Literary Critters Delight Children And Cater to Multicultural Market

In this spring's crop of books, publishers use animal characters to avoid racial and gender biases


Selected by Jane Yolen

Illustrated by Allan Eitzen

Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press

64 pp., $16.95

Ages 4 to 8


By Sarah Josepha Hale

Illustrated by Salley Mavor

Orchard Books

unpaged, $14.95

Ages 2 to 6


By Sam McBratney

Illustrated by Anita Jeram

Candlewick Press

unpaged, $13.95

Ages 3 and up


By Gary Soto

Illustrated by Susan Guevara

Putnam, unpaged, $15.95

Ages 4 to 8


By Tony Johnston

Illustrated by Mark Teague

Scholastic/Blue Sky Press,

unpaged, $14.95

Ages 4 to 8


By James Sage

Illustrated by Britta Teckentrup

Simon & Schuster

unpaged, $15

Ages 4 to 8


Retold by Ethel Heins

Illustrated by Anita Lobel

Greenwillow Books

32 pp., $15

Ages 5 and up


By Nancy Farmer

Orchard Press

152 pp., $15.95

Ages 9 to 11


Edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh

Delacorte Press, 179 pp., $16.95

All ages


By Brian Jacques

Illustrated by Allan Curless

Philomel Books, 336 pp., $17.95

All ages


By A.D. Coleman

Photos selected by Jacques Lowe

Chronicle Books

48 pp., $14.95

Ages 8 to 12

This spring, animals seem to be the stars -- or at least the supporting actors -- in children's books. Amy Ehrlich, vice president and editor in chief of Candlewick Press in Cambridge, Mass., says, ''Animal books have always been a staple,'' but she admits they are particularly appealing to publishers trying to serve today's multicultural market.

''You short circuit all kinds of concerns by using animals instead of people,'' she says. ''Dealing with animals gets into pure relationships without all the prejudices of race and gender.''

Young children may not understand the notions of political correctness that are behind such an emphasis on animal books, but they always appreciate lovable characters. This spring's lineup full of captivating critters won't let them down.

Poems and Rhymes

Starting with ''anteater'' and ending with ''zebra,'' Alphabestiary: Animal Poems From A to Z is a parade of poems selected by award-winning author Jane Yolen. Beasts, both familiar and fabulous, are represented -- along with poets, both classic and contemporary. Bats, cows, tigers, and unicorns are among the subjects of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, Ogden Nash, William Blake, and Jack Prelutsky. Allan Eitzen's bright and fanciful collage illustrations add kid-appeal to every page.

It's hard to imagine a more charming way to revitalize a 165-year-old rhyme than by adding Salley Mavor's creative, hand-stitched fabric relief. She uses soft sculpture, applique, embroidery, knitting, and other textile techniques to depict the details of Sarah Josepha Hale's Mary Had a Little Lamb. Many children will be engaged by Mary and the woolly lamb that follows her to a one-room schoolhouse -- and even more will want to pore over this intricate, three-dimensional, fabric and found-object artwork.

Picture Books

Guess How Much I Love You is the perfect bedtime story for sleepy little ones. Sam McBratney's soft, repetitive text is reminiscent of classic tales by Margaret Wise Brown (''Goodnight Moon,'' ''The Runaway Bunny''). In this tender, reassuring story about the love between a parent and child, Little Nutbrown Hare wants to tell Big Nutbrown Hare how much he loves him. But no matter how far the little hare reaches, stretches, hops, or imagines in describing his love, the bigger hare always goes farther. Anita Jeram's watercolor renderings of this endearing pair add sweet humor to a finely crafted book.

Author Gary Soto and illustrator Susan Guevara have teamed up to create a picture book that's hotter than a jalapeno. Chato's Kitchen is a saucy story about two ''low-riding'' Latino cats from East Los Angeles who mistakenly think they can trick a family of mice into being dinner as well as dinner guests. This book is a positively delicious blend of humorous illustrations and snappy text, sprinkled with Spanish phrases.

