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June 09, 1996|MICHAEL CART

Want a universal synonym for "love"? Try "grandmother." And here are two new picture books to prove it.

Grandmother's Pigeon is the story of what happens to a young brother and sister when their strong-willed grandmother decides to ride away to Greenland "on the back of a congenial porpoise." The kids miss their colorful grandmother but soon discover the special magic she has left behind for them. This is the first children's book for Louise Erdrich, a gifted writer of adult fiction. In a recent interview, she told me that she approached the writing of this book as if it were a poem. Her strategy has succeeded brilliantly. Illustrator Jim LaMarche's acrylic and colored-pencil pictures are equally successful: as beautiful as Erdrich's words and as uncloying in the depiction of the love this special family shares.

A different kind of grandmother is the subject of Australian writer Margaret Wild's Old Pig. In this gentle and moving story an old grandmother pig and her granddaughter "had lived together for a long, long time." But one morning "Old Pig did not get up for breakfast as usual." The reader quickly understands that she is dying. Without bathos the story follows her last days with her adoring granddaughter as she puts her affairs in order and then feasts her eyes "on the trees, the flowers, the sky--on everything." Illustrator Ron Brooks has created beautiful pencil and watercolor pictures that are full of gentle humor, tender characterization and the beauty of the world Old Pig is preparing to leave. This is the best book for children about the death of a beloved relative since Charlotte Zolotow's classic "My Grandson Lew."

Three other current books explore other aspects of love.

A Special Kind of Love is a special kind of book: Written and illustrated by Stephen Michael King, this in a gentle story about a father who loves boxes and also loves his son, but has trouble telling him so until he finds a very special way to convey those feelings. The mixed-media, cartoon-like illustrations are wonderfully engaging and add just the right amount of humor to leaven the sentiment inherent in the text.

The Genie in the Jar is poet Nikki Giovanni's song-like tribute to the love of a mother and daughter. Giovanni spins wonderful images of love on the loom of her craft, while Caldecott honor artist Chris Raschka creates fluid images on brown paper to capture the lilting quality of the text. This is a wonderfully unusual book with a text that stays in the mind long after its reading in the way that a favorite song haunts our memories.

Clown is another unusual title. British illustrator Quentin Blake has created a wordless picture book that follows the struggles of a discarded toy clown to rescue his fellow toys from a dustbin and to find a loving family for them. Blake's energetic story line ensures the action never flags in this brilliant exercise in narrative illustration.


GRANDMOTHER'S PIGEON, By Louise Erdrich (Hyperion: $15:95)

OLD PIG, By Margaret Wild (Dial: $14.99)

A SPECIAL KIND OF LOVE, By Stephen Michael King (Scholastic: $15.99)

THE GENIE IN THE JAR, By Nikki Giovanni (Holt: $15.95)

CLOWN, By Quentin Blake (Holt: $15.95)

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