Making history

If the working portcullis on the cover doesn't convince you, the gorgeous pop - up castle, cathedral and medieval bridge will: A Knight's City by Philip Steele is one nifty book of knights. Guided by Sir Hugo, readers ages six and up are privy to the sights, smells, sounds and sensibilities of Northern Europe in the year 1325. Labeled color illustrations, illuminated manuscripts and photographs of contemporary tools, games, weapons and wares complete the "you are there" depiction of a journey to knighthood.

Fast-forward to the Dakota grasslands during the 1870s for The Story of Yellow Leaf: Journal of a Sioux Girl by Gavin Mortimer, illustrated by Tony Morris. The date is no accident: Yellow Leaf's intimate account of her ordinary life coincides with the extraordinary disruption of Sioux tradition by white prospectors, settlers and soldiers. Presented as an illustrated journal, the story flows around detailed watercolors, pop - ups and flaps showing scenes of Sioux home life, ceremony, hunting and eventual war. For readers eight years and up, this is an appealing introduction to an important chapter in American history.

For more chapters of American history, try yet another personal journal: America: The Making of a Nation. Imaginatively presented as the scrapbook of an anonymous, patriotic history freak (and a veteran, to boot), the book takes readers of any age through a tour of America from Independence Hall in 1776 to the present day. Maps, illustrations, facsimile souvenirs, song lyrics and memorabilia practically spill off of every page, and countless flaps, pull-outs, inserts and other paper tricks just keep coming. A must for any kid studying American history in school, or for any history-minded household.

Anatomy lessons

Two body books in one gift roundup? Yes, because this reviewer could not be induced to ignore either one. The first, The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Human Body is by David Macaulay. This in itself is reason enough to run out and buy it. Macaulay is a master of bringing intricate structures to vivid life, and he is no less suited to expose the human body than the buildings and machines he is famous for. Peppy, brilliant and oh-so-fun, Macaulay's latest ensures that kids (and grown-ups) finally stand a darn good chance of understanding this stuff for real.

Dr. Frankenstein's Human Body Book: The Monstrous Truth About How Your Body Works by Richard Walker is just as informative, but worlds apart in presentation. The Dr. Frankenstein connection compels even a reluctant learner to peep inside various body parts, but once there, classic DK style takes over: attractive, busy, organized and clear as a bell.

Visual treats

Now, really, can anyone get excited about a new dictionary? Yes, if it's Merriam-Webster's Compact Visual Dictionary. The key word here is "visual." Many dictionaries have the odd illustration here or there, but in this one, every single word gets a glorious color illustration bristling with captions and details. The thematic arrangement is practical for specific queries, but it also makes browsing fun: Universe and Earth, Sports and Games, Animal Kingdom, and so on. Any book with in - depth info on wildly disparate entries like the greenhouse effect, locking pliers, a kumquat, a mitochondrion and a deep fat fryer is supremely satisfying.

The Food Network's reigning queen whips up Paula Deen's My First Cookbook for the very young. Though sprinkled with Deen family lore and photos, this is a solid beginner's cookbook full of kid - friendly recipes and treats. The artwork is particularly cute, and goes a long way toward making each recipe look fun and doable. Each ingredient is illustrated, so even non - readers can see at a glance what to collect. The list of Good Manners is a priceless addition, and just what you'd expect from an icon of Southern hospitality.

Classics retold

Anthologies of children's stories are typically good bets for gifts, and The Kingfisher Book of Classic Animal Stories is a fine example for kids ages six through 10. Selected with care by children's author Sally Grindley, the stories are an inventive mix of favorite classics. Aesop's Fables and Just So Stories make an appearance, as do self - contained excerpts from Farmer Boy, The Wind in the Willows, Born Free, The Cricket in Times Square and more. To round out the treat, each of the 16 stories is paired with new illustrations from a different contemporary artist.

Fifteen years in the making, The Bill Martin Jr. Big Book of Poetry was worth the wait. Each of these 200 poems was hand - picked by much - loved and much - missed children's author Bill Martin Jr., who hoped to share his love for words and poetry with children of all ages. Mother Goose, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Christina Rossetti and Jack Prelutsky are just a few of the selected authors in this dream of a collection. Plus, many of the artists Martin loved best have contributed all - new artwork, which makes this anthology a visual and verbal delight.

If your kids already know these nursery stories by heart, or, heaven forbid, think they're too old for nursery stories at all, whip out There's a Wolf at the Door: Five Classic Tales by Zo

The best best friends

Writer James Marshall gave us a lifetime of characters who will never stop being funny, dear and spectacularly spot - on. The Stupids, the Cut - Ups, Eugene, Fox, Portly McSwine and Space Case are just a few from his more than 75 books, and don't forget his hysterical renderings of fairy tales like The Three Little Pigs and Hansel and Gretel. To rank them in order of wit and wonder would be an impossible task. However, too much can never be made of the particularly perfect duo of George and Martha. Marshall, who died in 1992, wrote and illustrated seven George and Martha books - 35 stories altogether - and all are collected in George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends. The adventures of the two hippos range from mild to outrageous, but always involve some kind of insight into the ups and downs and sideways of real friendship. The stories are super short - indeed, that is part of their charm - and always leave readers and listeners wanting more. The best reviews come from the little experts who sit on laps and hear these stories for the first or 500th time. George and Martha are, quite simply, tons of fun.

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