A ride through new kids' lit

An eclectic mix of new books celebrates the dog days of summer, along with castles and kings and fall's first day of school

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What visions does August conjure for you? Swimming, snow cones, and savoring the last days of summer? Or back-to-school shopping, new pencils, and getting ready for the academic year? Either way, publishers are ready. They've been looking backward and forward to have something for this in-between time. Dive into a bookstore for some summery reading material or start your back-to-school shopping with a book.

Picture books

If visiting a theme park was a highlight of your family's summer vacation, Roller Coaster, by Marla Frazee, might just take you to new heights. It's a story of a young girl's first coaster ride, captured in detailed watercolor illustrations. Summer seems to be sandwiched between the pages by Frazee's color choices: red, yellow, and aqua, with lots of white background space. Observant readers can follow recognizable characters from page to page and note how each reacts to the Rocket ride. Whether you like - or loathe - these thrillmaking machines, you'll find something to relate to in this book of summertime fun.

Feeling stuck in the dog days of summer? Then here's a refreshing treat: Stanley's Party, by Linda Bailey. Most dog owners wonder what their beloved pets do when their masters are out. Now, you'll know what pooch Stanley does - although you might not like it. Bill Slavin enriches this amusing text with engaging canine illustrations, comically portraying Stanley and friends in all their doggy splendor.

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Imagine getting up for school or work without an alarm clock. What would you do? In England, as late as the early 1900s, a "knocker-up" might have been your answer. Andrea U'Ren's Mary Smith tells all about that little-known worker - someone who went around waking sleepy heads at the proper time. Most used long poles to rap on windows, but Mary was more creative: She used a peashooter. This tale (based on a real-life Mary) is full of fun and dash, and it's begging to be read aloud. "Tink ... clak ... dink!"

Off to school

Little School is a charming Australian import. Written and illustrated by Beth Norling, it features a multicultural group of 20 youngsters who attend preschool. In this reassuring book, the little ones wake in their own homes; travel to school by various methods; spend the day singing, snacking, painting, playing - and more. Then they rejoin their families, head home, eat dinner, bathe, and get in bed - to be ready for another full day. Pages are cleverly organized, loaded with character and characters. (Even prereaders will be able to pick out children and follow them through the day.) Some pages are grids, providing peeks into 20 little lives. Other times, Norling uses a catalog technique (pictures and labels) to illustrate sundry toys, school supplies, and activities. This well-conceived and beautifully designed volume is apt to be one of the most well-loved and often-used books on a toddler's shelf.

First Day describes a new student's concerns. Dandi Daley Mackall's rhythmic, rhyming text bounces along as a pigtailed girl readies herself for the first day of school. She starts out eager and happy: "Brand new shoes -/ heard the news?/ This is my first day." But her enthusiasm fades once she's actually in the unfamiliar environment: "Don't go, Dad!/ Can't Mom stay?/ Help me plan my getaway...." Predictably, she and the other children warm to the idea of being part of a class. A bunny is the classroom pet; there is coloring to do; story time is fun and silly. By day's end, this little pupil is won over. She ends the tale with: "School ... / COOL!" Bright, energetic illustrations by Tiphanie Beeke give this story plenty of visual appeal.

I Am NOT Going To School Today just about says it all for the new first-day-of-school book by Robie H. Harris. A little boy decides he won't go to school when he realizes that he won't know any of the other kids' names, or what kind of juice they'll drink, or where the crayons are kept - and, worst of all, that his stuffed monkey, Hank, will miss him. These first-day worries are understandable, so his parents suggest that Hank accompany him. He pops Hank in his pack (head "sticking out the top - so he could see") and goes to school. Once there, his many questions begin to be answered. The children sit in a circle and tell each other their names, they drink orange juice, and a teacher shows him where the crayons (and the toilets!) are. And - since Hank liked going to school - they'll both return uncoaxed in the morning. Jan Ormerod's realistic illustrations set a comforting and satisfying tone for this happy-ending book.

