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A is for alphabet books that teach and entertain

Alphabet books aren't just for preschoolers anymore. They've exploded into mini-encylopedias stuffed with real lessons on a broad range of subjects to attract bigger kids, too.

There's still plenty of simple, comforting rhymes by the letter, but some publishers have pepped up the genre by providing extra text to suit readers as old as 12.

It's a two-tiered system perfected by Sleeping Bear Press in Chelsea, Mich. The small imprint of the educational publishing company Gale Cengage has a big-time reputation among parents, teachers and booksellers for regularly churning out nicely illustrated and researched books not easily tossed aside once the ABCs are mastered.

Got a future flying ace? Try Sleeping Bear's "A is for Airplane," where D stands for dirigible and E for Amelia Earhart. Is horticulture more your child's thing? There's "V is for Venus Flytrap" for insights into legumes, tubers and succulents.

If all of that sounds too heavy, other publishers go for fun and frilly among new releases. A look at the latest in A-B-C:

"When Royals Wore Ruffles" (Random House, $16.99, ages 5-9) by Chesley McLaren and Pamela Jaber, illustrated by Chesley McLaren.

A breezy yet informative romp through the history of fashion. T is for teetering about town like fine European ladies of the 1500s. They wore decorated chopine platform shoes that sent them soaring up to 30 inches. U is for unmentionables, including 72,000 pairs of nylons sold in New York on the first day they were available in the 1930s.

"Richard Scarry's Find Your ABCs" (Sterling, $9.95, ages 4-8)

A reissue of an out-of-print classic stuffed with tongue twisters: "The queen is quaffing a quart of quince juice." Scarry's familiar animals balance slippery spaghetti on a platter and douse the fire on a flaming football as detective pals Sam and Dudley encourage readers to hunt down the ABCs and make something yummy at the end.

"The Sleepy Little Alphabet" (Alfred A. Knopf, $16.99, ages 4-8) by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Melissa Sweet.

A charming take on bedtime rituals with capital letters as parents to their little-case kids. More traditional one-line text with lively round-eyed illustrations. Small "g has got the googly giggles." All 26 letters are asleep by the end. Perfect for nighttime toddler readalouds.

"S is for Story" (Sleeping Bear Press, $17.95, ages 9-12, Sept. 9 release) by Esther Hershenhorn and illustrated by Zachary Pullen.

Author quotes and writing tips help drive text covering everything from genres to revisions. L is for letters that are "text-ed, typed, or penned." Did you know Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" began as a get well letter to a friend's son?

"V is for Venus Flytrap" (Sleeping Bear Press, $17.95, ages 6-10) by Eugene Gagliano and illustrated by Elizabeth Traynor.

H is for herbs that add flavor, but they do a lot more than that. Parsley is rich in vitamin C and has a reputation for curing bad breath. For centuries, rosemary was thought to be a cure for lethargy. O stands for orchid, including vanilla — the only edible fruit of the orchid family.

"A is for Airplane" (Sleeping Bear Press, $16.95, ages 6-10) by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle and illustrated by David Craig.

L is for "Lucky Lindy," the nickname for Charles Lindbergh. "Without stopping he took a chance he could make it alone from New York to France." He was the first to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, covering 3,600 miles in 33 hours and 29 minutes. His plane was loaded with 400 gallons of fuel. Lindbergh had only a quart of water and five sandwiches.

"C is for Ciao" (Sleeping Bear Press, $17.95, ages 6-10) by Elissa D. Grodin and former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, illustrated by Marco Ventura.

No palace, leaning tower or basilica goes unmentioned in history-rich text covering all things Italy. E is for Emperor Augustus and Q is for Quattrocento, used to indicate the Renaissance. T is for trade and a lesson in economics. "L is for the Lava that flowed one summer day and froze in time forever a city called Pompeii."

"J is for Jack-O'-Lantern" (Sleeping Bear Press, $14.95, ages 4-10) by Denise Brennan-Nelson and illustrated by Donald Wu.

Autumn opens the alphabet with an explanation of the changing leaves: The green pigment chlorophyll dominates during a tree's growing season but weakens toward the end of summer, allowing for oranges, reds, yellows and browns to emerge. The record for the most lit jack-o'-lanterns on display is 30,128 in Boston in October 2006. Z is for zany Halloween fun — "a holiday for everyone!"