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Stories of Character and Courage

Children's imagination thrives where heroes, heroines, and noble deeds happen.

What makes a great children's book? Good word choice? Engaging characters? Strong plot? Yes, all of these. But Kathleen Odean, author of the recently published paperbacks "Great Books for Girls" and "Great Books for Boys" (Ballantine), has additional measures: "Girls need books featuring strong, capable females. Boys need compelling books that depict caring males." Using some of the criteria she employed for her guidebooks - spunky female characters and kind male characters - here is a sampling of this season's "great books."

Concept Books

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Concept books are a fundamental part of any pre-reader's library, but they don't have the traditional elements that make a book great. For the most part, there are no plots, few well-developed characters, and usually no recognizable setting. These books, as the name implies, present very basic ideas: the alphabet, numbers, opposites, colors, for instance. They must be clear, imaginative, and age-appropriate. In a field burgeoning with mediocre fare, here are two great concept books.

Keith Haring's Ten is a rainbow-bright counting book for the young and the young at heart. In sturdy board-book format, it displays the simplified, dancing people that made Haring a popular and world-renowned artist. Colorful, androgynous figures in magenta, orange, and primary colors jump off the page in wiggly-jiggly, kid-pleasing ways. A particularly welcome feature of this well-designed book is the writing of numbers - 1 through 10 - in Spanish, German, French, and English, as well as in Arabic numerals.

Glorious is not too strong an adjective for The Jungle ABC. Michael Roberts, best known for cover designs of The New Yorker magazine, illustrated this over-sized alphabet book with color-paper cutouts. The left side of each double-page spread holds one stylized letter printed on black; the right side has crisp, clear - and usually playful - African images to correspond to each letter of the alphabet. Drums, orchids, parrots, snakes, and zebras fill the pages. Adults accustomed to over-easy ABC books, may experience a few moments of puzzlement. But all the concepts are listed in the back of the volume, and few are so hard as to frustrate young readers.

Picture Books

Raising Dragons, by Jerdine Nolen, is an irresistible story of love and loyalty. On a Sunday-before-supper walk, a little African-American girl discovers a huge egg. Fascinated, she waits and watches to find out what's inside. When the hatching egg cracks open, out peeks Hank - a dragon. He's well-loved, well-cared-for, and oh-so-helpful. Hank plants corn, then pops it with his fiery breath. He saves Ma's tomato crop and gives nighttime rides.

All is well down on the farm, until Hank grows as large as a barn. Then his caretaker realizes that, as much as she'll miss him, Hank would be happier playing "run-and-fly-and-chase" with others of his kind on Dragon Island. After a teary goodbye, our dragon-raising girl receives Hank's farewell present - a wheelbarrow full of glowing, glittering dragon eggs.

Elise Primavera's charming acrylic-and-pastel illustrations - especially of the girl's eager face - give this book sky-high visual appeal.

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In Beautiful Warrior, Caldecott Medal winner Emily Arnold McCully has written and illustrated the legendary tale of Wu Mei, a Buddhist nun and kung fu expert. Set in 17th-century China, this book traces Wu Mei's life from her courtly birth to her work at Shaolin Monastery - and finally to teaching an extraordinary female student, Mingyi. Teacher and student meet when Mingyi, a bean-curd seller, is about to be robbed. When the same would-be thief demands her hand in marriage, Mingyi bargains for a year's postponement. It is agreed that the wedding will proceed only if the brutish man can best Mingyi in a kung fu match. Despite her early lack of confidence, amazing control and skill come when Mingyi learns to concentrate.

McCully takes advantage of the book's elongated shape to paint panels and scroll-like illustrations that echo the ancient Chinese setting.

Frances Harber retells an endearing Jewish story in The Brothers' Promise. An elderly farmer asks his two sons to always take care of each other. They agree, and the father replies, "when a brother helps a brother, the angels in heaven weep tears of joy." As the years pass, the brothers work their farm together. Although one is quiet and scholarly and the other a more gregarious family man, they dearly love and respect each other. When drought parches the land, they remember their father's wishes and, in a touching way, bring down heavenly rains. Thor Wickstrom's oil paintings expand with a genuine warmth that fits this traditional tale.


Adventure-seeking, horse-loving kids will revel in Riding Freedom, a novel based on the true story of Charlotte "Charley" Parkhurst. Orphaned as a baby, she grows up in a New England workhouse orphanage. Her greatest joy is slipping out to the stables to tend the horses. When a mean overseer bans her from the stables - on the same day her favorite horse dies and her dearest friend is adopted - she plans to run away, vowing never to return. To help ensure her success, she takes on the persona of a young boy and finds, that as a male, she has many more options. She cleans stables, grooms horses, and drives stage coaches.

