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From nature to nuture, children's offerings shine in May

| Sunday, May 3, 2009

With the lazy days of summer just a month away, we pause to take note of a strong selection of nonfiction -- a trip to New York, a nature study of birds and a pair of biographies -- with a lyrical appreciation of Henry David Thoreau thrown in for good measure.

"A Walk in New York City," story and illustrations by Salvatore Rubbino; Candlewick Press, $16.99, 40 pages, ages 4 to 8.

A daytrip to New York is a tall order for anyone, let alone a youngster and his dad visiting the Big Apple for the first time, but artist-illustrator Salvatore Rubbino -- a London native making his picture book debut with this effort -- nicely captures the sense of wonder so many others feel when they arrive in America's largest city. There's a lot to pack into a single day -- the subways, the Brooklyn Bridge, the grandeur of Lady Liberty, the bustle of Broadway and Times Square, East Side, West Side, all around the town -- and they do it all, in style, with a light, colorful touch that includes a towering foldout of the Empire State Building.

"Even an Ostrich Needs a Nest: Where Birds Begin," text and illustrations by Irene Kelly; Holiday House, $16.95, 32 pages, ages 4 to 8.

This nicely researched and invitingly illustrated nature book probes the ways our feathered friends go about making their habitats and raising their young. Birds, we quickly learn, are resourceful creatures. Grass and twigs, of course, are basic materials, but so too are bottle caps, paper clips, yarn, and scraps of newspaper. Bald eagles build very simple nests of layered sticks, while the male masked weaver and the female Baltimore oriole create hanging cubicles. Atlantic puffins seek out little caverns such as abandoned rabbit holes, and the wandering albatross builds a mound of mud and grass. Irene Kelly offers many pieces of information, profiling forty birds in all, and includes a locator map for further study.

"Henry's Night," text by D.B. Johnson and Linda Michelin, illustrations by D. B. Johnson; Houghton Mifflin, $16, 32 pages, ages 3 to 7.

A deep appreciation of Henry David Thoreau inspired D.B. Johnson and his wife, Linda Michelin, to create a series of picture books based on "Walden." In this, his fifth adventure, Henry, a domesticated bear, seeks out the bird no one ever sees -- the whippoorwill -- and does so by the light of fireflies he collects in a jar. It is a lyrical journey, richly rewarded by unfolding revelations. As morning approaches, Henry returns home. "I lie in bed and wait for the noise of the morning train. Instead comes a call -- Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will -- the song of night. The notes flow from my jar and fill the day with the night bird's song. I sleep."

"The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau," text and illustrations by Dan Yaccarino; Knopf, $16.99, 40 pages, ages 4 to 8.

Dan Yaccarino's earlier efforts -- including the animated television series "Oswald" -- have tended toward pure fantasy. Here, he introduces young readers to Jacques Cousteau (1910-97), using his trademark blend of rich colors and lively illustrations to chronicle the accomplishments of the legendary French underwater explorer whose many inventions included the aqualung, waterproof cameras and the diving saucer. Along with a concise overview of Cousteau's life are apt quotations, none more pertinent than his concise statement of purpose. "We protect what we love," he said of his inspirational efforts to save the oceans for future generations. "I am a believer in today -- and tomorrow."

"Alfred Nobel: The Man Behind the Peace Prize," text by Kathy-Jo Wargin, illustrations by Zachary Pullen; Sleeping Bear Press, $17.95, 32 pages, ages 6 to 10.

Fearful that his most lasting legacy would be that he had been the creator of dynamite, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel (1833-96) was determined to foster world peace and understanding through the establishment of international awards to people in a variety of fields "who have rendered the greatest services to humankind," as Kath-Jo Wargin relates in this new biography. To underwrite what became known as the Nobel Prizes, Nobel decreed that his entire estate be committed to the purpose. And for more than a hundred years, his name has been perpetuated by these highly coveted awards. A list of all the Peace Prize recipients is appended to the text.

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