THE harvest of children's books is in, and as has been the case in recent years, it's a bumper crop.
Fall is the busiest season for publishers, as they rush to fill bookstore shelves with their latest offerings in time for the holiday season. Those who live near a bookstore with an active children's department know that it's a busy time for guest appearances as well, with writers and illustrators making the rounds to sign autographs and chat with young fans.
The juvenile segment of the publishing industry continues to thrive, and a perusal of autumn's harvest of books shows an abundance of fine choices, with many return engagements by familiar names and a number of talented newcomers as well. Here are a dozen titles sure to please. For older readers
Coming-of-age stories are a time-honored genre in young-adult fiction. Writers from Robert Louis Stevenson to Ursula Le Guin have found the passage from childhood and adolescence to adulthood fertile ground for storytelling.
This season, a number of excellent new books chart this familiar territory.
Fans of Gary Paulsen's work will find him in top form in The Haymeadow (Delacorte, $15, ages 10 and up), the dramatic tale of a 14-year-old boy summering alone in a high mountain pasture with a herd of 6,000 sheep. The boy's ingenuity, bravery, and persistence are tested in one crisis after another, from coyote and bear attacks to a flash flood. Paulsen's terse style is well suited to the nonstop action, but the story is much more than just a Western adventure. It's also a very moving account of a boy an d his father learning to communicate their love for one another.
Late blooming authors take heart: Budge Wilson didn't begin her writing career until age 50. Her latest effort, The Leaving (Philomel, $14.95, ages 11 and up), won the Canadian Library Association's Young Adult Book Award. Each of the nine tales in the collection centers on a young woman struggling to negotiate a sometimes baffling adult world, and each is a small gem, sparkling with a richly evoked sense of time and place. The title story tells of a 12-year-old girl whose downtrodden mother suddenly, un expectedly whisks her away from their oppressive home life on a Nova Scotia farm for three days in the city, a journey that changes both their lives forever. Wilson's sensitivity and depth as a writer deserve praise at a time when much of what passes for young-adult literature reads like the script for a television sitcom.
Letters from Rifka, by Karen Hesse (Holt, $14.95, ages 9 to 12), is a poignant chronicle of a young Russian Jew's emigration to the United States in 1919. Based on the author's own great-aunt's experience, the tale is both compelling and, at times, heart-rending. Rifka and her family narrowly escape capture by Russian soldiers only to find, after an arduous journey to Warsaw and then Antwerp, that Rifka must be left behind because of illness. Even after she finally reaches Ellis Island, it's uncertain wh ether she will be reunited with her parents and brothers, but Rifka never loses her determination or her wry sense of humor. Readers will find her an unusually engaging heroine, full of timeless insights.
Walter Dean Myers returns this fall with a rootin'-tootin' Western, set in 1880. The Righteous Revenge of Artemis Bonner (HarperCollins, $14, ages 10 to 14) is a rollicking, tongue-in-cheek, roller-coaster of an adventure that follows the 15-year-old hero's attempt to hunt down a no-good character by the name of Catfish Grimes, who did in his Uncle Ugly for a treasure map. Artemis travels from New York City to such places as Tombstone, Ariz., Juarez, N. M., Sacramento, Calif., and Anchorage, Alaska, on h is mission, landing in one heap of trouble after another (some of which would earn the book a rating of PG for mild violence, if this were a children's movie). The author obviously had a high time writing this one, and young readers will have just as much fun enjoying it. For younger readers
That rascal Fox is back again in James Marshall's sprightly Fox Outfoxed (Dial, $11, ages 4 to 8), part of Dial's "Easy-to-Read" series. Somehow, the best-laid plans of the feckless Fox and his friends are nearly always undone, most often by Fox's pesky little sister, Louise. In the funniest of this trio of stories, Louise - left behind while her brother and his friends go trick-or-treating - once again gains the upper hand in a case of mistaken pumpkin identity. Marshall's cheerfully droll illustrations
add to the fun.
Another return engagement this season is Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen's The Magic School Bus on the Ocean Floor (Scholastic, $14.95, ages 6 to 9). Ms. Frizzle is up to her usual tricks, with yet another quirky field trip, this one of the underwater variety. Along with "the Friz's" class, readers get a close-up look at the sea and learn about such things as intertidal zones, coral reefs, and spaghetti worms. Highly praised for their innovative, fun-centered approach to teaching science, the "Magic School B us" books can be enjoyed by several age levels.
Degen's busy artwork entertains the read-aloud crowd, while older kids glean the nuggets of information Cole sprinkles liberally through the text.
Everyone from Cocteau to Disney has taken a crack at this classic fairy tale, but Newbery medalist Nancy Willard and artist Barry Moser's splendidly sophisticated interpretation takes the cake this year. Here, Beauty and the Beast (Harcourt, $19.95, all ages) begins at a turn-of-the-century Central Park town house, where a wealthy merchant and his daughters reside. After falling on hard times, they are forced to remove to a lowly cottage in a remote Hudson Valley village. As the familiar tale unfolds, th e time-period and setting imbue it with a freshness that's bolstered by Moser's unusual, haunting woodcuts. Willard's words drip from her pen like honey from a spoon, and the result is a polished, elegant, and satisfying piece of prose. As a read-aloud, it's too long for one sitting (80 pages), but worth the time for the beauty of the language alone.
Jim LaMarche's striking illustrations illuminate Laura Krauss Melmed's debut picture book. The Rainbabies (Lothrop, $15, ages 6 and up) is an original fairy tale starring an engaging cast of wee babies found nestled in the grass by a childless couple after a magical moon shower. Delighted with their unexpected charges, the husband and wife care for them tenderly, protecting them from the perils of water, fire, and earth. In the end, their stalwart shepherding brings a priceless reward - a child of their own.
Artist Shari Halpern, another newcomer, offers My River (Macmillan, $13.95, ages 3 to 7). Jewel-toned cut-paper collages embellish her tale of a river and its inhabitants - from turtle and frog to muskrat, crayfish, and salamander - gently reinforcing for the youngest readers the importance of caring for the environment.
"It was voted in Boston to drown our towns that the people in the city might drink." A river is the central character in another picture book, this one for a slightly older audience. Jane Yolen's Letting Swift River Go (Little, Brown & Co., $15.95, ages 4 to 8) takes a nostalgic look at the "drowning" of the Swift River towns in western Massachusetts to form the Quabbin Reservoir. Told through the eyes of young Sally Jane, the tale traces the bittersweet chain of events that follow the vote - houses move d or bulldozed, trees cut down, families relocated. Yolen's fluid, poetical style is superbly matched by two-time Caldecott winner Barbara Cooney's luminous landscapes.
Moving is never easy. It means saying goodbye to friends and to familiar places, but for a young city dweller and his big sister in The Leaving Morning (Orchard, $14.99, ages 4 to 7), the move is sweetened by his mama and daddy's reassurance of good things to come. Angela Johnson effortlessly evokes the boy's mixed emotions, and her unaffected style is echoed by David Soman's realistic watercolors.
Jez Alborough's deliciously silly Where's My Teddy? (Candlewick, $14.95, ages 3 and up) will delight teddy bear lovers everywhere. The great mix-up begins when Eddie misplaces his teddy, Freddie, in the deep, dark woods. Setting off to fetch him, Eddie is puzzled to find that Freddie has grown enormous - but the mystery is soon solved when an even more enormous bear shows up carrying a tiny toy teddy (the real Freddie). The swap is swiftly made, and both Eddie and the bear race home with their respective
baby bears to the comfort of their snug beds. Alborough's oversized illustrations are appropriately giddy.