Eventually "Charley" becomes a sought-after driver, and gold-rush opportunities open the way to California. There, a horse kick causes her to lose sight in one eye, and she is subsequently known as "One-eye Charley." Nonetheless, the courage and determination of this woman allow her to triumph where others would have given in.

The original Charlotte Parkhurst lived during the time of the budding women's rights movement, and "Charley," still in male disguise, strode up to the polls in 1868 and apparently became the first woman to vote in the United States.

The Great Turkey Walk, by Kathleen Karr, is a fictional version of a real-life turkey drive that took place in 1863. In this romp, 15-year-old Simon, who seems to have more brawn than brain, sets out to herd 1,000 turkeys from eastern Missouri to Denver where they were certain to fetch a higher price. Simon is a sweetheart of a fellow who heads west with two good mules, a loyal drover, and a dog. Out on the trail, they attract lots of attention and the interest of some mighty shady characters. The turkey herders tumble into one disagreeable predicament after another, but kind folks and boon companions are there to lend a hand. A sweet-natured schoolmarm, a runaway slave, friendly Indians, and a pretty girl with a mind of her own all contribute to this solid story and its feel-good finale. Written in a style reminiscent of Sid Fleischman, this is a darn good yarn!

This spring, British author Brian Jacques bestowed a wondrous gift on eager fans: his latest installment in the Redwall series. The Long Patrol is every bit the rich, imaginative, action-packed, and supremely satisfying book that Redwall readers have come to expect. Here, Tammo, a young hare obsessed with war games and play fighting, bounds off from home late one night. Puffed up with ideas of honor and glory, he joins the Long Patrol, a small group of elite fighting hares. Tammo's adventures take him to Redwall Abby and beyond. At Redwall he's called to defend the beloved haven of peaceful woodland creatures from a horde of vermin warriors sweeping the countryside. The battles prove necessary for the protection of gentle beasts, but Tammo loses good friends in the fighting. Afterward, he realizes that grief rather than glory accompanies war. Don't expect to be dry-eyed when turning the last pages; in Redwall even the brave shed tears.

Information Books

Husband-and-wife team Brian and Andrea Davis Pinkney dedicate their newest book, Duke Ellington to their daughter and only child, Chloe, "who fills us with music." This may be a clue that they realize this picture-book biography is something special.

It's written with such verve that the lines practically sing out on their own: "Duke painted colors with his band's sound. He could swirl the butterscotch tones of Tricky Sam's horn with the silver notes of the alto saxophones. And, ooh, those clarinets. Duke could blend their red-hot blips with a purple dash of brass from the trumpet section." Scratchboard illustrations capture colorful swirls of music on almost every page. In addition to chronicling the life of this jazz great, the book offers a generous list of sources for more information about Duke Ellington.

With warm weather already here or on the way, many youngsters will be spending days outside. One way to enjoy that time is to really understand what's going on with all the flora and fauna. Scholastic Books and the Audubon Society have just published four excellent field guides for kids.

The new National Audubon Society First Field Guides series includes the individual titles: Birds, Insects, Wildflowers, and Rocks and Minerals. Each is filled with bright, clear photographs and offers a wealth of accurate information without using hard-to-follow scientific language.

At the front, there's a general section, providing basic information about color, shape, size, characteristics, and habitat. Then comes an identification section, featuring 50 of the most commonly seen species or specimens. There's a quick-reference chart for use in the field. Adults and young naturalists alike can only hope that these are the first of many such guides.

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

Concept Books


By Keith Haring

Hyperion, unpaged, $6.95

All ages


Written and illustrated by Michael Roberts

Foreward by Iman

Hyperion, unpaged, $19.95

All ages

Picture Books


Written by Jerdine Nolen

Illustrated by Elise Primavera

Harcourt Brace, unpaged, $16

Ages 4-8


Written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

Scholastic, unpaged, $16.95

Ages 4-8


Retold by Frances Harber

Illustrated by Thor Wickstrom

Albert Whitman & Co. Unpaged, $15.95

Ages 6-10



By Pam Muoz Ryan

Illustrated by Brian Selznick

Scholastic, $15.95

Ages 8-12


By Kathleen Karr

Farrar Straus & Giroux

199 pp., $16

Ages 10 and up


By Brian Jacques

Illustrated by Allan Curless

Philomel, 358 pp., $21.99

Ages 12 and up

Informational Books


By Andrea Davis Pinkney

Illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Hyperion, unpaged, $15.95

Ages 5 - 9


Written by Scott Weidensaul


Written by Christina Wilsdon


Written by Edward Ricciuti

and Margaret W. Carruthers


Written by Susan Hood

Scholastic/Reference, 160 pp., $10.95

Ages 8 and up

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