Sowing seeds for good reads

Not all publishing seasons are created equal. If you've ever seen many years of award-winning books all together, you'll know that's true. The best of some years wouldn't even be contenders in other years. This spring - maybe due to heavy rains - the crop of good books is terrific. Here are 10 volumes I've harvested from the stacks of beautifully illustrated and finely written books growing on my office floor.

Concept Book

Although One Lighthouse, One Moon, by Anita Lobel, is new this season, it's easy to imagine dog-eared copies tucked away in boxes labeled "Favorite Childhood Things."

This is a true concept book that introduces children to colors, days of the week, months of the year, and numbers from 1 to 10 - but it is also so much more. It contains three related stories about Nini, a little tabby cat. Watercolor and gouache illustrations provide a perfect balance of coziness and exhilaration. Visual clues in these by-the-sea stories tie the tales together, and this elegant book becomes one seamless whole.

Picture Books

For the first time in nearly a decade, author and illustrator Brock Cole unveils a new picture book. Well worth the wait, Buttons is an original story that builds on some elements of traditional tales: First, there is a problem. (Father has lost all his britches buttons.) Then, three attempts at a solution. (His three silly daughters search for remedies.) And finally, there's a happy-ever-after ending. (You'll have to read this for yourself.) Both adults and children will find plenty to laugh - and look - at. Cole's watercolor illustrations are loose in style, humorous in content. Their free-flowing energetic lines and soft-color palette are reminiscent of work done by Randolph Caldecott, the 19th-century English artist for whom the Caldecott Medal was named.

America's Henry David Thoreau inspired Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, by D.B. Johnson. The story is based on a passage from Thoreau's "Walden" in which he makes a case for spending one's time walking - in actual travel - rather than forfeiting the better part of a day to earn the fare for speedier transportation.

In this beautifully designed and artfully balanced book, both Henry and his friend are lumbering, though well-dressed, bears. They want to cover the 30 miles to Fitchburg, Mass., presumably from Thoreau's hometown of Concord. Henry starts on foot, while his friend does some odd jobs to pay for a ticket. The antics and expressions of these bulky competitors add humor to an endearing tale. Johnson fits in numerous details from the mid-1800s, including allusions to Alcott, Hawthorne, and Emerson - some of Thoreau's literary neighbors.

Dinosaurs may be extinct, but as a topic for children's books they just won't die. Author Jane Yolen and illustrator Mark Teague capitalize on this enduring interest in their new bedtime story: How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? Children will love the fact that the dinos tower over tiny parents, and that some of the prehistoric characters thrash, fuss, and misbehave as much as any I'm-not-ready-for-bed-yet kid. Real dinosaur aficionados will be pleased that the illustrations focus on the actual features of each beast, and that somewhere in each picture is the correct name of the gigantic sleepyhead.

Books for Independent Readers

Ann Cameron is one of those rare authors who apparently can enter a child's world without misstep. In the past two decades, she has created a handful of chapter books about African-American brothers Julian and Huey. Each book is a perfect collection of related short stories for young readers.

Now, she adds to that lineup Gloria's Way. Gloria is best friends with Julian, and these six tales record their humorous and realistic experiences. Along the way, there are a few disagreements, a lost valentine, a naughty dog, and ice-cream cones for everyone. While not sentimental, the stories brim with the innocence and emotion that will make youngsters say, "That's just how I feel!" Adults with keen memories may find themselves thinking, "That's just how I felt!"

As grade-schoolers graduate from picture books to novels, their "transitional" readers should contain lots of pictures. Illustrator Lis Toft enlivens the pages of this book with many soft black-and-white pencil sketches.

Series have always been popular with young readers. After investing time and emotional energy in characters, settings, and situations, it's comforting to return to old friends in new sequels.

Ereth's Birthday, written by Avi and handsomely illustrated by Brian Floca, continues the acclaimed tales from Dimwood Forest. In earlier stories, readers met Ragweed, Poppy, and Rye, three adventuring mice.

In this spring's offering, the focus is on a prickly porcupine, Ereth. Waking on his birthday, this cranky, insult-spewing curmudgeon is disappointed that his friends seem to have forgotten him. Feeling that he deserves something special on this day, he waddles off to locate some of his favorite treat - salt. His search takes him to a hunting cabin, where he witnesses firsthand the power and cruelty of traps. Ereth is at the side of a beautiful red fox when she dies in a trap, and he agrees to her last request - to take care of her three young kits.

Although bristly in mood and manner, Ereth copes with life-threatening danger, extreme hunger, daily irritation, and paternal jealousy for the sake of his little fox charges. This tender, happy-ending story keeps its readers on edge throughout.

