For children. Get-up-and-go books for summer's dog days
AS the initial enthusiasm of summer vacation ebbs into August daydreaming, it helps to have some get-up-and-go books on hand. Books that stimulate thought, that raise intriguing questions, that provide the kinds of practical suggestions youngsters may need to get started on a new project or two. The big outdoors begs to be explored this time of year, and a number of recent titles encourage readers to take a closer look at the soil beneath their feet and the sky above. These books also confirm the steadily improving quality of nonfiction writing for children. This year, in fact, a nonfiction work was recognized for literary merit as a Newbery honor book: Volcano: the Eruption and Healing of Mount St. Helens, by Patricia Lauber (Bradbury, New York, $14.95, 64 pages, ages 8 to 11).Skip to next paragraph
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The best of the new science books continues that tradition of excellence. In A Shovelful of Earth (Henry Holt & Co., New York, $12.95, 114 pages, ages 10 to 14), husband-and-wife authors Lorus J. Milne and Margery Milne offer a fascinating glimpse of the little-known world of soil-dwellers. With shovel in hand, these renowned naturalists go digging in North American forests and grasslands, tropical rain forests, and Arctic permafrost. They turn up bucketfuls of creatures and plants, from blind crayfish and burrowing owls to acrobatic moles and pixie-cup lichens that take a century or more to rise an inch above their rock base. Almost every page offers a few new facts. There are majestic viewpoints as well (``On any grassland, you can see in all directions, and feel taller than anywhere else in the world''), plus some adventurous asides (``As you climb any tall mountain ... you can pretend you are heading for the North Pole''), and a number of reminders of the fragility of nature (``You must respect the shallow soil high on a mountain'').
The authors' tone is welcoming, and illustrator Margaret La Farge builds on that approach with lovely pen-and-ink drawings of critters and their habitats.
How to Think Like a Scientist, by Stephen P. Kramer, illustrated by Felicia Bond (Crowell, New York, $11.50, 44 pages, ages 8 to 12), is a short but sweet investigation of how questions are answered using the ``scientific method.'' The author sets up one story after another to involve his readers and get them thinking logically.
He explains basic concepts like ``control groups'' in a low-key way and maintains a realistic tone (``Sometimes it is hard to decide what the results of an experiment mean''). It's a satisfying primer on the subject, with cartoony line drawings that add to the enjoyment.
It's Raining Cats and Dogs, by Franklyn M. Branley, illustrated by True Kelley (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, $12.95, 112 pages, ages 8 to 12), is another successful blend of interesting text and appealing artwork. Author Branley, who is astronomer emeritus and former chairman of the American Museum's Hayden Planetarium, takes on ``all kinds of weather and why we have it.''
He has a lifetime of anecdotes to draw on and a keen sense of the kinds of facts that spark inquisitive young minds. There's some history sprinkled about - record-breaking hailstorms, blizzards, and the like - but mostly this is a book that encourages budding scientists to figure things out for themselves (``... don't take our word for it'').
Branley proposes simple experiments to test the size and shape of raindrops, to make clouds, to measure wind speed. Some of the examples he uses are a bit macabre (a parachutist who froze over with ice and fell seven miles to his death, and a Park Ranger who's afraid of lightning), but overall it's a well-balanced approach to the oddities of the weather that surrounds us.