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CHILDREN'S BOOKSHELF

THE INNER CITY MOTHER GOOSE, By Eve Merriam . Illustrated by David Diaz (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers: $16; 70 pp.; ages 12 and up) : MYSTERIOUS TALES OF JAPAN, By Rafe Martin . Illustrated by Tatsuro Kiuchi (Putnam: $18.95; 74 pp.; no age range indicated) : A FINE WHITE DUST, By Cynthia Rylant (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster: $3.95, paperback; 106 pp.; ages 11-13)

April 21, 1996|KAREN STABINER

Once upon a time (isn't that how any self-respecting kid's story is supposed to start?) there was a girl who lived in a house without a lot of books. And then, when she was 16 and it might have seemed too late, she met a woman who had too many books and wanted to give some away. She handed them out as though she were dispensing priceless jewels, and something in the way she bestowed them, a particular one for that girl and specific others for her friends, made it clear just how valuable the books were. The girl went on to become a reader, and a writer, as did several others who had encountered that magical woman. It was not too late, in fact. Anyone can learn to love books.

That story happens to be a true one; I was the girl, and I still have my high school English teacher's copy of John Updike's short story collection, "Pigeon Feathers." It is meant to introduce this column on young people's fiction, even if you despair of your young person ever doing anything but playing computer games and going to the mall.

Sometimes it is just a question of the right fit--of skimming a handful of titles until you find one you think will appeal.

The Inner City Mother Goose, by the late Eve Merriam, has already proved its appeal; first published in 1969, with an expanded edition in 1982, her angry urban take on traditional nursery rhymes now comes with an introduction by Nikki Giovanni and illustrations by 1995 Caldecott medalist David Diaz.

These wicked rhymes will make you laugh even as you cringe at how accurate her barbs still are today. Good provocative reading for parent and child together.

Mysterious Tales of Japan, by Rafe Martin, illustrated by Tatsuro Kiuchi, takes the reader far from all that is familiar to a narrative terrain where an injured crane reappears in human form to the lonely couple who took her in until their inability to accept her mysterious rules drives her away again. This, along with a handful of other illustrated folk tales, makes for a journey into a moral landscape of great power and subtlety. A nice way to raise some important issues without preaching.

Cynthia Rylant, whose writing for children spans everything from the early reader Henry and Mudge series to young adult fiction, wants to talk quite specifically about preaching in A Fine White Dust, which is not, despite current vernacular, about cocaine.

Rather it is the dust of a broken cross, kept by a young boy who cannot make sense of his encounter with the Preacher, a traveling man of God who turns out in the end to be as petty and mortal as anyone else. Young Peter thought he wanted to preach the word of God too, but at the end of Rylant's story he has found God in much more mundane things--his friends, his family, all the people he was prepared to forsake.

Any one of these three books requires a stretch, a step outside oneself, and offers in return some provocative notions about basic stuff like truth, love, justice and faith. You can probably buy them at a mall, just to make the transition a little easier. Offered with enthusiasm, they may make your kid ask for more.

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