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BOOKS FOR KIDS

Tales for the summer

June 13, 2004|Reviews are provided courtesy of Publishers Weekly, where they first appeared. Copyright 2004 Publishers Weekly

Fish

L.S. Matthews

Delacorte: 184 pp., $14.95

"The story starts with the day I found the fish," is the deceptive opening of this debut novel, an allegory grounded in remarkably tactile storytelling. The child narrator, whose name, gender and age are concealed by the nickname Tiger, has found the fish in a mud puddle after a torrential downpour in the unnamed, drought-ridden and war-torn land where the narrator's parents are relief workers. Spare as the prose is, it teems with evocative details (when Tiger discovers the fish, "The glow of the colors had flooded my eyes, like when you open the curtains on a lovely sunny day"). But as war encroaches, Tiger's parents engage a man called the Guide (he tells Tiger his name is too difficult to pronounce) and his donkey to lead them across the border. The Guide respects the child's wish to save the Fish and suggests Tiger transport it in a lidded pot. As the Guide and Tiger's family make a dangerous journey through the mountains, the allegorical elements of the novel take on dramatic import (the fish changes size to fit the containers available -- a water bottle, even Tiger's mouth at one desperate point), and readers can bring their own interpretation and experience to the symbolism embedded here. In keeping the narrative so carefully attuned to a child's perspective, L.S. Matthews allows just enough detail -- and heart -- to make miracles feel possible. Ages 10 and older

Hummingbird Nest

A Journal of Poems

Kristine O'Connell George

Illustrated by Barry Moser

Harcourt: 48 pp., $16

Sublime illustrations and keenly observant verse are sure to captivate in this collection of poetry about a hummingbird that set up house in the author's backyard. Kristine O'Connell George ("Book") kept a journal of the real-life eight-week episode, and her poems proceed in sequence. From the mother hummer's first territorial displays during nest-building (recounted in "Breakfast on the Patio") to the fledging of her two babies ("Congratulations"), the lyrical anecdotes are rich in metaphor. "Feed Me! Feed Me!" showcases the hungry nestlings: "two thin beaks point toward sky -- / exclamation points. / Mom returns with spider snacks -- / open beaks, / capital Vs." George effectively employs different perspectives, as in the humorous piece "The Dog Complains": "That bird / is making a mess -- / splashing, / flapping. / ... / What can that bird be thinking? / Bathtub? / Swimming hole? / Out bird! / That's my bowl!" The tone turns bittersweet in "Farewell": "How did you know / it was time to try / your wings and claim / your corner of the sky? / I only wish / I'd said good-bye." Dated in journal fashion, Barry Moser's ("One Small Garden") delicate watercolors resemble field-guide illustrations, their varied perspectives inviting readers into the avian adventure. Multiple views of the thumb-size nest, the diminutive birds and their leafy microenvironment provide enough variety to maintain visual interest. A thoughtful author's note and extensive facts about hummingbirds conclude this work, one likely to send kids to their own yards for inspiration. Ages 6-9

JumpMan

Rule #1: Don't Touch Anything

James Valentine

Simon & Schuster: 272 pp., $14.95

This launch of a new series, a bestseller in the author's native Australia, offers a contemporary take and a humorous twist on time travel. Jules Santorini, "aged thirteen and a bit," is about to ask his lifelong friend Gen out on a date, if his nerves will allow him. His plans are thwarted, however, when a boy with "light chocolatey skin" and Technicolor hair suddenly materializes between them in Gen's room. This is Theodore, and he is a "Jumper" from the 52nd century, a time when a hand-held device called the "TimeMaster JumpMan" provides its users with an opportunity for leisure travel to moments of great historical import. But though most Jumpers land a safe distance from the action, unable to interfere with history, Theodore has somehow become "present." It turns out that the new JumpMan he won in a contest is a not-quite-ready prototype that was slipped to him by mistake -- or was it? Valentine has great fun with the vagaries and implied complexities of time travel ("So you went into the future to rewind the past to catch up with the present we would have had if we hadn't had had that future?"), explains that Bill Gates and Leonardo Da Vinci are renegades from the future, and makes good use of Theodore's perspective to editorialize on modern habits. (His talking coat continually warns him about the low nutritional value of the food he eats.) He nimbly balances the science-fiction story with the smaller but just as compelling tale of Jules and his quest for confidence, making this a great read, not just for sci-fi buffs. Ages 8-12

Hello Muddah,

Hello Faddah!

(A Letter From Camp)

Allan Sherman and Lou Busch

Illustrated by Jack E. Davis

Dutton: 32 pp., $12.99

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