``The Pearl,'' written and illustrated by Helme Heine (Atheneum, $11.95), is a story about material vs. spiritual values for four- to eight-year-olds. It tells how a little beaver -- through his dreams -- becomes conscious of the stakes of selfishness. Will Beaver live in humility and harmony with his forest friends -- or will he fall to the temptation of thinking of himself as ``special'' in a way that incites a false sense of competition? This is the question the story turns on.
Beaver has uncovered a very special and rare treasure -- a freshwater pearl mussel. Realizing that inside lies a beautiful pearl, he is ecstatically happy, hugs the shell treasure chest to his heart, and begins to dream. But his dreams are neither sweet nor happy. The new treasure, it seems, has brought awesome responsibility. His mind becomes plagued and troubled by the fear of envy.
He dreams that his forest animal friends are stomping around his lake looking for pearls of their own. ``This is my lake. I built the dam. The mussels are mine,'' the beaver screams.
And thus the territorial war between Beaver and his friends begins. Eventually, Beaver's dam is destroyed, the water all runs out, mudslinging begins (literally and figuratively), and soon there is nothing but strife.
Fortunately, Beaver wakes up from his dream in time. Having learned that the actual treasure can't be shared equally with all his friends, there is only one course of action left to take with the ``unopened'' pearl -- and that, for young readers, is the worthy climax in store.
Helme Heine's beautiful watercolor illustrations and comical depictions of the characters serve the prose well. This book will win over its readers, gently entreating them to see that the greatest treasure of all, anywhere, may well be their own friends.