Family and friends are important to us all, but for a youngster they often make up the whole universe. The following new books reflect this fact, emphasizing themes of family and friends. Packed in among these offerings are a few smiles, a few tears, and a feeling that our worlds are richer for our loved ones.
Award-winning children's writer Gary Soto has paired up with newcomer artist Annika Nelson to create Canto Familiar. This collection of 25 poems deals with such familiar topics as family meals, pets, and chores. It has a decidedly Latino flavor, and many verses incorporate relatively simple Spanish words or phrases. Unfortunately, Soto does not include a brief Spanish-English glossary as in his other books. Nevertheless, the emotions evoked in these appealing poems are universal even though the settings
and some vocabulary are specific to Mexican-American families. Nelson's vibrant, linoleum-block prints are stunning, making this book as artistic as it is poetic.
In Been to Yesterdays: Poems of a Life well-known anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins has written his own coming-of-age story in verse. These interconnecting poems capture the heartbreak of a family split by divorce in the 1950s and forced to move from home to home. The resiliency, hope, and love throughout this book are real and uplifting. Stylized, black-and-white illustrations by Charlene Rendeiro add an extra dimension to Hopkins's lean poetry.
Lassie Come-Home, rewritten for young readers by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Susan Jeffers, is one of the ''finds'' of this season. For baby boomers who grew up with the TV Lassie, this retelling of Eric Knight's 1938 story will be quite a surprise. The focus is not on the clever things that Lassie does. It's on the terrible poverty that forces an English coal-mining family to sell their collie - and on the devotion that allows Lassie to overcome extraordinary odds and return to her loved ones.
Subdued illustrations - in gray, green, black, and collie-orange - reveal the stark beauty of the British Isles. Jeffers's fitting artwork and Wells's respectful rendition of a heartwarming classic make this a book to treasure.
The rural African-American family in Angela Shelf Medearis's Poppa's New Pants has a great sense of love. When guests come, everybody - including the company - is tuckered out by nightfall. So no one - not Grandma Tiny, Aunt Viney, or Big Mama - has the energy to shorten Poppa's pants.
Affection for Poppa and remorse for refusing his simple request bring out the best in the three women. But can the same be said for the pants? Humor and tenderness mark the story, and John Ward's painterly illustrations add richness and depth to the book.
I Spy School Days continues the series of picture-riddle ''I Spy'' books - written by Jean Marzollo and photographed by Walter Wick - that have been a big hit across the country for the last few years. The new book arrives just as children are back in school. ''I Spy School Days'' captures a number of familiar classroom and playground settings in magnificently photographed double-page spreads.
Eleonora is a book that will educate as it increases a child's compassion for animals. It takes readers to the plains of Africa to witness an elephant family's tender devotion to one of its dying members. Natascha Biebow relates this allegedly true story, told to her as a little girl by a gamekeeper in South Africa. It is beautifully illustrated by the unique cut-paper artwork of Britta Teckentrup.
Set in Nazi-occupied France, Star of Fear, Star of Hope by Jo Hoestlandt was first published two years ago in Paris. It is a poignant story of a childhood friendship.
Helen doesn't really understand the significance of the yellow star her friend Lydia has to wear or the threat to Lydia and her family on the night Nazis are rounding up Jews. All Helen knows is that her sleep-over birthday party is spoiled that night when Lydia suddenly wants to go home.
The next morning Helen's anger over Lydia's departure turns to love and remorse when she finds that Lydia and her family have vanished. Helen deeply regrets some angry words of the night before, but remains hopeful that Lydia will return.
This sobering story is all the more affecting because of Johanna Kang's soft, muted illustrations, which won the 1994 Graphic Prize Award at the Bologna Book Fair.
Books for Middle and Older Readers
S.E. Hinton has produced a funny, sweet charmer of a book in The Puppy Sister. (Yes, this is the same S.E. Hinton who wrote ''The Outsiders,'' a modern young-adult classic, in the late 1960s.)
Her newest book - a suburban fantasy - starts out as a boy-and-his-dog story, written from the dog's point of view. But it ends up recording the relationship of a brother and sister when the puppy turns into a girl. Amusing situations evolve from this outlandish transformation, and the author creates additional humor by capturing realistic details in the way kids relate to each other, their pets, and their parents. Typical situations include soccer practice, medical check-ups, and family holidays.
Gooseberry Park, written by Newbery Medal-winning author Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard, is a cross between E.B. White's ''Charlotte's Web'' and Sheila Burnford's ''Incredible Journey.'' Stumpy the Squirrel makes a nest in a pin oak tree just before her three babies are born.
Although they arrive happy and healthy, an ice storm soon destroys the oak and scatters the family. Stumpy's friends - a wisecracking bat, a kind and clever chocolate Labrador, and an intelligent hermit crab - work together to save the babies and reunite them with their mother. Here's a satisfying, heartwarming story that should be available in bookstores next month.
Last year's Newbery Medal-winner, Sharon Creech, has a snappy novel out this season. First published in 1990 in Britain, Absolutely Normal Chaos will reach an American audience next month. In journal format, narrator Mary Lou Finney records her summer as part of a school assignment. Her first summer romance, a visit from an awkward cousin, and a neighbor's unexpected death give Mary Lou plenty to write about. As part of her summer reading assignment, Mary Lou has studied the ''Odyssey,'' so, much of her
journal refers to that classic. This humorous, dramatic, and interesting book is full of surprises.
Protecting Marie, by award-winning author/illustrator Kevin Henkes, is an absolute winner. It captures perfectly the common imperfections of a loving family.
Twelve-year-old Fanny is the only child of an artistic and temperamental father, coming to grips with his age. Her more youthful mother is a staunch ally as Fanny negotiates her sometimes difficult relationship with her father.
Fanny loves both her parents deeply, as they do her, but she is also vulnerable to the anger and hurt that can come when relations are strained. Also involved are a black lab puppy, which Fanny's father gives her and then refuses to let her keep, as well as an older dog he gives her months later to make amends.
This story feels genuine and is heart-wrenching, tender, and funny. The reader always knows, however, that a solid foundation of love undergirds the characters as they struggle to express themselves.
Traditional values are packed into The Book of Virtues for Young People, by William J. Bennett. This literary anthology, based on Bennett's best-selling book for adults, is arranged under 10 chapter headings: Friendship, Compassion, Courage, Honesty, and so forth.
The various poems, stories, folktales, and other writings are well-known and loved, including Rudyard Kipling's ''If -,'' ''O. Henry's Gift of the Magi,'' ''Aesop's Fox and the Crow,'' and several Bible stories. Many families will want to own this volume.