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Middle-of-the-School-Year Blues

Lee Littlewood on

With holiday breaks and the middle-of-the-school-year blahs, it's time for some exciting children's books to keep learning fun. This group is vivid, cool and, in one case, a proactive way to help the oceans.

"Curious Constructions" by Michael Hearst; illustrated by Matt Johnstone; Chronicle Books; 102 pages; $19.99.

Engineering, construction and building are all fields of interest for many kids and great career choices as they get older. This detail-filled "Uncommon Compendium" is "A peculiar portfolio of fifty fascinating structures," from the Eiffel Tower, to the St. Louis Gateway Arch, to many more incredible, but not-so well-known constructions. There's a giant mechanical fire-breathing octopus sculpture, a secret swimming pool in the Mohave Desert and a Costa Rican community of treehouses. For kids whose imaginations run wild, Michael Hearst conjures up the kind of skateboard ramp needed to jump the Great Wall of China and wonders about the previously unknown bodies of the Easter Island head statues.

Coolly penned with backgrounds, graphics, delving questions, quizzes and "Did you know?" sections, "Curious Constructions" certainly has a wow factor. I even learned something: that 15 minutes from my home is the world's largest skateboard ramp, in a backyard.

"Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush" by Peter Lourie; illustrations by Wendell Minor; Henry Holt and Co.; 192 pages; $18.99.

Writer Jack London lived a very adventurous life in the Klondike, which led to his "The Call of the Wild" and "The White Fang." This gripping photo-filled tale, aimed at readers ages 8 to 14, follows the young London in 1897 as he treks up the Chilkoot Trail, braves Whitehorse Rapids, and survives scurvy and many other dangers in this quest to find gold. Wendell Minor's dramatic black-and-white illustrations mesh well with real photographs, maps, sidebars and poems to highlight Peter Lourie's clearly written, captivating tale. Kids will thrill along with London's 500-mile journey that provided him the means to create his unforgettable works of literature, and perhaps inspire them to read his works.

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"Want to Know. The Romans" by Suzan Boshouwers; illustrated by Veronica Nahmias; Clavis Publishing; 32 pages; $16.95.

Young children ages 5 and up will enjoy learning about the Romans in a clear, fun, understandable manner. The bright picture book begins when a boy and his little sister dig a hole hoping to find a Roman relic underground. Suddenly, their world becomes Roman and Theo turns into Titus, who lives in the Low Countries in the Roman Empire. Titus then explains what Roman soldiers look like, how they lived, what their very busy markets were like, how they bathe, what their temples looked like and how they celebrated.

Clear, age-appropriate illustrations have an appealing cartoon-like look. And as a bonus, there's an overview of objects from archeological digs, a foldout landscape with details and labels, and a brief telling of the story of Romulus and Remus.

With lots to look at it and read about and learn, "Want to Know. The Romans" is just one book in this historical series for youngsters.


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