Life stories for the littlest readers

SEBASTIAN: A BOOK ABOUT BACH Written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter Harcourt Brace Unpaged, $16, Ages 5-8

STONE GIRL, BONE GIRL: THE STORY OF MARY ANNING By Laurence Anholt Illustrated by Sheila Moxley Orchard Books Unpaged, $15.95, Ages 5-9

Biography. The word comes from Greek: bio meaning life and graphy meaning writing. Recently, biographies or "life-writings" for young children have included a lot more illustrations than writing. Stories about real people have always been a staple in children's literature; some of the earliest pieces date to the mid-18th century. Now, publishers are producing more picture-book bios for young readers in the early grades. Here are two out just this month.

Jeanette Winter's Sebastian is a beautifully designed, written, and illustrated book that cleverly depicts the life of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Youngsters will enjoy a well-rounded story. It begins by setting Sebastian within the context of his musical ancestors. Then readers watch an infant Bach grow into manhood. The author tells of Bach's early sorrows (he was orphaned at 9). She documents his dedication and hard work (he walked 200 miles to get to boarding school). And she celebrates his musical accomplishments as composer and organist. Bach was extremely popular in the Europe of his own time, and the music he created still delights people around the world.

The success of any picture book depends largely on illustrations, and Winter's primitive-style artwork is clear, colorful, and imaginative. Dozens of illustrations unite in a marvelous whole, yet each retains vibrancy and meaning. Her opening page offers a small, round illustration of the universe, full of moons, stars, comets, and planets. It accompanies a note about recordings of Bach's music being carried into outer space on the first Voyager mission. Winter writes: "Should the spacecraft encounter any life beyond our galaxy, the first sound that will be heard is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach."

The ink-black background of that first illustration - and the muted pinks, purples, blues, and greens of the heavenly bodies - sets the palette for the rest of the book. Within the matching borders framing each page, Bach's music floats on ribbons of these harmonious hues.

Impressive art also adorns Stone Girl, Bone Girl, by Laurence Anholt, illustrated by Sheila Moxley. In 1799, little Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis, on the English coast. As she grew, so did her interest in digging fossils or "curiosities" out of nearby clay cliffs. That pastime led to a remarkable discovery. Now, what dinosaur-loving child wouldn't want to discover a real dino skeleton? That's exactly what 12-year-old Mary found one day - a 165-million-year-old skeleton of an ichthyosaur.

Anholt tells Mary's fascinating story with real emotion. In this brief biography, he relates the death of Mary's beloved father, the man who taught her to value the cliffs. And he recounts hurtful taunts from other children who found her cliff-digging strange. Mary's ultimate achievement is palpable too, when she triumphantly leads a parade of quarrymen back into town after their excavation of the huge, prehistoric "sea monster."

English artist Sheila Moxley contributes vibrant illustrations and bold, rich colors. Aqua, purple, gold, and magenta surge onto every page. Moxley never forgets the importance to the story of striped sedimentary cliffs. Using a primitive-art technique, she stacks her images, echoing the stylized layers of clay she paints into each illustration.

The book's design is sophisticated, but both author and illustrator provide the sort of detail that particularly appeals to children, for instance, the little dog that keeps Mary company and helps in the search for fossils.

An interesting endnote says that Mary Anning's penchant for selling "curiosities" to tourists produced the familiar tongue twister: "She sells seashells by the seashore...."

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

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