A Parade of Children's Books

The cat and the fiddle, the jumping cow, the run-away spoon - new classics build on the old ones.

By

10 MINUTES TILL BEDTIME

Written and illustrated

by Peggy Rathmann

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Putnam

Unpaged, $16.99

Ages 2-6

OVER THE MOON

By Rachel Vail

Illustrated by Scott Nash

Orchard Books

Unpaged, $15.95

Ages 3-7

NO MIRRORS IN MY NANA'S HOUSE

By Ysaye M. Barnwell

Illustrated by

Synthia Saint James

Harcourt Brace

Unpaged, $18

Ages 5 and up

LOOK-ALIKES

By Joan Steiner

Photographed by

Thomas Lindley

Little, Brown

Unpaged, $12.95

All ages

WALTER WICK'S OPTICAL TRICKS

Written and photographed

by Walter Wick

Scholastic

45 pp., $13.95

Ages 7 and up

Say "children's books" and most people visualize thin, picture-book volumes. That image isn't off the mark. Taking advantage of a mostly visual format, many are funny or interesting or strikingly beautiful. Here are some of my favorites from this season, ones I consider worth reading to children - and maybe even owning.

Any bedtime-bound child is sure to dissolve into giggles when presented with 10 Minutes Till Bedtime, by Caldecott-winning artist Peggy Rathmann. As Dad announces the countdown from the living room, our heading-for-bed kid is in the midst of conducting hamster tours. Apparently, the family pet, being quite an entrepreneur, has advertised for more of its kind to visit. And boy, do they come! Hamsters arrive by foot, in station wagons, taxis, buses, vans - you name it.

Even though there are plenty of getting-ready-for-bed details - scrubbing teeth, putting on pajamas, and reading stories - this is no ordinary bedtime book. The sight of all those little furry creatures engaging in vacation activities in the bath and bedroom is hysterical. Rathmann's many visual jokes and allusions to previous books make this a treasure-trove for youngsters to pore over on their own. But because it's an almost wordless bedtime book, it's also perfect to share and discuss.

Over the Moon, by Rachel Vail, has many things to commend it. The book is funny, engaging, and ... it's a pretty good lesson on prepositions. Yes, prepositions - as in over the moon, under the moon, next to the moon.

Vail stands the "Hey Diddle Diddle" nursery rhyme on its head by setting it in an urban theater. Illustrator Scott Nash adds much of the humor by depicting cartoon animals speaking with comic-book dialogue bubbles. The difficult cow wants artistic license to loosely interpret her part - jumping over the moon. This is much to the frustration and agitation of director Hiram Diddle Diddle. "Over the Moon" is quite a romp, and a number of prepositions are hilariously explored before the actors, musicians, director, and stage hands call it a night.

Music, message, and art combine to make No Mirrors in My Nana's House an unforgettable book-and-CD combo. The text is a song written by Ysaye M. Barnwell, and the accompanying CD contains an upbeat performance of it by Sweet Honey in the Rock, an a cappella quintet of African-American women.

The message of love in this piece is both simple and profound. No mirrors are needed in Nana's house because love and beauty are reflected in her eyes. (I first heard this piece performed in concert years ago, and this CD still has the power to make me smile and sing along.)

Synthia Saint James provides dramatic, stylized illustrations. She portrays a few early pictures in somber, monochromatic tones, but the love in Nana's eyes brings vibrant colors to the page and to the little girl's life. Stunning, faceless characters allow any child to imagine loved ones in this book.

One small caveat: The CD contains two musical renditions of the song and a read-aloud version of the text. In a handful of places, printed words and sung words do not match exactly. This should not trouble those familiar with minor discrepancies in liner notes, but it may be disconcerting to youngsters trying to read along.

Puzzlers will be enthralled with Look-Alikes, by Joan Steiner, and Optical Tricks, by Walter Wick. Both are illustrated with large, clear, full-color photographs, and the books themselves are both amusing and amazing.

Steiner uses hundreds of everyday items to create scenes in which things are not what you'd expect. At first glance, the reader thinks the scene is easy to comprehend, but upon closer scrutiny, store awnings become cupcake liners, chair backs turn out to be pretzels, and cobblestones change into pennies.

There is detailed information at the back of the book about exactly what is depicted. Great fun!

Many will recognize Walter Wick as creator and photographer of the popular "I Spy" series. His keen eye for surprise and delight is showcased again in "Optical Tricks." Using light and shadow, precise camera angles, and exacting construction techniques, Wick shows us how easily our senses can be fooled.

My favorite tricks are pages that seem absolutely, positively understandable - until I turn them upside down and find them ... well, radically different. Wick lets us in on his tricks - sometimes by providing adjacent photos for explanation, more often in a special section at the back.

* Karen Carden reviews children's books for the Monitor.

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