Lands Real and Imagined

Classic creatures and colorful adventures fill an assortment of tales for young readers

SLEEP RHYMES AROUND THE WORLD Edited by Jane Yolen Illustrated by

17 international artists Wordsong/ Boyds Mills Press 40 pp., $16.95 Ages 4 to 10. THE WALLOPING WINDOW-BLIND Written by Charles E. Carryl Adapted and illustrated by Jim LaMarche Lothrop, Lee & Shepard $15, ages 4 and up. WHO BUILT THE ARK? Illustrated by Pam Paparone Simon & Schuster $15, ages 3 to 6. HOW GEORGIE RADBOURN SAVED BASEBALL Written and illustrated by David Shannon Blue Sky/Scholastic $14.95, all ages. ONLY OPAL: THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL By Opal Whiteley Selected by Jane Boulton Illustrated by Barbara Cooney Philomel, $14.95 Ages 4 and up. IT TAKES A VILLAGE Written and illustrated by Jane Cowen-Fletcher Scholastic, $14.95 Ages 4 to 8. SKYLARK By Patricia MacLachlan HarperCollins, 87 pp. $12, ages 8 to 10. CRAZY WEEKEND By Gary Soto Scholastic, 144 pp. $13.95, ages 8 to 12. MARTIN THE WARRIOR By Brian Jacques Illustrated by Gary Chalk Philomel, 376 pp. $17.95, ages 10 to 14. BY THE DAWN'S EARLY LIGHT: THE STORY OF THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER By Steven Kroll Illustrated by Dan Andreasen Scholastic, 40 pp. $14.95, ages 5 to 9. AROUND THE WORLD IN A HUNDRED YEARS: FROM HENRY THE NAVIGATOR TO MAGELLAN By Jean Fritz Illustrated by Anthony Bacon Venti G. P. Putnam's Sons 128 pp., $17.95 Ages 7 to 11. THE ANNOTATED CHARLOTTE'S WEB Introduction and notes by Peter F. Neumeyer HarperCollins 282 pp., $35, all ages.

BEFORE virtual reality, the information superhighway, and interactive videos, there were books. The original portable experience, books are the transportation vehicles for armchair adventurers.

Many of the children's books published this year provide passports and round-trip tickets for any willing traveler. To visit lands real and imagined, in the past and present, just pick up a book and enjoy the trip.

Songs and rhymes

Nigeria, Thailand, Wales, and Afghanistan are some of the 17 countries represented in Jane Yolen's Sleep Rhymes Around the World. Artists from each of the featured countries illustrate their lullabies, making this the ultimate multicultural bedtime book. Just turning the page gives readers the opportunity to compare cultural differences in the universal practice of sleeping.

The Walloping Window-blind, a delightful nonsense poem written more than a century ago by Charles E. Carryl, has been revived by Jim LaMarche's adaptation and delectable illustrations. Crewed only by children, the Walloping Window-blind - ``A capital ship for an ocean trip'' - makes an imaginative ocean voyage to Gulliby Isles. After cavorting on this fantasy island, the diminutive sailors set off again: ``We plotted our course for the Land of Blue Horse,/ Due west 'cross Peppermint Sea.'' These read-aloud rhymes will have kids begging, ``Read it again!''

Illustrator Pam Paparone, whose work frequently graces the cover of The New Yorker magazine, celebrates Biblical traveler Noah and preparations for his famous voyage in Who Built the Ark? Bright acrylic paintings in lively folk-art style accompany this text based on a joyful African-American spiritual. Starting in a packed church - complete with gospel choir - an African-American preacher becomes Noah on subsequent pages. The spirited music is printed on the endpapers, and lyrics incorporate a child-pleasing counting game: ``In come the animals three by three:/ two big cats and a bumblebee.''

Picture books

In How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball, author-illustrator David Shannon plunges readers into a cold dark time when spring never comes to the United States because baseball has been outlawed. Boss Swaggert, a former ballplayer, is the rich meanie enforcing the ban. He imprisons players, bulldozes ballparks, and forbids all baseball talk.

Georgie was born being able to speak only the illegal baseball lingo, which ultimately leads him to a pitcher-batter showdown with Boss. Tension builds, because Georgie's freedom and the nation's pastime are at stake. In the end, Georgie's accurate aim and guileless nature make this a book to cheer about. Illustrations are dark, rich, mood-evoking paintings that add depth to this well-constructed story.

Only Opal: The Diary of a Young Girl is a strangely quiet and thoughtful book of excerpts from six-year-old Opal Whiteley's diary. Written in Oregon logging camps of the early 1900s, poignant longings of orphaned Opal are recalled in poetic lines. Throughout, readers feel her sadness and her attempts to find comfort in the natural world: ``When I feel sad inside/ I talk things over with my tree./ I call him Michael Raphael.''

