Here are three picture books that will get kids thinking about real life like they never did before.
Dream Something Big: The Story of the Watts Towers by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Susan L. Roth, Dial, $17.99, ages 5-8, 40 pages. 2011. An Italian immigrant puts Watts, California, on the map when he builds 17 towers of art in this magical true tale of what one person can accomplish. Narrated by a neighbor girl, the story tells of reclusive sculptor Sam (Simon) Rodia, who in 1921 began erecting a monument to the country that gave him freedom and inspired him to dream. It took Rodia ("Uncle Sam" to neighbors, though few ever knew him) 34 years to build these "candy-covered castles" on a modest triangular lot in Watts, a working-class neighborhood in South L.A. All 17 were was crafted by hand -- without drawings, plans or a single nail, bolt or ladder -- and mostly at night after work. Among them: six-story-high towers, fountains, flowers, birdbaths and a ship honoring Marco Polo. Rodia used rebar and wire mesh to build the structures, then attached a rainbow of tiles, pottery, sea shells and glass with cement. He'd chip the objects into triangles, believing them to be the strongest shapes. When done, Rodia inscribed the towers with his name and the words, "a village for the world," then abruptly left Watts, leaving a deed to the property to a neighbor. In a neighborhood known for one of the most severe riots in L.A. history, Watts Towers is a beacon of community, not to mention a historic landmark and now, a place kids can travel to without leaving their library. Roth's soft, textural collages richly suit the subject; at times photographs of the real towers seem indistinguishable from her art (a masterpiece of cloth, paper, photographed plates and shells, and string). Stunning to look at and lyrically told, this ode to a dreamer is sure to be a Caldecott contender.
The Mysteries of Angkor Watt: Exploring Cambodia's Ancient Temple (Traveling Photographer), written and photographed by Richard Sobol, Candlewick, $17.99, ages 4-8, 48 pages, 2011. In this captivating travel book, a photographer follows his dream to visit the mysterious ruins of Angkor Watt and returns with an enchanting secret whispered in his ear. While on a trip to Cambodia in 2007, Sobol meets local children who offer to share their special place at the temple. They call it, the "doo nee soo," and they tell Sobol that few people know about, even though many walk past it. Over the next few weeks, Sobol climbs, crawls and meanders through the temple, waiting for a chance to meet up with the children. Then on his final day, he spots them and they lead him through a narrow passage, past tree roots like giant tentacles to an entrance he already knew well. It is one he passed through countless of times during his stay. Yet he never noticed anything unusual there. Why are they stopping here? That's when one of the girls pulls out a toy stegosaurus from her pocket and holds it up to a carving. There, carved into a wall is a dinosaur-like creature. How could the temple's sculptors know how to draw a dinosaur? Did they find a fossil? Is the relief an interpretation of a reptile? Or is it a coincidence sprung from their imagination? As Sobol notes in his book, no one may ever know, just as they may never solve the temple's other mysteries. Among them, Angkor Wat was built more than four hundred years ago by a powerful empire that vanished with no explanation. In addition, it was built at a time when tools didn't exist to move huge rocks. Scholars surmise it would have taken thousands of people to move the slabs to build the temple and place them so precisely: the layout of the temple is designed around the sun's movement so that every shadow seems accounted for. This is a geography lesson at its best. Sobol's photographs are spectacular -- his descriptions, enchanting. Don't be surprised if readers ask for a passport after reading this one.
Big Wig: A Little History of Hair, by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Peter Malone, Arthur A. Levine, $18.99, ages 9-12, 48 pages, 2011. No one can charm kids into reading about history like Krull and her latest gem, a picture book about the history of hair, is about as fun as a history book can get. Sure, you might say, "Hair. Who needs to learn the history of hair?" Well, in learning about hair, readers learn about cultures from long ago. Almost more anthropological, this playful, informative book reveals how hair styles became an extension of the prevailing values, beliefs and political climates of the times. For instance, in 1644 China's Manchu government ordered men to shave the tops of their heads and grow a long pigtail in back to prove their loyalty. And in 1785, women of the French court were so decadent they teased their hair over a wire form and adorned the inside with miniature furniture or like a birdcage. Along the way, readers meet historic figures, including a balding Aristotle and Julius Caesar and the fated Joan of Arc after she chopped off her long hair but still had her head. Krull's quippy words and Malone's hilarious paintings are sure to have your readers marveling at how times -- and hair styles -- have changed. Among the funniest entries: a spread about prehistoric hair dos. In the beginning of mankind, Krull writes, "everyone is furry" and people make friends by "picking the bugs out of another guy's fur." Off to the side readers see a painting of three ape-like fellows sitting under salon hair driers in the savanna, sipping tea, as the Statue of Liberty slips below the horizon as it did in the famous ending to the 1968 movie, "Planet of the Apes." For more great books by Krull, check out her series, Giants of Science, Boy on Fairfield Street (a picture book biography of Dr. Seuss) and her wonderful new book, Jim Henson, The Guy Who Played with Puppets.