Ever wonder what a furlong is? Did you know that a drop is actually a precise measure of liquid? Here's how Ken Robbins opens "For Good Measure" (Roaring Brook Press, $17.99, ages 4-10), his book on measurement: "Certain words and phrases that we use to describe things are just not very specific: 'lots,' 'scads,' 'many.' " It is characteristic of Robbins to include the playful word "scads" on this list; choices like this turn his informational book about the origins of units of measurement, and the terms used for them, into a delightful read. Robbins' beautiful tinted photographs have conveyed his ideas with great clarity in numerous nonfiction picture books for children. In "For Good Measure," pictures of the parts of the human body used for determining lengths - foot, inch, span, hand, cubit, yard, fathom - are only the first chapter of this visual treatise on "the ways we say how much, how far, how heavy, how big, how old."
Elisha Cooper specializes in nonfiction for very young readers. His books, which include "Beach" and (my favorite) "Ice Cream," consider topics on a level so detailed that they become philosophical exercises in finding the essence. Readers of "Farm" (Orchard Books/Scholastic, $17.99, ages 4-8) will understand the relationship between the ranch dog and the barnyard chickens (he "bounces" them when he is bored). In the exquisite watercolors, wispy clouds drift by on lazy days, dark thunderheads dwarf the capacious barns and immense machinery on stormy days.
This is not the cozy family farm common to children's books, nor a model farm for those in favor of organic farming. This is an industrial farm where to the north is alfalfa, which "smells like summer," to the south are cornfields, which "smell sort of buttery," and to the east is a cell-phone tower, "which doesn't smell of anything." Cattle poop, rabbits nibble in the garden and tractors spray fertilizer and pesticide. It's a whole world, the farm you drive by on road trips.
Choose your own adventure is a novelty format that I considered exhausted many years ago, after the first few books designed apparently to appeal to kids with ADHD. Then I saw Jason Shiga's "Meanwhile" (Amulet Books, $15.95, ages 8 and up), a cunningly designed graphic novel that leads the reader through a dense maze of panels, following lines of different colors and jumping page-to-distant-page through an ingenious tab system. The story, in its infinite variations, involves Jimmy, a geeky kid with blocky hair and lips, whose many possible adventures split at an ice-cream shop with the innocuous decision between chocolate and vanilla. I believe the book to contain complex ideas that mathematicians, physicists and other highly advanced types would find intriguing, but I must admit that I caught only glimpses of this, and perused it only on the level of a comic book, as many kids happily will.
David Hyde Costello's "I Can Help" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $12.99, ages 3-6) is the type of charming book preschoolers want to hear over and over because it offers both repetition and a sequential story. Duck is lost; "I can help," says the monkey. "Thank you, monkey!" Now monkey is in trouble. "I can help," says the giraffe. "Thank you, giraffe!" And on goes the tale, the jungle and veld cozy despite the many troubles the young animals manage to get into. The conclusion satisfies because it completes the circle. Each animal has offered a solution suited to its skills, and the words are easily memorized with their variations: perfect intellectual engagement on the preschool level.
The lines that everyone associates with the Statue of Liberty - "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free" - were not born with the statue. Those words were the inspiration of Emma Lazarus, a well-to-do New Yorker who became concerned with the plight of immigrants in the 19th century. The statue, a gift from France to the U.S., was originally intended as a symbol of the struggles for liberty that the two countries shared, but it became a much more powerful symbol once the bronze lady took on Emma Lazarus' voice. "Emma's Poem" (Houghton Mifflin, $16, ages 5-8), written by Linda Glaser and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola, is the story of the poet, how "The New Colossus" came to be inscribed in bronze at the entrance to Liberty's pedestal, and how mighty words can take on a life of their own.