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December 03, 2003

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Publication Date: Wednesday, December 03, 2003

New children's books have beauty and magic New children's books have beauty and magic (December 03, 2003)

by Debbie Duncan

ew books by children's literature luminaries are among the many gems on the shelves this holiday season. Remember, there really is no better gift for a child than a good book.
"Owl Babies Boxed Set" by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson; Candlewick Press; $12.99; ages 6 months - 3 years.

My teenage daughters and I can still recite lines from this perfect picture book first published 11 years ago, now reissued in a board book and toy gift set. Sarah and Percy and Bill are three anxious owl siblings who stick together through the night, trying not to think about their mother's absence.

Yet because "all owls think a lot," they express feelings familiar to all toddlers who worry that their parents won't return from wherever adults go when they leave the nest. The Owl Mother's return reminds her little ones, and the board book audience, that separations are temporary.

This timeless story is beautifully complemented by exquisite illustrations of the most expressive baby animals in any children's book. The 5-inch toy adds to the gift appeal of a modern classic that translates well into the board book format (not all do).
"The Day the Babies Crawled Away" by Peggy Rathmann; G. P. Putnam's Sons; $16.99; ages six months - 8.

Palo Alto favorite and Caldecott medalist ("Officer Buckle and Gloria") Peggy Rathmann's latest gem is illustrated in silhouettes, and oh, are they gorgeous.

The story and pictures follow an intrepid young boy in a firefighter's hat as he rescues babies who have crawled away from a fair and through trees and a bat cave and out onto and over a cliff. (Don't worry: young children recognize make-believe when it's depicted this cleverly.)

Using rhythm, rhyme, and repetition, Rathmann manages to be both predictable and surprising from one silhouetted page to the next. The babies lead, the little boy follows, and then he gets them to turn around and go back safely while the day fades away against a changing, brilliant sky.

Even children who don't read will look for each of the five babies in the two-page spreads as the escapees explore their world of butterflies, bees and birds.
"The Diary of a Worm" by Doreen Cronin, pictures by Harry Bliss; HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler; $15.99; ages 4 - 8.

Most people, especially young children, love humor. And readers will find humor aplenty in the observations and illustrations in "Diary of a Worm."

The worm-boy in the red baseball hat decides that "Hopscotch is a very dangerous game," especially when worms have to spend the day on the sidewalk after a rainstorm. When he forgets his lunch, he eats his homework. Then he eats the punishment his teacher makes him write. Grandpa worm, who lives with the diarist and his parents in a cozy hole house under the ground, teaches the importance of good manners.

The worm says good morning to one ant . . . and the 600 ants behind her. At the school dance, the worms can only do two moves of the hokey pokey. But worms never have to go to the dentist ("No cavities - no teeth, either," says Dr. D. Kay) or take a bath. And they even help the earth, to boot. Comedy and a science lesson, all in one clever picture book.
"The Elephant's Pillow" by Diana Reynolds Roome, illustrated by Jude Daly; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $16; ages 4 - 8.

Mountain View author Diane Reynolds Roome first heard this original bedtime tale from her father. Sing Lo, a spoiled son of a rich merchant, wants to see the greatest sight in Peking, the Imperial Elephant.

The poor animal is in a nasty mood from not having slept since the old Emperor died, so Sing Lo sets out to solve his problem. He finds the beast's favorite honey-glazed buns; fills a golden bowl with honey, ginger, and milk; commissions a yellow silk pillow bigger than the elephant; and scratches the Imperial Elephant right where it wants, behind the ear. Ah, sleep for the elephant, and the satisfaction for Sing Lo that comes from doing a good deed.

The golden tones in the text are brought to life in vibrant paintings of yellows and reds and blues that have an ancient Chinese feeling. "The Elephant's Pillow" is a beautifully written, soothing bedtime story with museum-quality illustrations.
"Brundibar," retold by Tony Kushner, pictures by Maurice Sendak; Hyperion/Michael di Capua; ages 4 and up.

The brilliant duo of Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak has pulled off the children's book publishing sensation of the season with this unique, wonderful and complex picture book.

Playwright Kushner here retells a Czech opera performed 55 times by the children of Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp. Artist extraordinaire Sendak adds detail and life and jump-off-the page character to an old-fashioned European story of a brother and sister who go to town for milk for their sick mother.

The brother and sister decide to sing for the money they need, but a bully of an organ grinder named Brundibar prohibits them from encroaching upon his territory. Help arrives in the form of three talking animals and 300 schoolchildren. The brother and sister sing, the townspeople and animals chase the bully and thief Brundibar out of town, and the mother gets the milk she needs.

Happy ending? To the story, at least.

Most of the children who performed "Brundibar," as well as its composer, were killed in the Holocaust. Please don't let that scare you away from bringing this important book into your family's life.
"Jose Feliciano's Feliz Navidad," pictures by David Diaz; Scholastic/Cartwheel; $15.95; ages 5 - 10.

The stunning paintings in this book do not simply illustrate the familiar Christmas song, they illuminate it. An introductory page about the parranda, a Puerto Rican Christmas tradition, explains the inspiration for Jose Feliciano's lyrics.

The book is filled with oversized, bold artwork that will make young painters get out their supplies to illustrate their own families' holiday traditions and gatherings, as Diaz has done for Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad."
"The Tale of Despereaux: being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread" by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering; Candlewick Press; ages 9 - 12 (younger when read aloud).

Parents who have been waiting for another entertaining family read-aloud from the author of the wildly popular "Because of Winn-Dixie" are in for a real treat.

Short chapters and an intimate "Dear reader" style draw the listener and reader into this story of love, light and forgiveness. And like all good fairy tales, it has the dark tones children crave. Despereaux, a tiny mouse with enormous ears and a big heart, falls in love with the young Princess Pea and lets her touch him.

He also sits at the foot of the king. This un-mouse-like behavior causes the Mouse Council to banish him to the dark, smelly dungeon, where he's sure to be eaten by the rats. Despereaux saves himself, however, by telling a story to the human jailer.

We then meet one of the dungeon's resident rats, who finds his way up to the light of the castle only to scare the queen to death when he falls into her soup. A poor, slow-witted girl with a fervent desire to be a princess ends up as Princess Pea's serving girl. The girl, hoping to trade places with the princess, follows the rat's orders and leads the princess to the dungeon.

Ultimately, Despereaux fulfills his "once upon a time" destiny as Princess Pea's knight in shining armor when all the main characters come together in a satisfying conclusion. Some even have a change of heart. The classic quality of this story is enhanced by the book's striking design of feathered paper edges as well as soft, yet vivid pencil illustrations.
"13: Thirteen stories that capture the agony and ecstasy of being thirteen," edited by James Howe; Simon and Schuster/Atheneum; $16.95; ages 12 and up.

The original stories in this collection show that the best writers for children haven't forgotten what it's like to be a child or a young teen. Age 13 is a time of questions: Who am I? What are the rules? Who decides them? And for many, why am I different?

Age 13 is also about making choices, and mistakes, of feeling invisible one moment, and as if the whole world is staring at you and not liking what they see in the next moment. It's about misconceptions and experimentation. It's about discovering the opposite sex, or that you may be attracted to your own sex.

Being 13 means dealing with clueless parents who have forgotten what it's like to be 13. There are humorous, thoughtful, and touching stories in this book about all kinds of kids, and for all types of middle school readers and their clueless parents.

Children's book reviewer Debbie Duncan, a Title Pages contributor, will be talking about these and many other new books Saturday, Dec. 6, at Nixon Elementary School Book Fair, 870 N. California Ave., Palo Alto, at 11 a.m.


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