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Lives of ingenuity and courage

Poet and statesman Su Shih as a child, with his brother, sister, and mother. (DEMI)

Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor
By Emily Arnold McCully
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 32 pp., ages 6-12, $16

Su Dongpo: Chinese Genius
Written and illustrated by Demi
Lee & Low, 56 pp., ages 5 and up, $24

John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement
Written by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson
Illustrated by Benny Andrews
Lee & Low, 32 pp., ages 7-12, $17.95

Genius: A Photobiography of Albert Einstein
By Marfé Ferguson Delano
National Geographic, 63 pp., ages 8 and up, $17.95

As a girl, I devoured biographies, especially of notable women. I would have adored "Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor" then, and I warmly recommend it now. It begins invitingly: "Mattie Knight lived in a little house in York, Maine, with her widowed mother and older brothers, Charlie and Jim. They were poor, but Mattie didn't feel poor. She had inherited her father's toolbox. When she thought of things that could be made with the tools, she drew them in a notebook labeled My Inventions." Mattie created whirligigs and high-flying kites for her brothers, a foot warmer for her mother, and racing sleds for neighborhood children.

Working at a textile mill in New Hampshire, Mattie witnessed a loom accident that inspired her to invent, at age 12, a shuttle guard that became an industry standard. Later, at a paper bag factory in Massachusetts, she contrived "a better machine that could cut and glue a square-bottomed bag." The tale of how this patent was nearly stolen makes for truly thrilling reading. At every turn Caldecott medalist Emily Arnold McCully ("Mirette on the High Wire") tells Mattie's story in words and soft, bright pictures with charm, humor, and lively grace. Running along the bottom of these full and double-spread paintings are sketches of several of Mattie's ingenious inventions and improvements.

The subject of "Su Dongpo" "was a statesman, philosopher, poet, painter, engineer, architect, and humanitarian who approached everything with joy and grace." His up-and-down life constitutes an exciting and touching biography, enlivened by Demi's exquisite illustrations in paint, ink, calligraphy, and gold-foil effects.

Born in China in 1036 , Su Shih (as he was known) revealed remarkable gifts -- writing stories at 6, calming wild birds, attaining painting skill that seemed almost magical. Su Shih became a popular leader and advocate for the Chinese people, but his criticism of corrupt governmental officials also earned him powerful enemies. He was banished not once but three times, demoted "from commander and governor, to minister and magistrate, to nobody." It was as "nobody" that Su Shih attained inner peace. He never lost faith in the goodness of life or of people and once claimed, "In my mind there is not a single bad man in all the world!"

It is a remarkably rich biography offered in the slimmest and most elegant of packages. A joyful radiance shines through Demi's retelling of this gentle poet-hero's life.

When Congressman John Lewis was a boy, he and his cousins and aunt prevented their wooden house from blowing away in a storm by moving from corner to corner, steadying it "with the weight of their bodies. Holding hands, they walked with the wind until the danger had passed."

All his life, Lewis remained an anchor in storms -- for himself, his family, and his people. The son of sharecroppers, he preached to the chickens at night to calm them. At 15 he heard Martin Luther King on the radio, and soon began organizing sit-ins at lunch counters and joined the Freedom Riders in Alabama. Often he was beaten and jailed, yet he moved steadily forward. His story is told in "John Lewis in the Lead," and the book includes a useful timeline that details his accomplishments: a 2001 Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement; re-election to the House of Representatives since 1986. Benny Andrews's distorted-looking illustrations add little, but the photos that accompany the timeline put a human face to this moving and well-written biography.

"Genius: A Photobiography of Albert Einstein" relates in words and images the story of a man who indirectly created modern life as we know it, influencing computers to CD players, laser surgery to nuclear weapons. Some of the photos are classics ; others are surprises, including a great shot of Einstein with Charlie Chaplin. Ever curious, he greeted his baby sister for the first time with the question "Where are its wheels?"

Author Marfé Ferguson Delano offers clear explanations of Einstein's most complex works, including his world-famous equation, which began life as L = mc{+2}. She dispels widely held untruths, for instance, that Einstein failed at math (he always excelled at math and science, but flunked entrance examinations in history and languages) and that he worked on the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan (the FBI considered him too "radical" to be trusted with state secrets ). I found this book so fascinating, evocative, and rich in its details that the instant I finished I turned back and began rereading it immediately. I was surprised to learn that Einstein renounced his German citizenship while still a teenager; that he was once offered the presidency of Israel ( "I am . . . saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it. [My] relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond"); that he never wore socks ("I've reached an age when if somebody tells me to wear socks, I don't have to"); and that his ashes are scattered "at a place kept secret to this day." Handsome enough for a coffee table, this is a brilliant book on a most brilliant subject.

Liz Rosenberg reviews books for young readers each month. She teaches English and creative writing at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Her newest children's book is "Nobody's Home," a picture book forthcoming from Roaring Brook ; her newest book for adults is "Demon Love," from Mammoth .