Woven into my childhood memories are the books my mother read aloud to me. I recall the uncontrolled glee I experienced upon hearing about Henry Huggins and his multiplying guppies. Curious George gave me courage to try out new adventures. My tears flowed in sympathy for the struggles of Amos Fortune.
The qualities that made those books memorable to me still attract children. The books that children request again and again either touch the heart, tickle the funnybone or enliven the imagination. The following books have one or more of these qualities and will make lasting gifts. The memories multiply when adult and child read and discuss them together:
Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti, illustrated by Michele Lemieux (Morrow: $15; ages 6 to 12). Stunning paintings illuminate the traditional Christmas opera. The Three Kings following the Star stop to rest at the humble home of a poor, crippled shepherd boy, Amahl. There a miracle occurs when Amahl is healed. The text retains the wonder and intensity of the original libretto. Lemieux chose desert tones for her watercolors, which glowingly illustrate the richness of the Wise Men's robes as well as the stark desert setting. Her illustrations emphasize the vastness of the scene, while subtly expressing the personalities of each character. After you and your child read this handsome book, listen to the opera together.
On a different note, children will find the questions of the chubby rabbit, Max, irresistibly funny in Max's Christmas by Rosemary Wells (Dial: $7.95; ages 2 to 6). Max wants to know all about Santa and pesters his patient, motherly sister, Ruby, with innumerable questions. When Max stays up to see Santa, their encounter brings laughter to young listeners. Wells' skill with her pen gives the characters expressive eyes and faces. Bright colors complete the book's attractive format.
Merry Christmas, Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $12.95; ages 4 to 9) will both warm the heart and tickle the funnybone. Strega Nona and her bumbling assistant, Big Anthony, are familiar favorites with children. DePaola's three other books about Strega Nona have established her as a lovable "grandma witch" who heals and advises the villagers of Calabria. In this story, Big Anthony appears to have ruined Strega Nona's annual Christmas feast. He urges her to use her magical powers to do the work required in preparing it. But Strega Nona says, "No magic at Christmas time . . . Christmas has a magic of its own." Big Anthony's surprise for Strega Nona clearly shows he understands this. DePaola's large, cheerful illustrations make a magic of their own for young listeners.
The hit of this year should be The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Little, Brown: $9.95; ages 4 to 11). A simple rhyme follows the Jolly Postman on his mail route: to the home of the Three Bears with a letter from Goldilocks; to the Wicked Witch with an advertisement from Hobgoblin Supplies; to the Giant with a post card from the vacationing Jack; to Cinderella with a letter from her publisher; to B. B. (Big Bad) Wolf with a letter from Red Riding Hood's lawyer; and finally to Goldilocks' house with a birthday card for her. Each message can be taken out and then tucked back into its own envelope. All have wit and ingenuous humor. For example, Goldilocks writes to apologize for eating Baby Bear's porridge and promises that her daddy will mend the broken chair; Jack tells of his vacation bought with the Giant's gold. This is a great way to introduce children to the various types of written communication.
Children who enjoy reading Goldilocks' letter in the "Jolly Postman" will want to hear Goldilocks and the Three Bears, illustrated by Janet Stevens (Holiday: $13.95; 1986; ages 2 to 6). Stevens' illustrations of the well-known tale are a visual treat. Her bear family has a rumpled, domestic look, while Goldilocks radiates an impish charm. Their expressive faces aid little children's understanding of the story. Stevens has arranged the family's bowls, chairs and beds so that children can easily see the differences in their sizes. Help your child point to the objects belonging to each bear as you read the story to him.
Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear? by Nancy Carlstrom, illustrations by Bruce Degan (Macmillan: $11.95; ages 1 to 5) has the most fetching combination of text and pictures of any new book for the very young. Carlstrom's graceful and lively verse follows Jesse Bear through the day's routine. Degan splashes the pages with bright colors that show an animated, adorable small bear and his loving parents. The repeated phrases will be echoed by children who love the verse's bounce and verve.