Children's books spring into action

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"They didn't have books like this when I was growing up!" wailed a friend as she sorted through some of this season's selections. She's right. For decades, children's books have been getting more sophisticated, more diverse - and maybe more beautiful. Here's an armload of spring offerings for your inspection.

Concept BookS

For centuries, alphabet books have been the quintessential concept books - those volumes that teach basic educational skills to youngsters. It's a jam-packed genre, but Kipper's A to Z: An Alphabet Adventure, by Mick Inkpen, is a welcome addition because it's entertaining as well as instructional. Inkpen provides plenty of clear and appealing illustrations. Kipper, a sweet-faced little pup, is already a familiar character to many children. More than 5 million Kipper books are in print, and they've been translated into more than 20 languages.

Recommended: Default

Here, Kipper and his piglet friend Arnold set off through the pages collecting animals and items to represent each letter. It's a charming and humorous adventure, as the subtitle suggests. They start with "a is for ant," but it won't stay in the "b for box," so eventually we get "e for empty." Those kinds of connections make this a fun and satisfying book.

Picture books

Originally published in France, Lisa's Airplane Trip arrived stateside this month. C'est manifique! It's the start of a new series about two fuzzy doglike critters, Lisa and Gaspard. In this delightful volume, Lisa tells about her first airplane ride - the seats, the food, and the in-flight entertainment. Illustrator Georg Hallensleben's art is bold and bright enough to engage kids while sophisticated and painterly enough to please adults. Anne Gutman's text is also equal to the task of amusing both child and parent. For example, after Lisa has a bit of a mishap, "the airplane lady" washes her clean and gives her a tour of the cockpit. When one of the pilots comments that Lisa smells nice, she wryly observes: "It was the soap."

The book's overall design is pleasing: It's a slim square of springtime green with little Lisa (safely buckled into her airplane seat) staring unblinkingly from the cover. Colorful endpapers teem with airplanes and airport activity. And the back displays six small pictures, which serve as a traveler's photo album and as a reader's introduction. A winner? Mais oui!

Not all travel requires airplanes. In the case of A Journey, by wife-and-husband team Sarah Stewart and David Small, the trip is accomplished by a horse and buggy and a bus. Hannah, a young Amish girl, boards a bus to Chicago for her very first visit. She records her thoughts and experiences in a diary - her silent friend - and these entries become the text of the story. Stewart's tale captures Hannah's awe of and interest in the big city, and at the same time chronicles her longing for home. Small's loose ink-and-watercolor illustrations depict each day's busy activities, but every one of these pages is followed by a large, wordless double-page spread of Hannah's farm life. The visual pacing is superb, and it creates an affectionate balance between exciting travel and a comforting home.

The Stray Dog, by Marc Simont, was 15 years in the making - and well worth the wait. It's based on a true account of a family that finds a dog they can't forget. When they discover the authorities consider it a stray, the family adopts the little pooch and saves him from the dog catcher. This heartwarming story comes alive in Simont's lean, expressive text and his engaging illustrations. Despite its simplicity, the tale evokes a range of emotions that will feel genuine to any young reader.

Books for Older Readers

The Sketchbook of Thomas Blue Eagle is an elegant and intriguing book. Written by twin sisters Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman, it is a fictional account of a young Lakota brave in the late 1800s. When the US government relocates Plains Indians to reservations, the traditional Lakota ways begin dying out. Thomas Blue Eagle and some of his friends are given an opportunity to profit from their hunting skills by joining Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. There, they meet such western greats as Annie Oakley. Blue Eagle's riding and bow-and-arrow talents make him a star of the show as he travels throughout the United States and Europe. All the while, though, his thoughts are back home with Echo, the young woman he hopes to marry. (Ostensibly, he makes this sketchbook for her so he can bring back images of all he's seen.)

The illustrations by Adam Cvijanovic are a stunning part of this book. He starts by using a flat pictograph style that changes to a more three-dimensional look as Blue Eagle encounters European artists. This fascinating volume is a sequel to the award-winner "The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle." Both are grounded in historical research and include comments from a native-American historian.

