Get out your gift lists! The following books will provide hours of pleasure to children. When you have selected a book, wrap it with a promise to read it aloud. Research by noted experts demonstrates that children who from early ages hear books read aloud become fluent, regular readers. You will be giving a child a long-lasting present and the gift of reading. The books reviewed here are excellent read-aloud stories.
Start a new tradition at your house of reading aloud A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman (Holiday House: $14.95; 47 pp.; age 5 to adult). Even the youngest child will be entranced by the sound of Thomas' vigorous, lyrical use of language. Children will love to cuddle close and view the detailed illustrations which expand this classic, giving it added continuity and depth. The opening illustrations show an older man walking and talking with a boy, suggesting a story within a story. This device aids a child's comprehension of the text. Hyman's care in providing young viewers with illustrations for each object mentioned further enlarges the child's understanding as the story is read. For example, Thomas' list of "useless presents" is accompanied by a picture of those unfamiliar gifts. The excellent design and format of the book add to the pleasure of sharing it with all ages.
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin: $15.95, unpaginated, ages 4 to 12) is an original fantasy that unfolds as a reminiscence of a boyhood adventure. One Christmas Eve a boy wakes to find a passenger train outside his window. It is the Polar Express, full of children going to the North Pole to see Santa and his elves. The story contains drama and magic that children will love. There is a mythical Santa, a magnificent train, energetic reindeer, and snow-painted landscapes. The boy receives a bell from Santa that only rings for those who believe in him. Its beautiful sound is more precious to the boy than any other gift. This theme of wonder and belief in the magic of Christmas is refreshing in a time when children want more, more, more. Van Allsburg is a master at creating memorable illustrations dramatized with rich, dark colors and illuminated by spots of bright light. He achieves a mysterious, magical tone with his art that echoes and expands the story's wondrous theme.
Toddlers will relish four simple stories about a small rabbit named Max. In Max's Bath, Max's Bedtime, Max's Birthday, Max's Breakfast by Rosemary Wells (Dial: $3.50 each, unpaginated; ages 18 months to 3 years), the author-illustrator demonstrates her ability to create character and humor in the briefest of tales. Max has a mind of his own, and his sister, Ruby, is always trying to guide him into a different path. But he succeeds in finding his own way and, in the process, will tickle the funny bone of even the youngest listeners. Each of these small, sturdy board books is delightful and full of fun. If your children are unacquainted with the four previous books about Max, they will also find them amusing.
Eric Carles' illustrations in The Very Busy Spider (Philomel: $14.95, unpaginated; ages 18 months to 5 years) immediately invite the child to touch and look while he enjoys listening. The pictures show each stage in building a web from a single thread to a complex, finished web. The developing web is embossed on each page so that the child can observe with his fingers as well as his eyes. As the spider spins, she spurns the requests of animals who try to tempt her to join them in their activities. A doomed fly buzzes around the animals on each page. Repeated phrases as well as the sound of each animal's voice will capture the interest of the child. Help your child's developing comprehension skills by encouraging him to count by touching the threads. Then let him locate the traveling fly.
As children listen to The Willow Maiden by Meghan Collins, pictures by Laszlo Gal (Dial: $11.89, unpaginated; ages 7 to 12) their eyes grow wide with wonder. Thrilled at listening to this fantasy, they immediately demand a rereading. This original, romantic tale is the love story of a young farmer and a beautiful maiden, who only takes a human form on Midsummer Night's Eve and the night of the harvest moon. The tale's power lies in the hard sacrifice each lover must make. Young audiences are spellbound as the hero confronts the deepest reality of his beloved's life and makes a difficult choice. Gal's watercolors reflect the misty enchantment of the text and will haunt the memory.