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Books can lead kids into natural world


It's lurking just around the corner, ready to arrive with a blast of air as suffocating as bus exhaust.



If you've already spent your vacation, or have no money to spend on vacation, retreat from the heat with a visit to the woods. Nearby parks and nature centers give families a chance to explore some cool stuff, and the following books can inspire kids and adults alike.

* A new "Life Cycles" series published by HarperFestival offers "Butterfly: My First Wildlife Book" and "Frog: My First Wildlife Book," both written by Keith Faulkner and illustrated by Jonathan Lambert ($4.95, ages 3-7).

These small (6 inches by 6 inches) hardbacks have eight pages of bright illustrations and simple text -- one sentence per page -- explaining the stages of growth from egghood to adulthood. Then turn the last page and a beautiful, three-dimensional butterfly, or frog, pops out.

I don't think you get a lot for your money, but I think most pop-ups are overpriced anyway, considering they're usually torn beyond recognition in the time it takes a caterpillar to turn into a butterfly -- about 25 days.

* A better buy is "Backyard Birds" by Jonathan Pine, illustrated by Julie Zickefoose, a HarperCollins Nature Study Book ($7.95 paperback, ages 7-10). Mr. Pine writes about six birds that can be found in most urban, suburban and rural settings: house sparrow, starling, robin, house wren, hummingbird and nighthawk.

Each gets a chapter in this 48-page book. Along with pertinent information about the birds' markings, mating habits, nests, diet and song, Mr. Pine relays his sense of fascination and fun.

"A starling's song is a long, rambling mixture of musical chirps, whistles, and raspy wrong-sounding notes," he writes. "It also mimics songs and calls of other birds. It's like someone switching from station to station on bird radio."

The other title in this new series is also worth checking out: "Tide Pools" by Ronald Rood, illustrated by Martin Classen. Each is available in hardcover for $12.

* Jim Arnosky has introduced countless children to nature through his series of Crinkleroot books, and his latest is another winner: "Crinkleroot's Guide to Knowing the Birds" (Bradbury Press, $14.95, ages 4-10.

Crinkleroot lives in a log cabin deep in the woods. With his gentle manner and long, white beard, he could be Santa Claus' cousin. His first-person approach makes it an easy read-aloud, and Mr. Arnosky's detailed watercolors are packed with facts. A highlight is his album of baby bird pictures, with their bugged-out eyes and oversized, gaping beaks.

* An easy-reader paperback that mixes fiction with a heaping dose of nature facts is "Wolfie" by Janet Chenery, illustrated by Marc Simont (Dell, $2.75, ages 4-8).

Two friends, Harry and George, catch a spider they call Wolfie because they looked him up in a book and found out that he's a wolf spider. When Wolfie won't eat the flies they catch for him, the boys ask Miss Rose at the nature center for advice.

She tells them how to set up a big box with a screen for a cover, and gives them a lesson in spider lifestyle and anatomy. %J Meanwhile, Harry's little sister, Polly, keeps asking to see Wolfie. Harry says she can see him only after she catches 100 flies. Throughout the story, Polly is hunting down flies and capturing them in a glass jar for Wolfie. In the end, she gets the last laugh.

The illustrations by Mr. Simont, a Caldecott Award winner, are a real plus. One of the boys is white and the other is black -- such a friendship was rarely portrayed when the book was originally published, in 1969.

* If you know a child who has already announced plans to become a naturalist, botanist or biologist, one book to get is "Nature by Design," by Bruce Brooks (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $13.95, ages 10 and up). Mr. Brooks is an acclaimed novelist -- his work includes "Everywhere," "No Kidding" and Newbery Honor Book "The Moves Make the Man" -- and he brings a lively, descriptive style to his nonfiction writing.

"Spiders set a standard of athleticism in the animal world that Monica Seles and Michael Jordan together couldn't beat," he writes. "The spider has eight legs that bend like our fingers, with strong joints between segments and feet equipped with combs and hairs that allow the spider to do more than perch on her legs like a table. She can grip, saw, snip and curry her silk."

"Nature by Design" starts with Mr. Brooks recalling his fascination with a wasp nest when he was about 5. He goes on to explore other incredible engineering feats, such as a nautilus shell, an anthill and a beaver dam. The 74-page book is filled with full-color photographs, many from the National Audubon Society Collection.

The final chapter, "Are Animals Smart?", provokes questions about instinct and how it differs from the genius of, say, Frank Lloyd Wright. Mr. Brooks leaves readers to draw their own conclusions, but he doesn't leave any doubt about his respect for the awe-inspiring creations of nature.

This "Knowing Nature" series includes "Predator," in which Mr. Brooks teaches about the food chain with an immediacy that keeps readers on edge. Some of the photos are incredible: an emerald tree boa coiled around an upside-down opossum, an owl squeezing life out of a lizard in its talon, a bullfrog with a ribbon snake sticking out of its mouth like an elongated tongue. Nine-year-old boys won't be able to put it down.

If the first two books are a hit with your nature buff, keep an eye out for "Making Sense: Animal Perception and Communication" by Mr. Brooks, to be released in October by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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