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A Rich Grab Bag of Children's Reading

ALTHOUGH the flow of new children's books this fall includes many fine titles, a dispiriting trend is emerging.Some of the negative traits of television and video culture - where slick packaging often prevails over substance - are creeping into children's books. Product-oriented book spinoffs of popular TV and movie cartoons are multiplying, with tie-ins ranging from stuffed toys to lunch boxes, calendars, and even sleeping bags. "Gimmick" books have evolved from simple lift-the-flaps to pop-ups, pullouts, cutouts, and peek-throughs, books that all but sing and dance. (Actually, some do chirp out a tune, thanks to tiny microchip implants.) For older readers, serial novels are the hot item. Although these aren't new, they have multiplied, and they draw on the same shallow formulas as do numerous popular TV shows, where characters are largely one-dimensional, dialogue is flippant, and pat answers solve pat problems. Like any other field, children's literature has had its fair share of mediocrity, of titles and tie-ins that aim for the checkbook and not the heart or mind. But over the years, children's literature has served as a bastion of excellence - the preserver and disseminator of myth and legend, of adventure and fantasy, of deliciously subversive humor and thought-provoking explorations of issues and ideas. Cotton candy is fine in small doses. Interactive books, for example, have been around a long time (just ask any baby boomer who cut his or her teeth - literally - on Dorothy Kunhardt's wonderful "Pat the Bunny" and who is probably now reading it to his or her own children). Such books have long since proved their value in introducing small children to the pleasures of the written word. Formula novels and serials can be a pleasant change from meatier reading, as well as a way of getting a nonreader hooked on books. But as a steady diet? No. For anyone concerned about the proliferation of fluff, the best defense may be a good offense. If your child is reading one of the currently popular series of books, perhaps encourage him or her to borrow them from the library. Save bookstore purchases for the kind of books that have stood - and will stand - the test of time, that will be read and reread, then passed along to younger siblings and perhaps even a future generation. (For suggestions on selecting these kinds of books, see story at right.) If consumers used their wallets to vote for quality, the market for mediocrity would shrivel. The boom in children's books may have brought some problems with it, but the upside is enormous variety, a readily available backlist of favorite titles, and a wide range of new voices and new artists to choose from. Lively nonfiction for every age range is thriving, and there's a noticeable and much-needed increase in multicultural books. The following selection of recent titles is guaranteed to nourish the spirit and imagination of young readers:

Picture books Readers will feel an instant rapport with the spunky young African-American heroine of Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch (Dial, $13.95, ages 4 to 8). Grace is eager to try out for the part of Peter Pan in the upcoming school play, but she's discouraged by her classmates (she is a girl, they tell her, and black). "You can be anything you want, Grace, if you put your mind to it," her grandmother tells her, and whisks her off to see a ballet of "Romeo and Juliet," featuring a black Juliet. Her confidence bolstered, Grace wins the part by a unanimous vote. Her triumph is glowingly recorded in Binch's watercolors, so imbued with energy and affection that they fairly leap off the pages. Flight, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Mike Wimmer (Philomel, $14.95, ages 5 and up), is a fine example of the thoroughly researched and creatively presented nonfiction available for even the youngest readers. It transports readers to 1927 and the rainy airfield on Long Island where Charles Lindbergh is preparing to attempt the first transatlantic flight. Bold perspectives and crisp, present-tense prose give this visually arresting book a sense of immediacy, and older children as well as adults will also find it riveting. At treaty negotiations in the 1850s, Chief Seattle purportedly delivered an eloquent speech about the reverence with which American Indians hold the earth. His words have never lost their relevance, and his message, as presented by Susan Jeffers in Brother Eagle, Sister Sky (Dial, $14.95, all ages), is remarkably timely. Jeffers uses the pages as sweeping canvases for her delicate but powerful images, and her artwork creates a visual counterpoint to Seattle's words, showing the pristine forests, rivers, and plains of an earlier time when people lived in harmony with their surroundings, and the gradual, devastating transformation that accompanied westward expansion. The final image is a triumphant and hopeful one, with children replanting a hillside stripped of timber as the spirits of a American Indian family look on in approval. Well-suited for either home or classroom use, the book would be a good springboard for discussing the importance of caring for the environment. Caldecott medalist Chris Van Allsburg is in top form with The Wretched Stone (Houghton Mifflin, $17.95, all ages), a sly allegory about the numbing effects of too much television. Written as a captain's log, the book chronicles the transformation of the crew of the Rita Anne from music-loving, storytelling, peaceable men into (quite literally) apes after they pick up a strange, glowing "stone" from an uncharted island. Fortunately, a lightning storm puts the stone out of commission, and Captain Hope is a ble to reverse the process by reading to his men - although they never quite lose their taste for bananas. The message isn't particularly subtle, but neither is it heavy-handed, and as always, Van Allsburg's luminous artwork is inspired.

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For beginning and middle grades James Marshall's inimitable sense of humor is unleashed again in Rats on the Roof (Dial, $12.95, ages 6 to 10), a collection of original stories that, in good Aesop tradition, address such vices as vanity and foolhardiness, as well as the virtues of common sense and sticking by one's friends. Marshall's puns and outrageous drawings accompany the antics of a cast of characters that includes a practical and quick-thinking cow, a vain frog, and a pair of silly sheep who, because they can't read (and won't admit it), nearly end up as wolf snacks. In American Tall Tales (Alfred A. Knopf, $18, ages 6 and up), Mary Pope Osborne assembles a rattling good collection of familiar whoppers. Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, and Paul Bunyan are joined by lesser-known characters, including an original one, Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind, who is a composite of several briefer yarns about frontier heroines. Osborne has toned down the more violent aspects of the tales for her audience, and includes historical notes on each story. Michael McCurdy's meticulousl y executed wood engravings are an elegant complement. Boy finds dog, boy loses dog, boy gets dog. That's the plot in a nutshell of Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (Atheneum, $12.95, ages 8 to 12). Set in rural West Virginia and told from the point of view of 11-year-old Marty Preston, the story of the boy and the mistreated beagle he hides from its owner is unusually warm and moving. In one of the harder lessons of growing up, Marty learns both the responsibilities of love and the rewards of honesty and courage. This would be an excellent choice as a fam ily read-aloud. For anyone boggled by the price tag of a multivolume encyclopedia, The Random House Children's Encyclopedia (Random House, $60, ages 7 to 12) will be a welcome alternative. This exceptionally handsome volume is bursting with full-color illustrations and information on just about every topic imaginable, from astronauts and glaciers to knights and heraldry, water pollution, and zoos. The book's clean, inviting layout makes it readily accessible to both research and browsing. For older readers With extraordinary sensitivity, Paula Fox explores the problem of homelessness in Monkey Island (Orchard, $14.95, ages 10 and up). After his father deserts them, 11-year-old Clay Garrity and his pregnant mother end up in a shelter. When his mother disappears, Clay spends five weeks living on the streets of New York City, where he is taken under the wing of two street people. Seasoned writer Fox presents an unblinking view of Clay's challenges (hunger, cold, illness, and mindless violence), and deftly avo ids crossing the line into melodrama. The ending is happy - Clay is eventually reunited with his mother and new baby sister - but the message is sobering. My Sister Sif, by Ruth Park (Viking, $12.95, ages 10 and up), is part science fiction, part fantasy, part plea for the environment, and an entirely compelling read. Set in the not-too-distant future, it tells of a pair of sisters attending school in Sydney, who return home to the idyllic island of Rongo. There, they discover a dark side to their paradise, as pollution threatens the fragile balance of life for their most unusual family.

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