What a pleasant relief to find REM World, by Rodman Philbrick! Here's an interesting, fast-paced, fantasy novel that is not loaded with violence and gore.

Its sweet-dispositioned protagonist, 11-year-old Arthur Woodbury, is a little too fond of food. His overweight condition starts him on an adventure that changes everything - from his self-image to the welfare of the universe.

In the slightly strained plot, pudgy Arthur (or Biscuit Butt, as he's known to his classmates) tries a new weight-loss device and finds himself in two places at once. This breaks a law of the universe, which creates a crack that allows evil or "nothing" to ooze into the world. Under Arthur's newly developed leadership, he and an amazing array of creature friends are challenged to save the world.

Thirty short chapters (four to five pages each) hold plenty of adventure and suspense, and enough meaning to make this a satisfying and uplifting story.

Information books

Many people welcome spring weather by returning to their gardens, and some say it's never too early to introduce a child to the delight of growing things. Round the Garden, by seven-year-old Omri Glaser, seems to prove them right. Omri's father, Byron, and Sandra Higashi designed and illustrated this stunning book. It's hard to rave about most books that explain the hydrological cycle, but this isn't just another science book. It's a fresh, vivid approach to one aspect of earth science. Here a tear begins the water cycle that ends up making a garden grow. The tightly written, poem-like text and bold digital art make this a book to plant in every kid's hands.

If National Women's History Month piqued your interest in women's accomplishments, here's a book you won't want to miss: You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! by Shana Corey. It will make you sad, mad, and glad. Sad, because it describes how proper ladies of the mid-1800s missed out on a lot of fun. Mad, because the dresses those women had to wear were heavy and dangerous. Glad, because contemporary women can now wear comfortable clothes.

Today's freer fashions are due, in part, to the work of energetic reformer Amelia Bloomer. She is credited, among other things, with popularizing "bloomers" (a flowing pants outfit for women). Corey tells the tale with wit and verve, and includes historical information about Amelia and her friends in an end-of-the-book author's note. Chesley McLaren, a New York fashion illustrator, contributes bright, sassy paintings. This is a story worth telling and a book worth reading.

In the early 1950s, Roy Chapman Andrews wrote a children's book titled "All About Dinosaurs." Many credit Andrews and his book with creating the phenomenal popularity of dinosaurs among today's children. Now, National Geographic has published a children's biography about Andrews. Dragon Bones and Dinosaur Eggs, by Ann Bausum, tells of the life and adventures of this scientist who eventually became director of the American Museum of National History in New York City. Andrews's expeditions led him all over the globe: He sailed off Indonesia and the Philippines to study whales, visited Alaska to observe fur seals, and trekked through the Gobi Desert where he found a new type of dinosaur. His adventures were often dangerous; many times wild animals, sandstorms, and bandits crossed his path. This has led some to believe that Andrews was the inspiration for the movie character Indiana Jones. Model or not, this photobiography is an interesting page-turner to delight a new generation of budding naturalists.

CONCEPT BOOK

ONE LIGHTHOUSE, ONE MOON Written and illustrated by Anita Lobel HarperCollins 40 pp., $15.95 Ages 4 and up

PICTURE BOOKS

BUTTONS Written and illustrated by Brock Cole Farrar, Straus & Giroux Unpaged, $16 Ages 5 and up

HENRY HIKES TO FITCHBURG Written and illustrated by D.B. Johnson Houghton Mifflin Unpaged, $15 Ages 4-8

HOW DO DINOSAURS SAY GOOD NIGHT? By Jane Yolen Illustrated by Mark Teague Scholastic Unpaged, $15.95 Ages 2 and up

INFORMATION BOOKS

ROUND THE GARDEN By Omri Glaser Illustrated by Byron Glaser and Sandra Higashi Abrams Unpaged, $15.95 Ages 3-7

YOU FORGOT YOUR SKIRT, AMELIA BLOOMER! By Shana Corey Illustrated by Chesley McLaren Scholastic Unpaged, $16.95 Ages 5-8

FICTION AND NONFICTION FOR YOUNG READERS

DRAGON BONES AND DINOSAUR EGGS: A PHOTOBIOGRAPHY OF EXPLORER ROY CHAPMAN ANDREWS By Ann Bausum National Geographic Society 64 pp., $17.95 Ages 8 and up

ERETH'S BIRTHDAY By Avi Illustrated by Brian Floca HarperCollins 180 pp., $15.95 Ages 8-12

REM WORLD By Rodman Philbrick Scholastic 192 pp., $16.95 Ages 9-14

GLORIA'S WAY By Ann Cameron Illustrated by Lis Toft Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 96 pp., $15 Ages 6-9

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

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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