Instead of spending Memorial Day weekend trapped in traffic heading to Ocean City, get the family together and do some research on a beach vacation destination that doesn't involve miniature golf or video arcades.
* A good place to start is "Assateague: Island of the Wild Ponies," by Andrea Jauck and Larry Points (Macmillan, $14.95, ages 6-10).
The authors are naturalists who have worked at Assateague Island National Seashore. They have gathered color photographs from a variety of sources to complement their fine non-fiction introduction to the barrier island off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia.
The stars of the book are the wild ponies made famous in 1947, when Marguerite Henry's "Misty of Chincoteague" was published. But rather than focusing on the horses' relationships with humans, this book tells how they live with each other, in small bands each ruled by a stallion.
Photos show stallions fighting to establish superiority. Readers also see a mare giving birth. There are shots of ponies resting in a loblolly pine forest, far from the prying eyes of tourists, and a photo of six horses standing neck-deep in the surf to escape the island's notorious mosquitoes and horseflies.
Other species on the island are introduced as well -- from baby raccoons in the spring to migrating monarch butterflies in the fall -- and readers get a good feel for a year in the life of Assateague.
* There are two herds of ponies on Assateague. The National Park Service manages the herd on the north end; the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department owns the herd on the south end. Every year on the last Wednesday in July, the fire fighters round up their herd and drive the horses across a narrow channel to the island of Chincoteague, Va.
"Once a Pony Time at Chincoteague," by Lynne N. Lockhart and Barbara M. Lockhart (Tidewater Publishers, $8.95, ages 6-10), is a fictional account of one year's pony penning.
Mr. and Mrs. Emory are an older couple on vacation at Assateague. When a band of ponies wanders over to their beach blanket and rummages through their picnic basket, Mr. Emory makes sure to take a photo of a mare and her filly, who stand off to one side.
Later that week, at the pony penning, the Emorys buy raffle tickets, knowing that the prize is the first foal that crosses the channel to Chincoteague.
Sure enough, the little filly they met on the beach is the first across, and sure enough, Mrs. Emory holds the winning ticket.
But that's not quite the climax. Mrs. Emory gets to decide: keep the filly, or let her go back to Assateague, never to be sold. Some kids will applaud her choice; others won't.
This is the Lockharts' second book; they collaborated on "Rambling Raft" in 1989. Barbara Lockhart has been a kindergarten teacher for 20 years. Her daughter Lynne is a graduate of Salisbury State University who has attended the Corcoran School of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Each conducts workshops and seminars on children's literature and illustration throughout Maryland and Delaware.
Lynne Lockhart's oil paintings are just right, soft and hazy as a summer day at the shore. Kids who don't spend much time with their grandparents might have trouble connecting with Mr. and Mrs. Emory, but the story is entertaining nonetheless.
Because Tidewater is a small publishing house, you might have trouble finding this book in stores. It can be ordered by calling (800) 638-7641.
* Some theorize that the ponies on Assateague are descendants of shipwreck survivors from the 1500s. We know for sure that farmers brought horses over from the mainland about 300 years ago. At that same time, Japanese merchants and fisherman brought horses to the island of Hokkaido, where another hardy breed of wild horses lives today.
"Wild Horse Winter," by Tetsuya Honda (Chronicle Books, $12.95, ages 2-8) is a magnificent picture book based on true accounts of how those horses, the Dosanko, have adapted to survive harsh winter storms on the island.
The central character is a colt born in the spring. Winter approaches, and his coat grows thick as the snow grows deeper on the prairie, covering the horses' grazing land.
The colt follows his mother as she and the rest of the herd begin searching for food. On a treacherous journey across the island, they become trapped in a blizzard. The drifting snow buries the herd.
In a note at the end of the book, Mr. Honda writes that the Dosanko horses are known to lie down and let the snow cover them: It protects them from the wind and they can maintain a warmer body temperature.
The colt and his herd make it, too. The storm ends, and they follow a river to a salt marsh that leads to the sea. There the starving horses feast on kelp that washes up on the shore.
Mr. Honda's gorgeous paintings fill each two-page spread. The book closes with a sweeping scene of the colt galloping along with his herd across the beach at sunset.
The story is powerful in its simplicity, packed with the suspense of nature. The last sentence completes the cycle: "Soon it would be spring again, bringing new colts to the herd."