Silly stories to keep kids laughing. On the light side

CHILDREN's librarians know how tricky it can be to find a book for younger readers that's funny enough for kids and substantive enough for their parents. Three new titles ought to satisfy both sides of the reading equation. Newbery Medalist Betsy Byars, author of more than 20 books, including the popular Blossom Family series, has consistently hit the mark when it comes to depicting real families. In Beans on the Roof, illustrated by Melodye Rosales (Delacorte, New York, $13.95, 80 pp., ages 6 to 10), she's on target again.

The ``Beans'' of the title are a family of five who, one by one, gather on the roof of their apartment building where young Anna Bean has retreated to write a poem for a school project. When they all decide to try their hands at verse, the results are delightfully terrible. Although Anna's poem isn't a winner in the school contest, the Beans as individuals and as a supportive whole learn a lot about the creative process - mostly because they have such fun at it. It's a fresh message, conveyed with enough silliness to be convincing.

Silliness rises to new heights in The Great Gerbil Roundup, by Stephen Manes, illustrated by John McKinley (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, $13.95, 107 pp., ages 8 to 12). To summarize the plot is to risk thrown tomatoes, but here goes: The small town of Gerbil, Pa., is looking for a touristy new image, and two imaginative children hit on the idea of creating the First National Drive-Thru Museum of American Sightseeing and Clean Rest Rooms, where visitors can take the vacations of their lives in just five minutes' time.

Author Manes, who is responsible for the world's first book about place mats, along with 25 other intriguing titles, knows his way around 12-year-old imaginations, and some of his best lines are delivered deadpan: An animal trainer tries to calm an angry Komodo dragon ``with carefully chosen words of encouragement,'' and the local TV personality is named Homer Hairdo. The pace here approaches breakneck, and aspiring wits will finish the book and ask for more in record time. Whatever keeps them reading!

Then there's Herbie Jones, the strikeout king of the Laurel Woods summer baseball team and likable central character of Herbie Jones and the Monster Ball, by Suzy Kline, illustrated by Richard Williams (G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, $12.95, 126 pp., ages 7 to 11). When Uncle Dwight, a star college player, arrives to coach the team, Herbie has his work cut out for him. How he deals with his less than stellar swings and throws ought to strike many a responsive eight-year-old chord and pull in readers who have survived some dejected practice sessions on the neighborhood lot.

Diane Manuel reviews children's books regularly for the Monitor.

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