature that lets us make up to 10,000 different expressions; prosopagnosia, which prevents its sufferers from recognizing faces; Moebius Syndrome, or the inability to smile; face painting, tooth-blackening, tattoos and makeup; and changing standards of facial beauty. In the 17th century, apparently, double chins were quite the thing. Color photos throughout.

Marie Curie: A Brilliant Life, by Elizabeth MacLeod (Kids Can, $14.95; ages 8-12). Biographies abound of the Polish woman who co-discovered radium, coined the word "radioactive," won two Nobel Prizes and was the mother and mother-in-law of two more Nobel Prize-winners. But this one is particularly accessible to younger readers. MacLeod, a Canadian editor and juvenile biographer, adopts an informal, almost gossipy style ("How did Marie make her incredible discoveries? What was she really like?") and has a eye for memorable personal details ("Rather than give her flowers or chocolates, Pierre courted Marie with an autographed copy of one of his physics papers.") Some elements jar -- notably, fatuous chapter headings like "Tragedy!" and "Tough Times" -- but the historic photographs, imaginative layout and apt use of quotations make up for it.

Once Upon a Poem, edited by Kevin Crossley-Holland (The Chicken House, $18.95; all ages). It may not be nonfiction, but since it's not exactly fiction either, this stirring anthology of "story-poems" earns a nod. British-born Crossley-Holland is a poet himself, as well as the author of an acclaimed Arthurian trilogy, and he has come up with a brilliant mix of old favorites (Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman," Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee"), lesser-known crowd-pleasers ("The Man From Snowy River"; Hilaire Belloc's "Jim Who Ran Away From His Nurse and Was Eaten by a Lion") and surprises, such as Roger McGough's pugnacious little meditation on what makes a good poem, which leads the pack: "I like a good poem/ one with lots of fighting/ in it. Blood, and the/ clanging of armour. Poems/ against Scotland are good,/ and poems that defeat/ the French with crossbows. . . . If I was a poem/ I'd play football and/ get picked for England." Beautifully illustrated by four British artists.

-- Elizabeth Ward

Actor Jim Carrey makes a face