Children's books: the cream of the crop

Eleanor Cameron has written her Julia books (``That Julia Redfern,'' ``Julia and the Hand of God,'' and ``A Room Made of Windows'') backward in time, and she comments on the jacket of Julia's Magic, (Dutton, $9.95), that going backward ``gives the writer a curious feeling that perhaps the whole pattern had always been there.'' Indeed, Julia and her family seem as though they've always been here. We are entirely taken into their world in its vivid texture, with all of its essential goodness and love. In ``Julia's Magic,'' Julia, with her exuberant imagination and innocence, faces the issue of honesty. Above all she lives in her imagination. And so it is no surprise that when she breaks Aunt Alex's little perfume bottle and is able to fit the pieces of the top back together, she believes it mended by magic.

She says nothing about it to anyone, but then she has a frightful dream -- that Hulda, Aunt Alex's housekeeper, has been lost, and hurt, and that Julia herself is somehow responsible. Soon enough Julia learns that Aunt Alex and Uncle Hugh are not speaking, and that Hulda has left because of a broken bottle.

Facing the truth and confessing to the family is most painful and difficult. But the real test comes when Julia must face herself and admit that, in truth, she couldn't have really believed the top mended by magic.

Cameron works her own magic here, thoughtfully portraying the toughest of childhood experiences with grace, a full measure of empathy, and pervading joy.

In Us and Uncle Fraud, (Houghton Mifflin, $10.95), Lois Lowry introduces us to Uncle Claude, the baffling maverick, and with him a mystery, and a story of family love. Uncle Claude blows in at Easter, turning the world of Marcus and Louise inside out with his reckless dreaming. He comes bearing a gift, a ``priceless and fragile secret.'' Then, just as suddenly, he is gone, leaving Marcus and Louise the order to ``search hard, my comrades,'' and this one puzzling clue: ``YA TEBYA LYUBLYU.''

Lowry creates a superb companionship between brother and sister in their search for treasure, their promised secrets, and in their bond against their grandiose older brother, Tom. The search is soon put on hold with the advent of a mysterious robbery, and the dangerous flooding of their river valley. It is Tom's accident as he bravely saves Marcus from the surging river that brings the family together and the mysteries to light.

Determined to see Tom live, Marcus and Louise talk to him in his deep coma, telling him anything, everything, to draw him out, even their prized secrets: ``YA TEBYA LYUBLYU,'' they sing, ``YA TEBYA LYUBLYU.'' This sharing of their valued secret coincides with Tom's revival, and true to Lowry's sense of irony, unlocks the meaning of the mysterious phrase -- ``I LOVE YOU'' in Russian -- which is itself the ``priceless and fragile'' gift.

Lowry's telling shines with her singular wit and humor, and her uncanny sense of children. Although the story's meaning surfaces a bit suddenly at the end, the idea of family unity and what can be accomplished through love is compellingly brought forth.

Ramona, dancing in front of the three-way mirror, watching all the Ramonas dancing into the distance, thinks, ``forever me.'' And Ramona is forever, in all her clownish, exuberant, tender good nature. In Ramona Forever, by Beverly Cleary (William Morrow, $9.50), the Quimby family is most suddenly and rapidly expanding, with a new Quimby on the way, and Aunt Bea to marry Howie's Uncle Hobart. All of these changes Ramona takes very much to heart, but the uncertainties serve to bring her and her sister, Beezus, into a close friendship.

Cleary portrays the sister's relationship in all its variableness with such perception that it becomes the glue of the story. Or, in a larger sense, it is the family love that binds, for the Quimbys, with all of their give and take, speak to us in their most laughable, human way of love. Once again, through Cleary's amusing insights and her very real sense of the child, Ramona and her family prove irresistible.

In Constance C. Greene's Isabelle Shows Her Stuff (Viking Kestrel, $11.95), we meet Guy Gibbs, the new kid on Hot Water Street -- ``Goody-goody Guy, wouldn't hurt a fly.'' Guy is big on books and doesn't want to fight: How can he get the kids to stop teasing him? Even Isabelle, the ``paper boy,'' with her flying fists and quick tongue can't seem to come up with a workable scheme. But through their friendship, Guy develops his own brand of self-confidence and determination to stand up for himself, so that when, quite unexpectedly, the need to be tough arises, he finds that he's ready.

Young readers will relish Constance C. Greene's eccentric characters and the witty lines to match. Beneath the high-energy storytelling they'll enjoy discovering the human dimension of the story when they find Isabelle, despite her bravado, as vulnerable as Guy, and Guy, under all his vulnerability, brave.

Lyn Littlefield Hoopes, a former children's book editor, is the author of several picture books for children.

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