From backyard gardens to tropical rain forests, storybooks plant seeds of nature awareness

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In honor of the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, here are some children's books that celebrate the beauty and power of nature.

* "Bay Shore Park: The Death and Life of an Amusement Park," by Victoria Crenson, illustrated by Bryn Barnard (Scientific American Books for Young Readers, $16.95, 40 pages, ages 7 and up). Ms. Crenson, a Baltimore native, takes readers on a time-lapsed tour of the amusement park site next to Fort Howard, across from Sparrows Point.

From 1906 until it closed in 1947, Bay Shore Park attracted crowds of people who took the trolley from Baltimore to go swimming, ride the Thingamajig roller coaster and take a spin on the world's largest carousel, at the foot of Crystal Pier.

Then Bethlehem Steel bought the land with plans to expand its plant, and the park was torn down. Only the trolley station, the fountain and a generator station remained. Deserted by people, it was reclaimed by nature.

Ms. Crenson traces "a lacy carpet of Bermuda grass" as it fills cracks in the concrete walkway in the spring of 1948. Two years later, milkweed beckons Monarch butterflies to the foot of Crystal Pier. By 1962, wild cherry and mulberry trees shade the carousel site.

Ms. Crenson, who has written several children's books on natural history, first visited the park a few winters ago. Seeing the remains of the amusement area was "a little like finding a palace in the jungle," she said.

Mr. Barnard's delicate paintings enhance the descriptive text and Ms. Crenson's eye for detail. At the end, we learn that the park site has been bought as public land -- it's now North Point State Park -- and that workers have ripped out vines, rebuilt the roof of the trolley station and repaired walkways. Readers are left with the hope that Bay Shore Park's restoration will include preservation of its wild side, too.

* "Into the Deep Forest with Henry David Thoreau" by Jim Murphy, illustrated by Kate Kiesler (Clarion, $14.95, 40 pages, ages 7-11) is a reverential introduction to the world of America's most influential naturalist.

Using excerpts from Thoreau's journal entries and an article he wrote about a trip through the Maine wilderness in 1857, Mr. Murphy takes readers with Thoreau, his friend Edward Hoar and their Native American guide, Joe Polis, on a journey to the top of Maine's Mount Ktaadn (now spelled Katahdin).

It is a lovely narrative, complemented by quiet oil paintings, plus pencil sketches drawn in the margins, as if in a journal.

* "Squish! A Wetland Walk" by Nancy Luenn, illustrated by Ronald Himler (Atheneum, $14.95, 32 pages, ages 3-8) follows a young boy and his grandfather as they explore the wonders of a marsh, watching herons and garter snakes, beavers and water striders. Mr. Himler's watercolor washes -- some in misty grays and blues, others in bright spring greens -- offer close-ups of mice and broad expanses of tidal plains.

* Another ode to nature is "To Climb a Waterfall" by Jean Craighead George, illustrated by Thomas Locker (Philomel, $16.95, 32 pages, ages 4 and up. Ms. George, who won the Newbery Medal for "Julie of the Wolves," hiked Kaaterskill Falls in the Hudson River Valley many times as inspiration for this book.

She invites readers to climb with her, hunting for a two-lined salamander, grabbing hemlock roots and scrambling over rocks all the way to the top. Mr. Locker, who also collaborated with Ms. George on "The First Thanksgiving," captures the breath-taking panoramas in oil paintings that stretch across double spreads.

* "What About Ladybugs?" by Celia Godkin (Sierra Club Books for Children, $14.95, 40 pages, ages 7 and up) is a cautionary tale about the dangers of pesticides. Trying to get rid of aphids, those tiny green bugs that suck the life out of plants, a gardener sprays his vegetables and fruit trees with insecticide.

It can't kill off the aphids, but the poison does send the ladybugs packing. The aphids come back with a vengeance, weakening plants, attracting ants and disrupting the balance of the garden. Finally a friend recommends that the gardener order a supply of ladybugs. As soon as they're out of the box, the ladybugs feast on the aphids, the plants recover and organic gardening scores another victory.

* "Nature in Your Backyard: Simple Activities for Children" by Susan S. Lang, with the staff of the Cayuga (N.Y.) Nature Center, illustrated by Sharon Lane Holm (Millbrook Press, $6.95, 48 pages, ages 6-12) is full of easy-to-follow projects and experiments.

They range from making your own worm composter to learning about chlorophyll by putting a garbage can lid on a patch of grass for two weeks and then taking it off to find a circle of yellow turf, because plants need sunlight to make chlorophyll, which makes them green.

* "The Remarkable Rainforest: An Active-Learning Book for Kids" by Toni Albert, illustrated and designed by Ada Hanlon (Trickle Creek Books, $10.95, ages 8-14) is packed with games, puzzles, experiments, craft projects and recipes. Ms. Albert traveled through the tropical rain forests of Costa Rica to do research for the book, which is a must-have for any teacher planning Earth Day activities related to the rain forest.

To order, call Trickle Creek Books (717) 766-2638.

Of local note:

* It's not too late to register for Baltimore's Celebration of Children's Literature, next Saturday at the Siney Theater of the Roland Park Country School. Speakers will be authors Anita Lobel, Helen V. Griffith and Judith Caseley, and Susan Hirschman, publisher and editor of Greenwillow Books. The program runs from 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and includes an opportunity to buy books and have the authors sign them. The $50 fee includes lunch. To register, call Debbie Frye at (410) 987-7025 or (301) 621-0787.

* Author/illustrator David Wisniewski of Bowie will be one of the speakers at the 1995 Celebration of Children's Literature at the Rockville Campus of Montgomery College, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 24. Other speakers will be Michael Dirda of the Washington Post's Book World; Barbara Lalicki, director of children's book publishing for the National Geographic Society; and Anita Silvey, editor of the Horn Book magazine.

Three Baltimore authors will present seminars: Mary Downing Hawn, Lois Nicholson and Nancy Patz. Books will be for sale and available for autographing. Registration is $60 for Maryland residents, $84 for out-of-state registrants, and includes a box lunch. For more information, call (301) 251-7914.

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