A strong sense of place has long been considered an important element of a good story. Books selected for this roundup capitalize on vivid, well-crafted settings. Picking up any of them allows readers to spend time in another's world - from a Shaker village, to a Chinese orphanage, to an imaginary medieval abbey.
Harlem, by Walter Dean Myers, is a celebration of both place and people. This sophisticated poem sings out the diversity of Harlem, where Myers grew up. Illustrated by his son Christopher in a painterly collage technique, this picture book blends bold visuals with powerful words.
Historical, literary, and musical references may not be readily recognized by some readers, but these allusions add richness and depth to a book that aptly honors its subject.
Emily Arnold McCully explores the theme of freedom in Starring Mirette & Bellini, a satisfying sequel to her Caldecott Medal winner "Mirette on the High Wire." In this new book, Mirette and Bellini perform their high-wire acrobatics in grand cities throughout turn-of-the-century Europe.
When invited to St. Petersburg, they become involved in the early stages of the Russian Revolution. Atop the high wire, Bellini calls for freedom for the Russian people. He's subsequently arrested and jailed by the czar's soldiers, and it is up to Mirette to attempt a dangerous high-wire rescue.
McCully's watercolors explode with color and vibrancy during the duo's triumphant performances, but for Mirette's daring nighttime rescue, they cloak the page in eerie darkness.
Many stories have been published recently about the experience of European Jews during the 1930s and '40s, but few are as sweet and tender as Claire A. Nivola's Elisabeth. This first-person narrative, based on her mother's recollections, is a charming story of a beloved doll in pre-World War II Munich. (A photo of the narrator as a little girl, holding Elisabeth, is displayed on the front flap.)
Delicate illustrations and poetic text re-create the innocent joy of a young Jewish girl's life. When forced to flee her comfortable home, leaving everything behind - even her favorite doll, Elisabeth - she is sure she will never see any of her possessions again.
Traveling from country to country before settling in America, she often thinks of Elisabeth. Amazingly, when the narrator is grown and has a child of her own, the doll turns up in an antique shop. Elisabeth is then lovingly passed down from mother to daughter, and most recently, to a granddaughter.
Arthur Geisert's newest picture book opens up a place that is often inaccessible to children: The Etcher's Studio. Geisert invites them into the studio of an artist grandfather, who is preparing for his annual print sale.
It's the young narrator's job to color these prints by hand. Geisert shows how the finished pieces look by illustrating this volume with his own hand-tinted etchings. The old studio's orderly clutter is re-created in detail, making readers feel at home with ink, plates, paper, and press.
When the work becomes tedious, the young boy loses himself in the various scenes he's coloring. His exotic and imaginative adventures contrast well with the down-to-earth studio setting.
Ann Turner's Shaker Hearts is infused with the gentleness and quiet industry of Shaker communities. Using Shaker founder Ann Lee's phrase "Hands to work, hearts to God," Turner crafts verses to describe everyday Shaker life. Exquisite paintings by Wendell Minor give a visual strength to this lovely volume. This book records a brief history of the Shaker movement and discusses the many accomplishments of these gentle folk.
Novels for Middle and Older Readers
It's hard to imagine having more fun than reading Ella Enchanted, by newcomer Gail Carson Levine. She takes the Cinderella tale, modernizes it, stands some of it on its head, and creates a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the fairy-tale kingdom of Frell.
All the traditional Cinderella elements are here - in updated versions: a fairy godmother, a mean stepmother, ugly stepsisters, and, of course, a handsome and charming prince ("Call me Char!"). The twist in this story is that a misguided fairy gives Ella a "gift" of obedience at birth. This turns out to be more of a curse because Ella can hardly be herself if she must obey anyone's direct command. And what if she's ordered to do something that endangers her kingdom?
After the death of her beloved mother and a stint at a horrible finishing school, Ella sets out to rid herself of her "gift." She encounters jealous foes, human-eating ogres, and unwelcome suitors. But all's well that ends well, and this tale has a happy, if rather predictable, ending.
Brian Jacques's latest book, Pearls of Lutra, is his ninth in the Redwall series, and it is a winner! Bestseller lists have carried the title for months, and no wonder: It's a masterful story with vivid characters, set in a very believable imaginary world.
Readers spend time with appealing mice, moles, and young "dibbuns" in comfortable Redwall Abbey; with terrifying lizards and weasels on the evil-filled island of Sampetra; and with kind sailors and wicked corsairs on the high seas.
Swashbuckling action and spine-tingling adventure abound as the race is on to find the Tears of All Oceans, six pink pearls stolen from a decimated otter clan.
In true Redwall form, puzzles, jokes, riddles, poetry, songs, fun, and feasting temper the heart-stopping battles and the heart-breaking losses.
A community garden in Cleveland becomes the central healing element in Paul Fleischman's Seedfolks. Fleischman's Newbery-winning style traces the transformation of an ugly, trash-filled, vacant lot into an abundant, harvestable garden.
Told from 13 frank and sometimes brutal perspectives, this story of friendship and renewal touches on most of the issues found in inner cities today.
Wendell, a school janitor, tells how his son was killed in a drive-by shooting; Sae Young, a young widow from Korea, tells of being robbed and beaten in her dry-cleaning store; Maricela, a pregnant teenager from Mexico, hopes for a miscarriage.
Despite their hurt and haunted pasts, the goodness of nurturing a garden brings healing, in some degree, to all. The size of this slim volume belies the profound message of hope it contains.
Many Americans have traveled halfway around the world in hopes of adopting a Chinese baby. While some families have experienced difficulties because of mercenary officials and ill-treated children, Our Baby from China is a celebration of success.
Written and photographed by Nancy D'Antonio, this is a very personal story. Little Ariela Xiangwei (SHAN-way) is a darling girl, smiling from the cover of the book, and her adoption is lovingly tracked by her new mother.
Much of the book's simple text and many of its clear, color photos show scenes of China and the orphanage of Ningbo. Young readers will learn something of the country and culture that gives up one of its little girls - and of the great joy she brings to an American family.
Africa becomes a highly knowable place in Lyall Watson's collection of affectionate reminiscences. Warriors, Warthogs, and Wisdom: Growing Up in Africa chronicles his life in the 1940s. Watson is now a noted naturalist, and this book traces his childhood interest in nature. His best friend, a Zulu chief named Jabula, teaches him about Africa's land, wildlife, and people.
Amusing stories about Watson's family and animals are both charming and disarming.
* Karen Williams is children's book editor for the Monitor.
By Walter Dean Myers
Illustrated by Christopher Myers
Scholastic, unpaged $16.95, Ages 5 and up
STARRING MIRETTE & BELLINI
Written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
Ages 4 to 8
Written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
Farrar Straus Giroux
Unpaged, $16, Ages 4 to 8
THE ETCHER'S STUDIO
Written and illustrated by Arthur Geisert
32 pp., $15.95
Written by Ann Turner
Illustrated by Wendell Minor
By Gail Carson Levine
232 pp., $14.95
Ages 8 and up
PEARLS OF LUTRA
By Brian Jacques
Illustrated by Allan Curless
Philomel, 408 pp., $19.95 Ages 10 and up
By Paul Fleischman
Illustrated by Judy Pedersen
69 pp., $13.95
Ages 10 and up
OUR BABY FROM CHINA: AN ADOPTION STORY
Written and photographed By Nancy D'Antonio
Albert Whitman & Co. Unpaged, $13.95
Ages 3 - 7
WARRIORS, WARTHOGS, AND WISDOM: GROWING UP IN AFRICA
By Lyall Watson
Illustrated by Keith West
80 pp., $16.95
Ages 9 to 13