BOOKS: Heroism, rats and inspirations


By Stephanie Zvirin

Here's a handful of outstanding new nonfiction titles that may even attract a few steadfast fiction fans.

THE HERO'S TRAIL: A GUIDE FOR A HEROIC LIFE, by T. A. Barron, Philomel, $14.99; ages 10-15. "A hero does something truly important regardless of whether anyone ever notices." That thought is at the heart of this book in which Barron introduces some real heroes. They are from all walks of life, individuals whose stories uplift our spirits and who can serve as "trail guides on our journeys through life." Famous names are here: Anne Frank, Stephen Hawking, Helen Keller. But there are also many regular folks who acted with exceptional courage, "protecting, inventing, saving, nurturing." Some withstood prejudice; others defied the odds to achieve a great good or stepped forward in defense of someone in need. Famous or not, their stories are inspiring; heroes remind us that we all matter. As Barron puts it, we can "leave a footprint on the trail. And by doing that, change the trail for all who may come after."

JACK: THE EARLY YEARS OF JOHN F. KENNEDY, by Ilene Cooper, Dutton, $22.99; ages 10-15. The 35th president of the United States didn't have it easy, according to this new biography. His childhood was particularly rocky, filled with adversity and pressure, ill health, an intense rivalry with his older brother, Joe Jr., mixed messages from his family, anti-Catholic prejudice and problems at school. Providing a sure sense of the times in which Kennedy lived, Cooper zeroes in on those difficult growing-up years. On nearly every page, there's a photo of Jack with his father, with his brothers and sisters, with his high-school buddies, in bed recuperating from an illness. Each photo serves to further humanize an historical figure who lives on as larger than life. Many kids read biography for pleasure; this is one they shouldn't miss.

LIFE ON EARTH: THE STORY OF EVOLUTION, by Steve Jenkins, Houghton, $16; ages 9-11. It's difficult for children to imagine a world without computers, let alone without life itself, but Jenkins uses a brief text and attractive paper-cut art to make the idea easier to grasp. In clear, simple terms, he relates the theory of how life began and how it has continued to change over millions of years. The art does much of the work; pictures of plants and animals help explain the concepts as well as draw the eye. The best spread uses a time-line ribbon of a 24-hour day to represent the history of evolution: "At 4:47 a.m. animal life appears." How easy is that for kids to grasp?

RATS! THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, by Richard Conniff, Crown, $15.95; ages 9-12. Rats. Are they really as creepy as we have come to think? Yes and no, writes Conniff in this photo-essay about a ubiquitous mammal that has eaten its way through 50 million years of evolutionary history. It's the animal's incredible resilience that gives most people the willies: Rats can scale brick walls, fall 50 feet and land on their feet, negotiate a sewer to pop up in a toilet, walk across a high wire like an acrobat and run mazes humans find difficult to figure out. What's more, rats are always near humans, whether they live on a farm or in the city. In India, they are worshipped; in Laos, they're served for dinner. Sometimes they are kept as pets; sometimes they give their lives to science. Conniff's facts are fascinating, so are the photos. Kids will never look at these small, buck-toothed rodents in quite the same way again; neither will their parents.

BURY THE DEAD: TOMBS, CORPSES, MUMMIES, SKELETONS & RITUALS, by Christopher Sloan, National Geographic, $18.95; ages 12-up. Sloan searched the archives of National Geographic magazine for the extraordinary photos he used here, some of which are definitely not for the squeamish. There's plenty of solid information to go along with them. However, there are more than enough to attract the legion of readers interested in mummies and ancient burial customs. There are pictures of mummies, of course, but there also are photos of the clay soldiers guarding the tomb of one of China's most vicious emperors; a photo of the black, leathery remains of a European man preserved for thousands of years in a European peat bog; a mass grave discovered in the Sudan desert; skeletal remains of soldiers and common people alike. Some readers will just browse, but most will read on to find out what burial customs reveal about people who lived in the past. There's plenty here to answer their questions.

Stephanie Zvirin is the Books for Youth Editor at Booklist magazine, the flagship review journal of the American Library Association. She lives in Glen Ellyn with her family.


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