Award-winning illustrator Barbara Cooney has captured the gentleness of Opal's writing in full-color spreads and art vignettes.

In It Takes a Village, Jane Cowen-Fletcher conveys the comfortable, close-knit community of rural West Africa. Inspired by the African proverb ``It takes a village to raise a child,'' this story follows Yemi and her unsuccessful efforts to keep track of her young brother, Kokou, on market day. Soft watercolor and colored pencil illustrations capture interesting cultural details of a traditional open-air market.

Middle readers

For almost a decade, readers have eagerly awaited Patricia MacLachlan's sequel to Newbery Medal-winning ``Sarah, Plain and Tall.'' Much about Skylark will seem familiar: poetic descriptions of ordinary activities; whisper-quiet tenderness; and characters Anna, Caleb, Sarah, and Papa living on the Kansas prairie. But much is different, too. Because of drought, the once-gentle prairie has turned dry and hostile. After a devastating barn fire, Sarah and the children move to Sarah's former home on the lush, green coast of Maine.

Papa stays behind in the dust to rebuild. Sadness from this separation is palpable, and Anna and Caleb wonder if they will ever see their home and Papa again. Once more, MacLachlan's economical prose renders a touching and triumphant story about a family's love.

When Hector and his friend Mando, two seventh-grade vatos (guys) from East Los Angeles, visit Uncle Julio, a photographer in Fresno, Calif., they have more excitement than they ever imagined. In Crazy Weekend, Gary Soto creates a rollicking adventure of wise-cracking good guys and accident-prone bad guys. On a photo shoot in a rented Cessna, the boys and Julio witness and photograph an armored-car heist. When the robbers find out, the weekend becomes a chase-filled time of nonstop action.

Adults may roll their eyes at the boys' antics in the last chapters, but kids will applaud dumping marbles and squirting salad dressing - and revel in the crime-doesn't-pay outcome. Soto works many Spanish phrases into conversations and provides a glossary for the uninitiated.

Fans of all ages will clamor for Martin the Warrior, Brian Jacques' sixth installment in the popular Redwall series. Swashbuckling beasts, daredevil feats, and violent battles fill this adventure fantasy. Told as a story within a story, the main narrative reveals how legendary mouse Martin escapes from Marshank fortress, fights the evil Badrang, regains his father's sword, and earns his rightful title.

But Martin's victory comes at a great price. When the fighting is over he asks, ``How could any beast understand ... the freedom we won and the friends we lost?'' Real-life emotion and comic relief tuck around the action, making this a book not to be missed.

Informational books

Dan Andreasen's splendid oil paintings - reminiscent of classic works by American illustrators Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth - make By the Dawn's Early Light: The Story of the Star-Spangled Banner a treat for art lovers as well as history buffs. Steven Kroll tells the moving story of Francis Scott Key's imprisonment on a English ship while Fort McHenry was attacked. At dawn the next day, on seeing the distant American flag still flying, Key stood on deck and jotted a few lines on the back of an old letter. The poem started that morning later became the American national anthem. A photographic reproduction of the original poem, words, and music to ``The Star-Spangled Banner,'' a bibliography, and an index make this a useful research book.

Award-winning author Jean Fritz - well known for breathing life into dusty figures from history - resurrects 10 European explorers in Around the World in a Hundred Years: From Henry the Navigator to Magellan. Each famous explorer - Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Ponce de Leon, to name a few - has his own chapter, along with several humorous black-and-white illustrations by Anthony Bacon Venti. Readers learn about the curiosity, ambition, and greed that motivated men to explore, as well as real and imagined hardships that hindered their searches. Ocean storms swallowed boats; ships turned back because of crews fearful of ``dragon territory''; and food ran out, forcing sailors to eat sawdust and leather.

Brave men accomplished much in charting the world for Europe, but it was often at the expense of native peoples who were murdered, enslaved, or otherwise mistreated. Fritz does not shy away from this reality but treats it in a candid and sensitive manner. This book - giving a more balanced account of explorers than readers may have seen in the past - is a real find for young historians and classroom teachers.

First published in 1952, ``Charlotte's Web,'' by E.B. White, captures forever rural America of the 1950s. Now, after 10 years of research, Peter Neumeyer gives interested readers the opportunity to visit that era, peek over White's shoulder, and watch him write his contemporary classic.

The Annotated Charlotte's Web provides an intimate look at White's research and writing style. Sifting through eight drafts, Neumeyer shows where White struggled for the right word, ruthlessly cut pages, conferred with editor Ursula Nordstrom, and offered suggestions to illustrator Garth Williams. Neumeyer readily acknowledges that ``Charlotte's Web'' stands on its own. Nevertheless, this annotated version does much to illuminate White's genius.

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