Choices for children

Every once in a while there is a crop of picture books that are virtually flawless -- well-written, appropriately illustrated, and balanced in tone. The books reviewed in this column meet the above criteria, and they are fun as well. Shirley Hughes has written three humorous concept books for very young children. In Bathwater's Hot, When We Went to the Park, and Noisy, Hughes has interwoven three learning concepts -- opposites, counting, and sounds -- with delightful vignettes of a toddler's life. The brightly colored illustrations celebrate the exuberance and zest with which younger children approach their days. (Lothrop, $4.95 each, ages 1 to 3.)

Combining nursery rhymes, songs, rhymes with finger motions, and games, along with cheerful illustrations by Maryann Kovalski, makes for a uniquely versatile musical collection for children and parents. Sharon, Lois, and Bram's Mother Goose was compiled by four award-winning musicians, and may be used to read aloud or sing and play along with piano or guitar. (Atlantic Monthly, $16.95, ages 1 to 7.)

Sensible, patient Chlo"e and vivacious, imaginative Maude are best friends in Chlo"e and Maude, written and illustrated by Sandra Boynton. These two felines have minor disagreements, but their friendship endures as each learns how to be a better friend. Vibrant colors light up the three whimsical stories included in the book. (Little, Brown, $12.95, ages 3 to 8.)

Here I am, an Only Child, by Marlene Fanta Shyer, is a bubbly monologue in which a young boy tells about the solitude of not having a brother or sister, and the sometimes bothersome responsibility of being the only one to do household chores. But there are compensations, like always getting the extra biscuit and having the dog sleep on his bed ``with no arguments from anyone.'' Warm, comfortable watercolor illustrations by Donald Carrick. (Scribner's, $12.95, ages 4 to 7.)

Reading Phillip Depasquier's most recent book, Dear Daddy . . . , involves us in the art as much as the text, which is minimal. In double-spread panels, Depasquier depicts two worlds: schoolgirl Sophie's home life with her mother and little brother, and her father's life on a Navy ship thousands of miles away. We see how the worlds of loved ones can be both separate and interdependent. In the last panel, Sophie and her father are joyously reunited. (Bradbury Press, $12.95, ages 4 to 7.)

So Many Cats!, by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, begins with an only cat, ``a sad and lonely cat.'' Gradually, one cat after another is adopted into the family, until there isn't room for any more. The rhythmic, rhyming text is one that children will pick up very quickly and enjoy repeating indefinitely! Ellen Weiss's illustrations enhance the humor of the situation. (Clarion, $13.95, ages 4 to 8.)

An original tale by Mildred Phillips, The Sign in Mendel's Window, is masterfully evocative of Jewish folklore. Mendel, the butcher, decides to rent out one-half of his shop. When Mr. Tinker, a man of fancy manners and dress, answers the ad, the suspense begins to build, but nothing prepares us for the surprises to come. The illustrations by Margot Zemach add an appropriate touch of naivet'e and small-town flavor. (Macmillan, $12.95, ages 5 to 8.)

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