The Iguana Brothers, by Tony Johnston, is a funny, satisfying tale about Dom and Tom, two Mexican iguanas. This inventive duo wiles away the hours blinking, thinking, planning, and talking (occasionally in Spanish). Their hilariously inappropriate schemes and daydreams include eating pigs instead of bugs, ruling the earth as mini-dinosaurs, and looking for a friend as beautiful and twinkly as a constellation of stars. After lowering their expectations, Dom and Tom discover something significant and practical -- that two brothers can be terrific friends. Mark Teague's droll acrylic illustrations combine vibrant colors and sun-baked earth tones to complete this south-of-the-border winner.

Myths and Fables

Coyote Makes Man, by James Sage, is representative of creation myths from native American nations. Indigenous to the Great Plains and western United States, coyotes are often depicted as tricksters or resourceful creators in Indian lore. In this synthesized tale, Coyote calls all animals together to discuss making man. Each wants man made in its own likeness. So the frustrated Coyote waits until the animals sleep before endowing man with the best qualities of each animal. Britta Teckentrup's stunning and sophisticated collage illustrations raise this book head and shoulders above the usual creation tale.

Most Americans know nothing about the celebrated 19th-century Russian writer Ivan Krylov. Ethel Heins, a grande dame of children's literature, may have remedied that with The Cat and the Cook and Other Fables of Krylov. Here she agreeably retells twelve of Krylov's 150 original fables. Marked by wry humor and common wisdom, this treasury features a titmouse who brags about setting the ocean on fire, a starling whose advice backfires, and a wolf who has angered all who could give him refuge. Award-winning illustrator Anita Lobel adds illustrations inspired by Russian church paintings and peasant art.

Older Readers

With wit, humor, and intelligence, Newbery Honor-winning author Nancy Farmer has written The Warm Place, a heartwarming adventure about a baby giraffe kidnapped from the plains of Africa. Little Juva's capture, transport to a San Francisco zoo, and subsequent escape have much to do with friendship, magic, and trusting one's self. This thought-provoking story -- filled with greedy, evil people and kind, intelligent animals -- has something for everybody: animal-interpreted Bible stories, potentially devastating environmental dangers, and plenty of fast-paced action.

A Newbery Zoo, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh, is bound to be a family favorite. It's filled with a dozen short stories and excerpts from Newbery Award-winning authors. This entertaining collection includes realistic tales about a wounded wolf, a black fox, and two bay ponies, as well as imaginative stories about a talking crow, an enterprising cat, and a dancing camel. An ''About the Author'' section offers information about the writers showcased in this anthology -- Lloyd Alexander, Beverly Cleary, Jean Craighead George, and Virginia Hamilton to name a few.

Brian Jacques has written another spellbinder in The Bellmaker, the seventh installment of his Redwall series. Bursting with action, this adventure fantasy chronicles the Bellmaker's prophetic dream, sea voyage, and overland journey, which take him and stout-hearted beasts from peaceful Redwall Abbey to the troubled kingdom of Southsward. These friends defy danger to search for Mariel, the Bellmaker's daughter, and her warrior companion, Dandin. Castle attacks, swordplay, dungeon escapes, and other escapades abound in this robust tale of good and evil.

Informational Books

Photographers with an eye for excellence will recognize a rare educational opportunity when Looking at Photographs: Animals is published next month. Black and white photos, as well as color shots, have been selected by award-winning photographer Jacques Lowe (widely known as President John F. Kennedy's personal photographer). This first volume of a photography series features animal pictures by such stylists as Alfred Stieglitz, William Wegman, and Lowe himself.

Photos run the gamut from freeze-frame movement studies, snapped in the late 1800s, to more technically advanced microphotographs of insects, taken a century later. Superbly designed layouts are a distinguishing feature of this volume. Each double-page spread consists of a full-page photograph opposite an explanatory essay and a much smaller companion photo.

Photography critic A.C. Coleman has written the interesting and intelligent commentaries. In these, he briefly discusses such topics as lighting, point of view, and composition. There is also a glossary for novices. The amazing visual breadth of this book gives it wide appeal.

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