Older readers

Stop the Train! by English author Geraldine McCaughrean, winner of her country's prestigious Carnegie Medal, has had a two-year run in Britain. Now, it's come stateside, which is only fitting since it's a rollicking western set in the prairie land of Oklahoma and loosely based on true happenings. The year is 1893, the place is the fictional town of Florence. After settlers stake their claims during the territory's land rush, the train - so necessary to the prosperity of any town - refuses to stop in fledgling Florence. A cast of colorful characters and a plot full of improbable events fuel this heartwarming story of faith and determination. There are train robberies, damsels tied to tracks, and duels in the street. But there's just enough common sense and brotherly love among the homesteaders to prevent Florence from being lost to harsh weather, a devastating economy, and villainous treachery.

For sheer tongue-in-cheek enjoyment, try Avi's latest: The Mayor of Central Park. This versatile author and recent Newbery-Medal winner tells a tale set at the turn of the last century in New York City. A large cast of city animals (cats, rats, mice, moles, and squirrels, among others) inhabit the story, which is part gangster novel, part baseball book. Old-time slang and colorful expressions zing through the pages. Oscar Westerwit, a squirrel, is the self- appointed mayor of the park and manager of the Central Park Green Sox. Life is looking good to this jaunty fellow until his star pitcher disappears and a huge gang of downtown rats, headed by Big Daddy Duds, takes over the park. Can Oscar reclaim the territory and at the same time post a claim on Dud's beautiful daughter? And what about the baseball team? There are plenty of tense times and exciting scenes until it all comes clear. Illustrations by Brian Floca give extra dazzle to this delightful story.

Information Books

For budding ballerinas, Ballet School will be a must-have. Clearly written by Naia Bray-Moffat and beautifully illustrated with David Handley's photographs, it takes readers into the bending, leaping, twirling world of ballet classes. The Central School of Ballet in London is the setting, and each spread shows students participating in important aspects of ballet. There's plenty of practical information about what to wear and how to prepare. This volume also provides some instruction on basic positions and moves. And finally, there's the joy of watching older students dance, viewing fancy costumes, and taking part in a year-end performance. This lovely book offers information - and inspiration - to all those who dream of dance.

Ms. Frizzle - of "The Magic School Bus" fame - is now traveling through time and history sans bus. This doesn't slow the Frizz down, though, and fans will feel right at home in Ms. Frizzle's Adventures: Medieval Castle, by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen. Ms. Frizzle and a favorite student, Arnold, start out in a model shop, slip through a mysterious tunnel, and end up in the 12th century, defending an English castle under siege. There, they learn firsthand how a castle works. Lords, ladies, knights, and peasants contribute to their education - and ours! Information and humor are tightly packed into each bright page. It's hard to imagine learning about castles in a more enjoyable way.

Karden Carden reviews children's books for the Monitor.

Picture books

ROLLER COASTER

Written and illustrated by Marla Frazee

Harcourt Unpaged, $16 Ages 3-7

STANLEY'S PARTY

By Linda Bailey

Illustrated by Bill Slavin

Kids Can Unpaged, $14.95

Ages 3-7

MARY SMITH

Written and illustrated by Andrea U'Ren

Farrar, Straus & Giroux Unpaged, $16 Ages 4-8

LITTLE SCHOOL

Written and illustrated by Beth Norling

Kane/Miller Unpaged, $15.95 Ages 2-5

FIRST DAY

By Dandi Daley Mackall

Illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke

Harcourt Unpaged, $16 Ages 3-7

I AM NOT GOING TO SCHOOL TODAY!

By Robie H. Harris

Illustrated by Jan Ormerod

Simon & Schuster Unpaged, $16.95 Ages 4-8

For older readers

THE MAYOR OF CENTRAL PARK

By Avi

Illustrated by Brian Floca

HarperCollins 208 pp. $15.99 Ages 8-12

STOP THE TRAIN!

By Geraldine McCaughrean

HarperCollins 290 pp, $16.99 Ages 10 and up

Information books

BALLET SCHOOL

By Naia Bray-Moffat

Photography by David Handley

DK Publishing 48 pages, $12.99 Ages 5-8

MS. FRIZZLE'S ADVENTURES: Medieval Castle

By Joanna Cole

Illustrated by Bruce Degen

Scholastic Unpaged, $15.95 Ages 6-10

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