Meanwhile, Beverly Cleary of "Ramona" fame has a quartet of books out this spring. These brightly colored paperback reprints, originally written in the late 1950s and early '60s, are billed as stories of first love. The eagerness, anxiety, and sheer clumsiness of first dates are perfectly portrayed in these delightful period pieces. They are full of good manners, intact families, outdated slang, and amazingly low prices - 75 cents an hour for babysitters.

Fifteen is about Jane and Stan's budding relationship, which strengthens when Jane decides to "just be herself." The ups and downs include a Chinatown visit, not being able to borrow the family car, attending a school dance, going steady, and experiencing a first kiss.

The Luckiest Girl is about Shelly taking her junior year of high school in sunny California. While she spends most of that year dating a handsome basketball star, in the last weeks she learns that she really likes a more interesting, but less popular boy.

Jean and Johnny is about Jean's crush on the school heartthrob. Although Johnny encourages her, he doesn't treat her well. And Jean learns that good looks, smooth talking, and fitting in aren't everything.

Sister of the Bride is about Barbara's involvement in her older sister's wedding plans - family discussions, shopping, sewing, a surprise shower - and the lessons she learns about not rushing romance.

In brief summaries, these books sound quaint or trite, but each features sound advice, good morals, and strong role models tucked into believable stories.

Information Books

For years, DK books have sported gorgeous color photographs, and this season is no exception.

High-flyin' kids will love the DK Big Book of Airplanes, edited by Caroline Bingham. It's an oversize picture book packed with plane info. There are double-page spreads on stunt planes, crop dusters, seaplanes, jumbo jets, spy planes, and more. Short paragraphs are inserted around the bright photos, giving useful descriptions and interesting facts. (For example, did you know that jumbo jets fly 10 times higher than ultralights? That an F-16 combat fighter requires 45 minutes of checks before take-off? Or that the fastest jet-engine craft was clocked at 2,193 m.p.h.?) Be warned: Once picked up, this absorbing book is hard to put down.

Shipwrecked!, by Rhoda Blumberg, is the remarkable true adventure of a teenage fisherman who helped build a diplomatic bridge between the United State and Japan. This was hardly an easy task in the 1800s, when Japan enforced a strict isolationist policy. Young Manjiro's saga began in January 1841 when he and some fellow fishermen survived a tremendous storm, which left them shipwrecked on a deserted island off the coast of Japan.

After several months, an American whaling vessel rescued them, taking the castaway crew to Hawaii. That act alone doomed the fishermen to death if they ever returned home. Harsh Japanese laws forbade the influence of other countries, and one law read: "Any person who leaves the country to go to another and later returns will be put to death."

Manjiro, who was quick and bright, easily picked up English and then wanted to learn how to navigate the seas. So, leaving his friends in Hawaii, he traveled to New Bedford, Mass., to study. In doing so, he is believed to be the first Japanese-born person to set foot in America. Through Manjiro's intelligence, persistence, and courage, Japanese ports were opened and a treaty of peace was signed between the two countries.

Old photos, maps, paintings, and black-and-white illustrations contribute visual appeal to this captivating story.

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

Concept Book

KIPPER'S A TO Z: AN ALPHABET ADVENTURE

Written and illustrated by Mick Inkpen

Harcourt $16.95, ages 3-7

Picture Books

LISA'S AIRPLANE TRIP

By Anne Gutman

Illustrated by Georg Hallensleben

Alfred A. Knopf $9.95, ages 3-6

THE JOURNEY

By Sarah Stewart

Illustrated by David Small

Farrar, Straus & Giroux $16, all ages

THE STRAY DOG

Written and illustrated by Marc Simont

HarperCollins

$15.95, ages 4-8

For Older Readers

THE SKETCHBOOK OF THOMAS BLUE EAGLE

By Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman

Illustrated by Adam Cvijanovic

Chronicle Books $16.95, ages 9-12

FIFTEEN

THE LUCKIEST GIRL

JEAN AND JOHNNY

SISTER OF THE BRIDE

By Beverly Cleary

Avon Books 200+ pp. ea., $5.95 ea.

Ages 10 and up

Informational Books

DK BIG BOOK OF AIRPLANES

Edited by Caroline Bingham

DK Publishing 32 pp., $14.95

Ages 5 and up

SHIPWRECKED!

THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF A JAPANESE BOY

By Rhoda Blumberg

HarperCollins

80 pp., $16.95

Ages 8 and up

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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