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CHILDREN'S BOOKSHELF

March 21, 1993|SUZANNE CURLEY

There are worse ways to start your day than by getting up on the wrong side of the bed. The unsuspecting heroine, for example, of Tedd Arnold's Green Wilma (Dial: $13.99; ages 2-6) awakens one morning not merely feeling grumpy or grappling with a sense of foreboding but also quite literally feeling green. Wilma has, in the course of the night, inexplicably turned into a frog--green skin, croaks, bug-cravings and all. Despite the protests of her mother, who feels quite strongly that "green children should not go to school," Wilma doesn't let the metamorphosis cramp her style. Instead, she makes the most of the whole Kafkaesque trip, licking a housefly off her teacher's nose, cheating at dodge ball, bobbing around in the class fish tank. It's all a big lark that ends happily, in this zany picture book from the same author who brought us "No Jumping on the Bed!"

A more mundane, though possibly more frightening, transformation occurs for another young heroine, this time a redhead named Grace. She begins the story of 24-hours-in-the-life-of by baldly stating, "I had a tantrum today." We see it coming: first the head-slamming and feet-kicking, followed by a spell of yelling until the face is first purple, then "monster green and tight as a wet knot in a shoelace." It's all documented in vivid color in Kathryn Lasky's no-holds-barred picture book The Tantrum, illustrated by Bobette McCarthy (Macmillan: $13.95; ages 2-6). This book finally accords these fiery upheavals common to 1-to-5-year-olds the respect they are due. Lasky is the author of "Prank" and "Beyond the Divide," among other award-winning books, and McCarthy wrote and illustrated "Buffalo Girls," "Ten Little Hippos" and other books.

"In social studies that afternoon we learned about Happy Families and their opposite, Broken Homes . . . . Children who did not live in a house with their own exact mother and father were living in a Broken Home. Children living in such homes were Unhappy Children."

This is one of the many Unhappy--and Incorrect--Lessons that 12-year-old Laetitia (Lacey) Johnson learns when she leaves her mother's extended family behind in the country--where both chickens and children run free among the coconut palms, yams, pigeon peas and bhaji (wild spinach) plants--to go to a city high school in For the Life of Laetitia by Merle Hodge (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $15; 214 pp., ages 12 and up).

Part of the deal is that Lacey must endure living with her pompous father, Mr. Cephas, and her beaten-down stepmother, Velma, two of the many fascinating characters that Trinidadian author Hodge draws so deftly. Other characters are more beguiling: Lacey's bighearted best friend, Anjanee; her scandalous godmother, Ma Zelline, and Miss Hafeez, one of the few teachers at the school who is not "racial" (island talk for racist ) or child-hating. My only criticism of this novel is that it ends too abruptly--and too soon. The reader feels utterly bereft taking leave of Lacey without a promise of knowing what comes next in her life.

Also Worth Noting: Later this month, the eagerly awaited fifth installment in British author Brian Jacques' fantasy series will be out. Since the appearance of the first volume, "Redwall" (1987), Jacques has developed a hefty cult following among 10-through-teen readers. In Salamandastron (Philomel: 391 pp., $17.95), noble badger Lord Urthstripe crosses swords with wily weasel Ferahgo the Assassin.

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