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June 23, 1996|KATHLEEN KRULL

What do dynamite, raisins, microwave cooking, coffee, paper, artificial sweeteners, Cracker Jack and finger-printing have in common? All exist as a result of human mishap, as do lots of other innovations of modern life, and all are represented in Accidents May Happen: Fifty Inventions Discovered by Mistake. In this sequel to one of my all-time favorite children's books, "Mistakes That Worked," author Charlotte Foltz Jones follows the same appealing format--brief, punchy chapters describe the odd origins of common foods, toys, household items and numerous scientific discoveries. Once again John O'Brien, the New Yorker cartoonist, contributes his wickedly witty drawings. Underlying the amusement is the useful message that mistakes--in science or anything else--are surprisingly common and occasionally even helpful to humanity.

For more science shocks, turn to Shocking Science: 5,000 Years of Mishaps and Misunderstandings, an understandably oversize compendium of confused ideas throughout history. Every scientific success, it seems, requires hundreds of failures, and this makes for an engrossing and dramatic book, with medical treatments to make you cringe, weird dinosaur theories, UFO studies and more. In the process of offering proof that scientists are only human beings, author Steve Parker and artist John Kelly are able to transform a hard-to-digest subject into something palatable.

In Fireworks: The Science, the Art, and the Magic, showy color photographs illuminate one scientific discovery that fascinates everyone. Every Fourth of July, many a career goal turns to pyrotechnic. Here, author-photographer Susan Kuklin profiles the famed Grucci family, professional pyrotechnics who spell out how putting on a magical fireworks display is almost more science than art. Details are abundant--you must wear cotton clothes (including underwear), for example, as other fabrics can generate enough electricity to be hazardous around firecracker ingredients.

For a look at how science can be applied to art, enjoy the images in Optical Illusions in Art: Or--Discover How Paintings Aren't Always What They Seem to Be. Alexander Sturgis provides a clear and inspired introduction to some of the artwork most likely to appeal to kids--M. C. Escher, Dali and other surrealists, the "vegetable" artist Arcimboldo, Op Art--and explains visually just how artists can trick our eyes so convincingly.

If all this science and art is making your child (or you) too sedentary, you'll need Zita Newcome's Toddlerobics. Yes, a book of exercises for tots, but it's really just for fun. Eight tiny ones carry out an elementary dance routine: "Lift that rattle in the air--shake it, shake it, everywhere." The movers and shakers are endearingly rounded, a bit Helen Oxenbury-ish, and the regime is not as rigid as it sounds: Most of the kids are bumblers, as befits their age.


ACCIDENTS MAY HAPPEN: Fifty Inventions Discovered by Mistake, By Charlotte Foltz Jones Illustrated by John O'Brien (Delacorte: $16.95; ages 8 and up)

SHOCKING SCIENCE: 5,000 Years of Mishaps and Misunderstandings, By Steve Parker Illustrated by John Kelly (Turner: $16.96; ages 8 and up)

FIREWORKS: The Science, the Art, and the Magic. By Susan Kuklin (Hyperion: $15.95; ages 4-8)

OPTICAL ILLUSIONS IN ART: Or--Discover How Paintings Aren't Always What They Seem to Be, By Alexander Sturgis (Sterling: $14.95; ages 8 and up)

TODDLEROBICS, By Zita Newcome (Candlewick: $14.99; ages 2-4)

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