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SELF-PORTRAIT (Curiosity Kits: $20) : SPOT A DOG / SPOT A CAT, By Lucy Micklethwait (Dorling Kindersley: $9.95 each, hardcover) : VISUAL FOOLERY, By Michael DiSpezio (Planet Dexter: $18.50)


Self-Portrait proved to be an irresistible lure for my 8-year-old son, Jeffrey. Each weekend I'd remark that I needed him to test-drive it for the column and he'd dash for the box. It seemed complicated, so I'd find a reason to put it off for another day . . . week. One day, he had had enough: "Dad, cut it out! Now, let's do it now!"

And so we did. I can only say that it was worth the wait.

The "Self-Portrait" kit is a delightful way to spend an afternoon. All the basic materials are provided: Five sheets of practice paper, a raw wooden frame and the paint and brush to finish it, oil pastels and blending cloth, a 9x12-inch canvas for the finished project.

The kit is straightforward, with a particularly nice set of instructions on painting a self-portrait that walks the child through the process step by step.

Kids are natural artists, and the chance to work on the "real thing" instead of crayons and paper produces interesting results. Jeffrey for one, already has a shopping list for his trip to an art supply store.

The only problem is, Jeffrey's torn between the demands of the realistic and the representational. His practice sheets leaned toward a more-precise approach; the canvas and pastels brought out the postmodernist within.

A charming set of books in their own right and a perfect accompaniment to "Self-Portrait" is two offerings by Lucy Micklethwait, Spot a Dog and Spot a Cat. These clever works are based on the same premise: Playing a game of spot the animal is a good way to encourage youngsters to look carefully at paintings. Parents can guide the hunters to discuss everything from patterns and shapes and colors to more complex textual ideas.

And so we find ourselves sitting in the hammock, searching for dogs and cats in works ranging from "A Woman at Her Toilet" by Jan Steen to "The Cherry Tart" by Pierre Bonnard, from "Three Musicians" by Pablo Picasso to "Adoration of the Magi" by Gentile da Fabriano, from "Night Cafe at Arles" by Paul Gauguin to "Mr. and Mrs. Clark" by David Hockney.

Each book has 13 paintings. All in all, a nice slice of the world of art and a nice subtle introduction to same.

Well, now that they are artists, it is time to really blow their minds (Gen Xers: This is yet another pathetic boomer phrase, come up with a better phrase for artistic mind expansion and I'll be happy to use it) with Visual Foolery by Michael DiSpezio, a teacher and "science whiz" (it says so on the back cover) with a nice sense of humor and an even better sense of the visual.

A book of optical illusions with tricks of distortion (size, shape, color), "Visual Foolery" is compelling and unique, the kind of science lesson you never got in high school. It is especially good at explaining the relationship between sight and the mind, between perception and "reality."

A session with this book of eye-poppers, optical illusions, 3-D images (glasses included), after-images and mirror games and you may have a little M.C. Escher on your hands.

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