The scent of good books

The season's best children's books present issues silly and serious with beautiful illustrations.


Retold by Odds Bodkin

Illustrated by Gennady Spirin

Gulliver Books/Harcourt Brace

Unpaged, $16, ages 5 and up


By Uri Shulevitz

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Unpaged, $16, ages 3 and up



By Tana Hoban

Greenwillow Books

Unpaged, $15, ages 3 and up


By Mary Ann Hoberman

Illustrated by Betty Fraser

Browndeer/Harcourt Brace

68 pp., $20, ages 4-8



By Patricia and Fredrick McKissack

Illustrated by James E. Ransome

Atheneum Books

134 pp., $20, ages 8 and up

Holidays are almost upon us, and plenty of fluffy, funny, and even foolish gifts will make their way to children. This season, why not be the favorite friend or relative who chooses to give them books? Filled with ideas, books are gifts that often last a lifetime. Even if a good book gets lost in a move or lent permanently to a buddy, the impressions it leaves behind can shape a child's future. Here are some of this year's memorable selections.

Concept Books

The Crane Wife is a beautiful and haunting retelling of a classic Japanese tale. Odds Bodkin writes of a lonely sailmaker's kindness being rewarded by love, and the same man's greed causing great loss. The poignancy of the story is enhanced by the exquisite watercolors by Russian-born Gennady Spirin. Using a pallet of rich gold, brown, and black, he fashions medieval Japanese landscapes as stunning as lacquer screens and as delicate as silk tapestries.

The artistic brilliance of award-winning Uri Shulevitz shines again in Snow. He has created a book for every young child who eagerly awaits that floating, feathery white stuff. Despite adult predictions to the contrary, a little boy's gloomy town receives a bright blanket of snow. Disgruntled grown-ups dash home, leaving the glistening streets empty for a joyful dance by the boy, his dog, and other in-the-know friends. This gentle, sparsely written book captures the delicious anticipation and delirious delight of a long-awaited snowfall.

So Many Circles, So Many Squares, by photographer Tana Hoban, is a find! With a handful of interesting, full-color photos depicting circles and squares, she may well change the way viewers see their world. Toddlers will love the photos of everyday objects, older children will recognize the familiar geometric shapes, and adults sharing the book will think, "Hey, that's really neat!" We look at shapes all the time, but do we really see them? Here, a round wheel is parked on square cobblestones, round traffic lights are attached to a square metal frame, and round teapots are for sale in a square-grid crate. Many, many more such juxtapositions are tucked in these pictures for young readers to discover.


Want to give young ones the fun of rhyme, rhythm, and word play? Then look for The Llama Who Had No Pajama. There's no reason to wait for poetry units at school to introduce children to verse when Mary Ann Hoberman can do it with her collection of 100 poems. All originals that she's written over the past 40 years, these verses are perfectly aimed at preschoolers and kids in the early grades. Her subjects include weather, animals, insects, and other childhood concerns. The volume does not contain the spots, pox, and sick-bed rhymes that are all too common to this genre.

Most poetry begs to be read aloud, but with this book, be sure to snuggle close enough so young listeners see the pictures. Children build their visual vocabulary, in part, from viewing the illustrations in these early books. Betty Fraser's engaging watercolors and excellent page designs are more than worthy of becoming childhood memories.


While Let My People Go is not a book for every child, it may be life-changingly meaningful to many. Talented wife-and-husband team Patricia and Fredrick McKissack present stories inside stories to tell young readers about American slavery in the 1800s and explain the impact the Bible has had on African Americans.

Fictional character Price, a former slave, tells his daughter Charlotte a dozen well-known Bible stories that relate to difficulties in her life. Some of the situations portrayed are harsh - as slavery inevitably was - but the Old Testament tales bring her comfort, understanding, and hope.

Illustrator James Ransome gives additional power to these dramatic narratives with realistic, full-page oil paintings for each early American setting and its corresponding Bible story.

Although the book is nondenominational and uses the King James version of the Bible as its source, some readers may struggle with its view of creation and original sin. Nevertheless, understanding how Bible stories were applied to real-life circumstances can provide insights and inspiration for children and adults.

* Karen Carden regularly reviews children's books for the Monitor.

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