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Books For Kids

July 08, 2001

THE BLUES SINGERS Ten Who Rocked the World By Julius Lester Illustrated by Lisa Cohen; Hyperion/Jump at the Sun: 48 pp., $15.99

Julius Lester's picture-book tribute to the blues--an art form in which "the music and the beat wrap around your heart like one of your grandmother's hugs"--and some of its greatest performers hits all the right notes. Framed as a summertime storytelling session between grandfather and granddaughter, the narrative invites readers to picture the pair rocking on a front porch sipping lemonade. Lester profiles 10 blues or blues-inspired legends, including Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Billie Holiday; also included is Mahalia Jackson, who was widely considered a gospel singer but was influenced by and certainly influenced other blues singers, and Little Richard, who grew out of a blues background to embody rock 'n' roll. Each mini-biography contains factual information about the artist's singing and playing style as well as the author's personal connection to the singer-musician (e.g., "When I was a teenager, I was attending a meeting in Chicago with my church youth group. Mahalia came to our meeting and sang a few songs"). Lester's anecdotal approach, his leisurely pacing and abundance of colorful down-home similes give the famous figures a tangible presence and make for a music history lesson that goes down as smoothly as honey. The book's arresting design features large, boldly hued pull-quotes scattered throughout the text as well as comments from various artists. Cohen's ("Little Lil and the Swing-Singing Sax") chunky, stylized portraits of each singer capture some of the performers' signature looks, but young readers may want to seek out photographs for a different perspective. A bibliography and "Recommended Listening" list suggest opportunities for further exploration of this American music genre. (Ages 5 and up)

THE WHOLE NIGHT THROUGH A Lullaby By David Frampton; HarperCollins: 32 pp., $15.95

In the first book he has written as well as illustrated, woodcut artist David Frampton offers up a delightfully cheeky jungle-themed bedtime serenade. A determinedly wide-eyed leopard cub acts as the jubilant narrator, guiding readers through the exotic night landscape: "The rhino nestles in his bed/an egret perched upon his head/the crocodile is sleeping too/the kinkajou/the cockatoo/They're sound asleep across the land/If you're not sleepy raise your hand!" As the playful leopard continues his slumber-land census, readers are treated to a visual feast of vibrant, elegantly graphic woodcut animal portraits, each one set against a background of royal purple. For the most part, the interior illustrations outdo the cover art in their complexity and sophistication. Frampton delineates a dozing monkey "dreaming of bananas" in swooping arcs and renders his fur in patterns of triangles that bring to mind an elaborate tribal tattoo; a snake ("sleeping peacefully/like ribbon candy in a tree") is a swirl of fluorescent red and blue stripes, giving his skin the appearance of a time-delay photograph of nighttime traffic. It's hard to believe the leopard could succumb to sleep after so many pages of visual fireworks, but he does; what's more, he persuasively argues that it's time for his readers to get some shut-eye too. (Ages 3 to 6)

HILARY KNIGHT'S THE OWL AND THE PUSSY-CAT Based on the poem by Edward Lear Illustrated by Hilary Knight; Simon & Schuster: 40 pp., $17

In this gloriously madcap setting of Edward Lear's classic, the famous nonsense poem of a nautical romance receives star treatment. Hilary Knight conceives of Lear's verses as a series of theatrical tableaux, with elaborate sets and exaggerated expressions big enough to be seen from the last row. He casts an eccentric old fellow who looks suspiciously like Lear (who appears as a bust on the title page) as Professor Comfort. The gentleman invites two schoolchildren (the boy bears an odd resemblance to an owl, the girl to a cat) in for tea and a little poetry. As he reads, the children morph magically into the animals in the poem, the walls of the cottage fall away and the pea-green window seat becomes the famous boat, adrift on a briny sea. The Owl and Pussy-cat court, marry and dance in the dazzling landscapes of the Land of Bong before turning back into children and running home for dinner. The illustrations reveal more delights with every inspection: Hints of the animals to come can be detected in the children's clothing; earnest flying fish in the Land of Bong call the children's names as their mothers in the real world hunt for them; a replica of the professor's cottage--constructed entirely of edibles--appears in the Land of Bong. In Knight's hands, Lear's poem assumes a complete and memorable visual life of its own--it is a ticket to the best sort of entertainment. (All ages)

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THE VERY KIND RICH LADY AND HER ONE HUNDRED DOGS By Chinlun Lee;Candlewick: 40 pp., $15.99

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