Hooray for American history

Kids stories about the United States in fact and fiction

Although publishers could never have imagined the tragic events that spurred the patriotism sweeping America, they have conveniently packed a lot of US lore into their new releases.

Picture Books

What was it like to take part in the Boston Tea Party? Readers of Joining the Boston Tea Party (HarperCollins, $15.95) will find out. Award-winning author Diane Stanley adds a second installment to her Time-Traveling Twins series. Here, redheads Lenny and Liz visit their grandmother in anticipation of going back to 18th-century Boston (with the aid of a magic hat). Their adventure involves historic figures, old-fashioned clothes, and yester-year customs. Illustrator Holly Berry adds whimsy to the story with bright, cartoon-style illustrations. (Last year's "Roughing It on the Oregon Trail" is equally engaging.)

American literature is rich in tall tales - those greatly exaggerated stories of larger-than-life characters and heroic deeds. If these appeal to you, add Davy Crockett Saves the World (HarperCollins, $16.95), by Rosalyn Schanzer, to your reading list. Schanzer pairs Crockett with a cosmic visit from Halley's comet. In this original tale, the comet threatens to destroy the world, and the US president asks Crockett for assistance. After a meal of "pickled rattlesnake brains fried by lightening," his super-human strength helps to prevent the disaster. He also wins "purty" Sally Sugartree's heart. Bright, Disney-like illustrations give this frontier tale a modern look.

Books for Older Readers

The Pleasant Company has provided an ideal series for dark winter nights: History Mysteries. This line was introduced in 1999 and voted "favorite new series" by children's booksellers in a Publishers Weekly survey. The series introduces strong female characters that solve exciting mysteries at significant points in America's history.

One of this season's new additions is Mystery on Skull Island ($5.95 paperback), which takes place in 1724 in Charles Town, S.C. Twelve-year-old Rachel has come to live with her widowed father, and she and her new best friend, Sally, daughter of a tavern owner, wind up in an adventure involving shipping fortunes, pirates, and hidden treasure.

Shane (Houghton Mifflin, $22), by Jack Schaefer, has been on some schools' required reading lists for decades. Written in the 1940s, it's about the West in the late 1880s. Shane, a mysterious stranger, rides into a Wyoming valley where a wealthy open-range cattleman is bullying the homesteaders. After Shane settles in with the Starrett family to help them with farming, he ends up fighting the menacing rancher. There's plenty of violence - gunfights and fistfights - but there's also a strong message of good prevailing over evil and standing up for what's right, even at tremendous personal cost.

This volume, part of the Illustrated American Classics series, has new art by award-winning painter Wendell Minor. The pictures are visual images of an era long gone. After half a century, Schaefer's writing remains strong, clear, and moving - a good reminder of why a classic is just that.

Informational Books

Trivia lovers and history buffs will enjoy a new addition to Kenneth C. Davis's "Don't Know Much About..." series. Here, in Don't Know Much About the 50 States (HarperCollins, $15.95), the focus is on giving lots of interesting facts and answering serious and not-so-serious questions about each state. For example, what could you do with 425 Rhode Islands? (Answer: Fit them inside Alaska!) The book can be read straight or browsed through at random. It provides information about each state's flower, bird, capitol, year of statehood, and more. The introduction explains the symbolism of our flag to youngsters: why there are 50 stars and why there are 13 red and white stripes. Cartoon illustrations by Renée Andriani add humor and appeal to each page.

Today, when women are an integral part of the armed forces, it might seem hard to imagine that females in the 1940s were not expected - nor even allowed - to fly for the military. For two brief years, during World War II, that changed, and Yankee Doodle Gals (National Geographic, $21), by Amy Nathan, chronicles the development of the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Although women were not allowed into combat, more that 1,000 brave female pilots delivered new planes, tested repaired aircraft, and helped train US soldiers by providing flying targets for them to shoot at! The WASPs made an important contribution to the war effort, and helped open the door for the current involvement of women in the military.

Karen Carden reviews children's books for the Monitor.

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