THE SECRET LIFE OF A SNOWFLAKE: An Up-Close Look at the Art and Science of Snowflakes, by Kenneth Libbrecht. Voyageur Press, 48 pp., $17. All ages.
Here is how Kenneth Libbrecht, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, describes his work in the fantastic new children's book, "The Secret Life of a Snowflake": "I look at snowflakes under a microscope and take pictures of what I see." Libbrecht's photographs, revealing the stunning architecture of ice crystals set off by careful lighting, are so spectacular that at first you just leaf through the book, staring at the illustrations. Once the initial amazement wears off and you settle in, Libbrecht's text unfolds the ideas that allow readers to enter the world of crystal formation, whether their tools are the lab bench or preschool paper and scissors. (Among other things, Libbrecht explains "the right way to make a paper snowflake.") How rare it is to find a scientist who can translate his passions for a young audience. There are so many fascinating questions about snowflakes: Why do they look white when they're actually as colorless as water? How do they form? What gives them their intricate shapes? Are they always symmetrical? Can you grow a snowflake? And the traditional conundrum: Why are no two alike?
SIT-IN: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Little, Brown, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 6 and up.
On Feb. 1, 1960, four friends took seats at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. They knew they would be refused service because they were black and a sign over the counter read "Whites Only." In "Sit-In," Andrea Davis Pinkney tells the story of this key protest in the fight for integration. Brian Pinkney's illustrations show the contained dignity of polite, well-dressed students just sitting, day after day, waiting to order - "a doughnut and coffee, with cream on the side" - but also the uncontained joy of seeing a good idea take hold and grow. As students in many other Southern towns begin to stage their own sit-ins, the lunch counter on the page grows longer, the original four protesters joined by many others. It sweeps in a vast curve, the picture blurring the definition between people as the line of protesters sitting shoulder to shoulder trails off into a future where everyone will sit together at one long lunch counter.
MY GARDEN by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow Press, 40 pp., $17.99. Ages 3-6.
A garden is hard work, but so many glorious things can come out of it. Kevin Henkes, beloved creator of such classic children's book characters as Lily (she of the purple plastic purse) and Julius (baby of the world), understands kids - what they worry about, what they dream about. A day helping out in the garden leads a little girl to think about her ideal garden. "The flowers could change color just by my thinking about it. . . . And if you picked a flower, another would grow right back in its place." In her garden, the rabbits - the ones she has to chase away from her mother's lettuce - "would be chocolate and I would eat them." She could plant all kinds of things, like seashells and jelly beans, to get more of them, and sometimes, "unusual things would just pop up" - but never carrots, "because I don't like carrots." Henkes' cozy illustrations evoke those precious, lazy toddler days when the whole wide world can be explored in a small patch of dirt.
THE HUMBLEBEE HUNTER, Inspired by the Life and Experiments of Charles Darwin and His Children, by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Jen Corace. Disney/Hyperion, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4-8.
Deborah Hopkinson imagines how Charles Darwin's habit of picking up stray objects on his walks and making a study of them would have given his children the pleasure of participating in their father's work. Darwin's daughter, Henrietta - Etty, for short - is supposed to be helping in the kitchen when she is distracted by her father's movements outside. She can see he has an absorbing question on his mind. Finally - delightfully - he summons her: "Etty, bring the flour shaker." He has conceived of an experiment and needs the children's help: "I am wondering just how many flowers a humblebee might visit in a minute." Sprinkling flour on a bee allows the observer to follow its movements, and so the work begins. Even the youngest, who can't count very well yet, gets a job: He keeps the dog occupied and out of the way in this charming tableau of domestic happiness combined with scientific inquiry.