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Quirky Looks, from Stars to Atoms

It is comforting to start the new year realizing that humankind’s progress — in each generation, the domain of the great minds of the times — ultimately turns into kids’ literature that amuses, educates and inspires.

The smart and nimble writer Bill Bryson, an American who started out describing his meanderings around his adopted country of England, ventured further afield when he let his mind wander onto A Short History of Nearly Everything. That intellectually curious book would be considered long except for the field it is trying to cover.

Adapting it to kids in A Really Short History of Nearly Everything (Delacorte, $19.99, ages 9-12), Bryson adds a lot of illustrations but is equally comprehensive in studying the universe, from the stars to atoms and many of the wonders and oddities in between.

Focusing on the people who made the discoveries, he unveils the quirks that run through the history of science. He does so because, although it is science, it comes from people who, Bryson emphasizes, have their own oddities.

Take, for instance, the “crazed-looking” Russian scientist Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev, who combined atomic weight and common properties to create the periodic table. This huge breakthrough in chemistry was “inspired by the card game known as solitaire in North America and patience elsewhere.”

Bryson has a good eye for the oddball facts and events that make his subjects comprehensible, intriguing or entertaining. They’re also memorable and valuable for dinnertime conversation, impressing teachers and taking a step toward comprehending the universe.

The 20th Century for Tweens & Teens

Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster’s The Century has morphed into three paperbacks called The Century For Young People (Delacorte, $12.99 each, ages 10 & up). Each takes on roughly a third of the 20th century with a combination of overview and first-hand accounts that give the times their flavor, their emotional essence and their personal effects on the people who lived them.

Not shying away from heavy subjects such as the suffering inflicted on victims of the Nazis in Germany, the books make the 20th century a saga of tumult and vast change that takes many stories to achieve any perspective and overview.

The Little Beginnings of Big Things

Wilson Casey’s Firsts: Origins of Everyday Things That Changed the World (Alpha, $12.95, ages 9 & up) brings attention to things so easy to take for granted, like the first bus routes that started in 1662 in Paris or the first game show, on radio in 1924, or the first tube of toothpaste in 1892.

Many of these firsts seem to have been started too early, others too late and we wonder how we ever did without them. This reconfiguration of sophisticated thoughts for kids should be viewed as a compliment to the intellect of the target audience.

Frank Lipsius is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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