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For new readers. A springtime menagerie

BIRDS, bugs, and bunnies hold special fascination for young children at this time of year. Three new books with markedly different styles of writing and illustration star these springtime creatures and invite exploration by beginning readers. In Have You Seen Birds? by Joanne Oppenheim, illustrated by Barbara Reid (Scholastic, New York, $8.95, 32 pp., ages 3-7) the author encourages the reader with repetition. On every other page the story asks, ``Have you seen birds?'' In response to the question, the birds come from the woods, the shore, the meadow, the marsh. And they come with much commotion. Noisy birds are ``squealing, squawking, screeching, talking.'' Barnyard birds are ``scratching, clucking, pecking, strutting.'' Sky birds are ``wind-wheeling, freedom-feeling, diving, dipping, gliding, tipping.'' After twisting their tongues around the rhythmic phrases, children are delighted by the simple repetitious chorus of ``Have you seen birds?''

Oppenheim's catchy sing-song text is so much fun it could stand on its own as a poem to memorize or a song to sing, but what a treat to have illustrations that are equally intriguing. Each picture is richly crafted, not with pen or brush, but with the unique and colorful plasticine-relief technique of Barbara Reid. In addition to being a wonderful tool for illustration, this medium is particularly appropriate in a child's book because of the familiarity most preschoolers have with plasticine clay. A child's use of plasticine, however, bears little resemblance to Reid's artistry. From tiny feathers to vast horizons, she captures detail, personality, and humor.

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A second picture book that elicits the young child's interest is House of Leaves, by Kiyoshi Soya (Philomel, New York, $10.95, 24 pp., ages 2-6). The tone of this simple story is quiet and inviting. Sarah goes for a walk on a spring day and is surprised by a sudden shower. She takes refuge under the boughs of a tree. As she quietly stoops in her ``house of leaves,'' Sarah is joined by other garden visitors seeking shelter from the raindrops. Children will share Sarah's wonder and delight at the arrival of a praying mantis, a beetle, a cabbage butterfly, a ladybug, and an ant.

The illustrations establish the simple tone of Sarah's afternoon adventure. Initially hidden in the muted colors of the garden, the insects creep into view one at a time. Sarah's quizzical expressions and ingenuous manner give this book a warm appeal.

In ``House of Leaves,'' the brief text might seem almost incidental to a story told largely with pictures. But the author has taken great care in choosing words. Children will understand that they are reading not just sentences, but a story. Soya has also provided a plot that encourages the learning reader to guess at outcomes and master the new vocabulary on every page.

Anne Carter encourages children to read through a more traditionally academic approach. In Bella's Secret Garden, illustrated by John Butler (Crown, New York, $5.95, 25 pp., ages 4-7), the author provides a story of high interest with simple phrases and limited vocabulary.

Bella is one of many rabbits displaced by a construction project. A new housing development has destroyed their warren, and they are living in bulldozed dirt piles on the edge of suburbia. Bella is undisturbed by the new neighbors and their houses, until she gets caught stealing lettuce from the Pringles' garden.

Children will enjoy the many life-size pictures of rabbits and appreciate their realistic detail. The illustrator stresses the rabbits' point of view in his drawings.

When Bella meets her first human, all we see of the boy is a tennis shoe and ankle. When a cat pounces on Bella, it covers two pages.

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In each of these three appealing picture books, a strong combination of author and illustrator has issued a refreshing invitation to young readers.

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