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Books For Kids

A PERFECT FRIEND By Reynolds Price; Jacket illustration by Maurice Sendak; Simon & Schuster/Atheneum: 128 pp., $16

THE SATURDAY KID By Edward Sorel with Cheryl Carlesimo Illustrated by Edward Sorel; Simon & Schuster / McElderry: 32 pp., $18

THE GIGGLER TREATMENT By Roddy Doyle Illustrated by Brian Ajhar; Scholastic / Levine: 112 pp., $14.95

THE DEMONS' MISTAKE: A Story from Chelm By Francine Prose Illustrated by Mark Podwal HarperCollins / Greenwillow: 32 pp., $15.95

BLING BLANG By Woody Guthrie Illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky; Candlewick: 24 pp., $12.99

September 24, 2000

A PERFECT FRIEND By Reynolds Price; Jacket illustration by Maurice Sendak; Simon & Schuster/Atheneum: 128 pp., $16 In his first book for children, Reynolds Price pens a slow, dreamy story of a boy wrestling with grief over his mother's death. Ben Barks, now 11, and his mother used to spend hours drawing elephants and reading about them. Ben still dreams of having an elephant of his own, a friend with whom he can share his deepest secrets, in the same way he sometimes confides in his dog Hilda, whose voice he sometimes hears in his thoughts. It's Hilda who tells him, "This thing that's coming will help your whole life"--and she's right. When a small circus comes to town and Ben meets Sala, a lonely elephant who also knows tragedy, their encounter is both dangerous and magical, filling Ben with hope for the first time since his mother died. For all the boy-animal communication, the novel is driven more by its style than by its plot. The languid pace may frustrate readers or leave some feeling strangely disconnected, and it's doubtful whether the target audience will linger over the poetic elisions. At the same time, however, the beauty of the language acts as lure (a house lit up at night looks like "an old-time ocean liner, afloat and steaming toward some destination that nobody knew"), and Ben is an exceedingly sympathetic character. For those up to the challenge, here is a sophisticated, haunting exploration of grief's flickering shadows, of friendship and love and of the elusive nature of happiness. (Ages 9 to 12)

THE SATURDAY KID By Edward Sorel with Cheryl Carlesimo Illustrated by Edward Sorel; Simon & Schuster / McElderry: 32 pp., $18

Edward Sorel ("Johnny on the Spot") and Cheryl Carlesimo, a filmmaker, warmly evoke bygone Manhattan landmarks and classic Hollywood cinema in this impressive homage to the 1930s picture show. On Saturdays, Leo attends matinees, sporting an argyle sweater and knickers along with the leather cap and goggles of a World War I flying ace. Time and again, the main narrative gives way to full-blown fantasy spreads in which Leo casts himself as a hero and his schoolyard nemesis, Morty, as a villain: Leo teams up with James Cagney to bust gangster Morty and G-Man star Edward G. Robinson; later, aviator Leo zooms past in a biplane and shoots Morty, cast as a Prussian pilot, out of the sky ("Don't forget to pull the rip cord," Leo says coolly). Ultimately, thanks to a newsreel camera and Leo's proficiency on the violin, the hero trumps Morty in real life. Sorel captures old New York in galloping ribbons of ink and sepia-tinted watercolors. Leo serves as protagonist and tour guide as he overhears soapbox politicians in Union Square Park, marvels at the red velvet and glitzy chandeliers at Loew's Paradise and chooses a snack at the Automat. Young readers not yet acquainted with uniformed movie ushers or soda fountains get a shrewd introduction to cultural history, and older readers get a gorgeoustrip down memory lane through Sorel's affectionate eyes. (Ages 5 to 9)

THE GIGGLER TREATMENT By Roddy Doyle Illustrated by Brian Ajhar; Scholastic / Levine: 112 pp., $14.95

In his first story for children, Booker Prize-winner Roddy Doyle ("Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha") pens a robustly silly romp served up with a generous helping of Irish cheek. At the outset of the tale, Mister Mack, a biscuit tester, is about to step in "dog poo." Displaying a gleefully sadistic sense of timing, Doyle draws out the suspense to outrageous lengths, interrupting his narrative with chapter after chapter of digressions that keep readers squirming in their seats until . . . does the patriarch step in it or doesn't he? Besides bulletins on the number of inches remaining between Mister Mack's shoe and the poo, the author introduces the dog behind it (the Mack family's pooch, Rover) and the small, furry, chameleon-like creatures called Gigglers who have gone to great pains to collect it (Gigglers watch over children and give adults who are unfair to them "the Giggler Treatment," or "pooon the shoe"), and reveals Mister Mack's alleged offense. When the facts come to light, it's up to the Mack boys, their baby sister, the Giggler they have caught, Rover and their mum to avert the impending poo-disaster. A bracingly rude dose of fun. (Ages 9 to 12)

THE DEMONS' MISTAKE: A Story from Chelm By Francine Prose Illustrated by Mark Podwal HarperCollins / Greenwillow: 32 pp., $15.95

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