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Farm voices, fish, and a river of grass

Look Who's Talking! On the Farm: A Flap-Your-Lips Book
Written by Danny Tepper
Illustrated by Valeria Petrone
Random House, 8 pp., ages 1-5, $7.99

About Fish: A Guide for Children
Written by Cathryn Sill
Illustrated by John Sill
Peachtree, 40 pp., paperback, ages 3-13, $7.95

Everglades Forever: Restoring America's Great Wetland
By Trish Marx
Lee & Low, 40 pp., ages 8-12, $17.95

The opening of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas exploration has yet to come before the Senate, but majorities in both chambers this year have already voiced support of Arctic drilling. Now more than ever it seems vital to teach our children to love and understand the natural world of which they -- if no longer we -- still feel an intimate part.

''Look Who's Talking! On the Farm" is as clever and happy an introduction to the world of farm animals as one might devise. Babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers will delight in lifting the book's flaps and ''flapping their lips," as each full-color page unfolds to what seems giant size, encouraging them to imitate the sounds of rooster, horse, cow, sheep, and pig in turn. Each page features a die-cut hole for the animal's mouth -- a simple enough device, but wonderfully effective in making the noise making seem more alive. The book's pages are sturdier than average, so some publishing genius must have noticed that little readers tear the life out of most lift-the-flap books. They won't on this one.

Author Danny Tepper's rhymes are jolly, if predictable: ''There's a cow./Chew, chew, chew./ Cows make milk --/That's what they do./When cows see grass, they" -- well, you can probably guess what sound cows make. The thing here, really, is the overall design of the book and its slapdash, gleeful, elemental illustrations by Valeria Petrone, each cartoony animal painted with surprisingly human expressions, especially around the eyes. ''Look Who's Talking! On the Farm" encourages lively, full-fledged interaction.

Children's-book publishers have been pushing the envelope on nonfiction books for the very young, breaking old rules and creating a rich new approach to real-life material. ''About Fish: A Guide for Children" has the meticulous, botanical-art-style watercolors one associates with the great wildlife artists. Such artistic sophistication is generally reserved for adults, while children get only cartoons. (Some cartoons are nice, too -- see above.)

How lovely, then, to combine Cathryn Sill's crystal-clear prose -- no more than one line to a page -- with her husband's exquisitely detailed paintings. One doesn't need a word more, and Ms. Sill chooses well. I learned, for instance, that ''most fish eat meat" and that ''fish keep growing as long as they live." (Would this were true of humans, too!)

A bonus of this book is the afterword, in which Ms. Sill expands on her distilled text, detailing which fish are featured in each watercolor plate and adding information. She offers an explanation of how gills and fins work, why fish feel slippery, and where the female lined seahorse lays her eggs (in the male's pouch -- how sensible!). Thanks to the soft bright beauty of Mr. Sill's paintings and this afterword, ''About Fish" is a guide that can carry a child from pre-school to high school. If that's not stretching the uses of children's nonfiction, I don't know what is. The ''About" series also includes ''About Birds," ''About Mammals," ''About Reptiles," ''About Amphibians," ''About Insects," ''About Arachnids," and ''About Mollusks" -- any house, classroom, or library with half these titles is well on its way toward housing a comprehensive nature library.

''The Everglades is a wide, shallow, slow-moving river that spreads like a sheet over southern Florida." So, beautifully, begins Trish Marx's ''Everglades Forever." Many Americans do not realize that the Florida Everglades National Park has been ''designated an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance." Marx places the Everglades in a global ecological perspective, and includes historical, cultural, and personal aspects of the Everglades, using as a device a particular group of fifth-grade students in Homestead, Fla., who set out to understand the treasure in their own backyard. They also learn the rate at which this so-called river of grass is being destroyed by development, pollution, and farming, chiefly -- it is now ''half as big as it was one hundred years ago" -- and, more happily, about various groups working together to protect and restore it. The Clean Water Act of 1972 helped some, while the Everglades Forever Act of 1994 ensured that those laws were actually enforced. A new Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan consists of ''more than sixty separate projects [that] will take at least thirty years to complete and cost billions of dollars."

All of this might seem like mere abstraction, however, if not for the glorious photographs by Cindy Karp. Karp captures the sharp golden light, the preternaturally beautiful and exotic creatures, and many moods, people, and aspects of this most poetic of swamps, poised delicately, enormously, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. In the 1800s, Marx points out, John James Audubon wrote that here ''the sky used to be dark for minutes at a time with the flocks flying overhead." This fifth-grade teacher teaches her students to cherish the deep silence of the Everglades -- a sound most of us never hear for the great din around us.

Liz Rosenberg reviews children's books each month for the Globe. She teaches literature and creative writing at the State University of New York at Binghamton and is the author of ''The Silence in the Mountains" and, come fall, ''I Just Hope It's Lethal: Poems of Sadness, Madness and Joy," co-edited with Deena November.

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