Literary flags have been flying at half-mast for Else Holmelund Minarik, who died July 12. The Danish-born author's "Little Bear," the debut book in Harper & Brothers' innovative "I Can Read" series, marked a great turning point in the children's book world. It was 1957 -- the same year that Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat" launched Random House's Beginner Books series. Authors and editors were suddenly trying to engage beginning readers with stories that had more drama and flair than the "Dick and Jane" primers pressed on them at school.
The editor who bought Minarik's manuscript for Harper's, Ursula Nordstrom, remembered that a librarian friend had told her that she was in great need of something to give the children who rushed in, saying, "I can read, I can read! Where are the books for me?"
That was what Nordstrom was looking for when Minarik, then a first-grade teacher in Commack, "came in with a terribly ugly all blue crayoned dummy containing what is now Chapter One in 'Little Bear.' " Her story of Little Bear's request for something warm to wear in the snow, and Mother Bear's cozy ability to know just what her Little Bear needs, captivated the editor. Nordstrom helped shape the book into several short stories, a format that has become a standard in books for early readers, and gave the text to one of her favorite young illustrators, Maurice Sendak. The rest, as they say, is history. Sendak died earlier this year as well, making 2012 truly the end of an era in publishing.
Summer nights are the time to cultivate an interest in the stars, and two fantastic new illustrated books offer fertile soil for budding astronomers. Bonnie Christensen's "I, Galileo" (Knopf, $16.99, ages 4-8) is a fictional autobiography of the man Albert Einstein called "the father of modern science." Although Copernicus had theorized that the earth was not the still center of the universe, it wasn't until Galileo developed the telescope at the beginning of the 17th century that anyone could offer proof.
Told in Galileo's own voice, the story describes the great iconoclast's genius for observing and drawing unbiased conclusions, which were too radical for society to take in all at once: "Aristotle, the famous ancient Greek philosopher, claimed a heavy object would fall faster than a light object. I disagreed. To prove my point, I dropped two cannonballs of different weights from the leaning tower. . . . But the public was not convinced." It might be hard to believe that noticing how shadows move and how falling objects behave could land a person in jail, but Christensen's drawings and diagrams effectively show how world-altering -- and threatening -- Galileo's observations were. An additional, unscientific pleasure of the book is that the author, who worked as an artist in residence in Venice, suffuses her illustrations with the magically luminous colors of Italy.
Why are people so intent on exploring Mars? "The Mighty Mars Rovers" by Elizabeth Rusch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18.99, ages 9-12) offers this answer: "We care because we wonder: Did the miracle of life happen only once, here on Earth? Or is life something that can happen anytime the conditions are right?" Almost 10 years ago, a team of scientists sent two adorable robots to investigate whether the surface features shown in photographs of the red planet could possibly have been formed by water, an essential ingredient in life as we understand it.
Readers will become attached to the spunky robots as much as the scientists do, rooting for them to overcome obstacles and worrying for their safety. Rover driver Scott Maxwell describes the thrill that is drawing students into the emerging field of robotics: "I . . . reach my hand across a hundred million miles of empty space and move something on the surface of another world. I have the coolest job."
Diana Renn's fast-paced mystery, "Tokyo Heist" (Viking, $16.99, ages 12 up), would be a good choice to squeeze in before settling down to the required back-to-school reading. Sixteen-year-old Violet has a passion for manga -- a Japanese graphic novel -- and is thrilled when her disengaged artist father is forced to take her with him on a business trip to Japan. It's not all fun and games in Tokyo's ultrahip fashion district, though, as Japanese gangsters seem to be closing in on Violet's father and a set of missing van Goghs.