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Kids' Books

Life Journeys and Quests for Meaning and Toys


If life is about the journey, then quests are part of the territory. Searching for a story with substance can yield terrific finds.

In "Something Beautiful" (Doubleday, $16.95), Sharon Dennis Wyeth, a family counselor who has written for PBS' "Reading Rainbow," taps memories of her Washington, D.C., childhood to reflect on the specialness of self, of community and of one's role in it. This African American heroine lives in an urban environment where things can be scary and ugly. In her quest to find "something that when you have it, your heart is happy," she finds friendship and hope.

Chris K. Soentpiet's paintings seem to glow, yet his style of realism and attention to detail bring to life the urban landscape for both inveterate city dwellers and for those who have never been. The deceptively simple story, suitable for all ages, can open dialogue on many subjects; try starting with activism or optimism.

If you like Wyeth's style, look for her "Always My Dad," "The World of Daughter McGuire," "Vampire Bugs" and "Once on This River."

Pulitzer winner Jules Feiffer's smart writing and witty illustrations, which have amused adults for years, make "I Lost My Bear" (Morrow Junior Books, $16) a delight for reading out loud--in fact, although limited vocabulary keeps the text simple, some caregivers with thespian tendencies may fight for the privilege of yelling lines such as Big Sister's "I have never never never played with your stupid bear, and I want you to stop playing with my nail polish!"

This extremely realistic family is of no help when Little Sis can't find her special friend, but on her own the big-eyed blond girl discovers more than she could have expected.

Claire A. Nivola's haunting and heartwarming "Elisabeth" (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997, $16) is another one based on real life; the story is Nivola's mother's. In a tale that seems too pat for fiction, a woman finds the beloved doll she had left behind in 1933, when the family fled Germany on the eve of Hitler's rise to power. The magicalreunion is a happy ending to a story best for middle readers, and adults should be prepared to answer questions about prejudice and persecution. A special dialogue might be introduced with grandparents or other older people who can talk about their own wartime experiences.

This is the first writing credit for Nivola, an artist who has illustrated several children's books. The paintings of "Elisabeth" recall American primitives, but are much more colorful.

Marsha Heatwole is an artist and animal advocate who has traveled extensively to East Africa, and her eye-popping multimedia illustrations in "Jambo, Watoto!" (Creative Art Press, $15.95) conjure that world. The lyrical text, by author Elizabeth Massie and kindergarten teacher Barbara Spilman Lawson, incorporates Swahili words (Jambo, Watoto means "Hello, children") with an easy-to-read glossary.

Four cheetah cubs with distinct personalities--bossy, dear, cross and lazy--await their mother's return from hunting ("With a whisper of paw-step and a brush of white-tipped tail, she was gone").

One by one, other denizens of the savanna tempt the babies to leave the safety of the grass in the shade of the acacia tree by the watering hole. The cubs must cooperate and use their judgment to make the right choices.

The diverse experience of the three women combines for a great storytelling experience vivid enough for reading aloud--probably in more than one sitting--and challenging enough for middle readers.

(Also by Heatwole, "Primary Cats" [1997]; her Web site is Creative Press donates a portion of proceeds from the sale of this book to the Africa-based Cheetah Conservation Fund,

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