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The Best New Books To Read Aloud

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Children these days don't like to read, won't read, can't read. That, at least, is what the pundits and media tell us. If it were true, however, there wouldn't be 5,000 new children's books published each year. Here are 20 of the most compelling, amusing, and startling new titles I've discovered since the last Teacher Magazine roundup a year ago. Read them aloud. Talk about them in class. Kids won't be able to resist.

"I'm a teeny tiny baby, and I know how to get anything I want.'' So begins Amy Schwartz's picture book, A Teeny Tiny Baby (Orchard, $15.99; all ages), a wonderfully endearing and memory-inducing narrative about a newborn's wants, likes, and experiences. Note the doting and exhausted new parents and grandparents cuddling, feeding, and catering to the every whim of their little benevolent tyrant. With the help of the author's enchanting and detailed illustrations, readers and listeners alike will be dredging up early memories of their own.

Too old to bear children of her own, Fanaye is overjoyed when she marries a widower with a young son in Nancy Raines Day's The Lion's Whiskers: An Ethiopian Folklore (Scholastic, $14.95; grades 2-5). The boy, Abebe, rejects Fanaye's every attempt to care for him, declaring, "You're not my real mother.'' Seeking a magic potion that will make her stepson love her, she visits a medicine man who instructs her to collect three whiskers from the chin of a fierce lion, a seemingly impossible task. Ann Grifalconi's striking textured collages in shades of browns and grays make this suspenseful and tender tale even more riveting.

Children who know the story of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff'' will be tickled by Three Cool Kids (Little, Brown, $15.95; grades preK-2), Rebecca Emberley's inner-city update of the favorite old tale. Her lively and original torn-paper collages jump off each page, as three city goats set off for a new vacant lot and are threatened by a huge, leering rat that lives in a sewer.

Animal fanciers will delight in the 15 splendid poems--some whimsical, some introspective--about life as a cow in Alice Schertle's How Now, Brown Cow? (Browndeer Press/Harcourt, $14.95; grades 1-6). Each verse is accompanied by a large, lovely oil painting by Amanda Schaffer.

In From Pictures to Words: A Book About Making a Book (Holiday House, $15.95; grades 1-4), author/illustrator Janet Stevens, with the help of a host of imaginary animals, describes how she created this very book. While Stevens draws herself on each page in pencil and gray watercolor wash, the animal characters who interact with her--Koala Bear, Cat, and Rhino--appear in full glowing color. The reader watches as Stevens decides on her story's setting and plot, lays it out on a storyboard, and decides what medium to use for the artwork. Young writers and artists will gain valuable insight into the creative process.

See how books were made in the Middle Ages, long before the computer and printing press, in Elizabeth Wilson's Bibles and Bestiaries: A Guide to Illuminated Manuscripts (Farrar, $25; grades 5-12). The book presents dozens of gorgeous color reproductions of illustrated manuscript pages and jewel-studded covers from the extensive collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City.

In The Gettysburg Address (Houghton Mifflin, $14.95; grades 4-12), Michael McCurdy's stately black-and-white woodcuts make each phrase of Lincoln's 272-word speech unforgettable. A foreword by historian Garry Wills offers background into the sober setting of the speech, which Lincoln delivered at the dedication of the Civil War cemetery at Gettysburg. An afterword by McCurdy describes his inspiration for the illustrations: stories about his great-grandfather Jack Kenning who fought in the famous battle near the Pennsylvania town.

As lightning crackles in the night sky, a bird finds its way through an open window into a museum where dinosaur bones loom ominously. So begins Eric Rohmann's wordless picture book Time Flies. As the bird swoops down the length of one gargantuan skeleton, readers will notice a patch of green in one corner, foreshadowing a return to dinosaur days where the bird flies boldly amid menacing pterodactyl, tyrannosaurus, and other giant reptiles. The ominous oversized paintings garnered Rohmann a well-deserved silver Caldecott Honor award.

Each of the 26 dinosaurs showcased in Peter Dodson's remarkable An Alphabet of Dinosaurs (Scholastic, $14.95; grades 1-3) is described in a few short but fascinating sentences. The real thrill of this book, however, is the spectacularly garish, full-page paintings guaranteed to drive kids wild.

Dav Pilkey has a way with language, and his latest pun-infused picture book treasure, Dog Breath: The Horrible Trouble With Hally Tosis (Blue Sky/Scholastic, $12.95; grades K-4), will make grownups groan and kids howl. Pet dog Hally's breath is so odorous even skunks hold their noses when she passes by, so the two Tosis kids try to come up with a miracle to take her bad breath away. That foreshadowed miracle comes in the guise of two burglars who are overpowered by the dog's malodorous respirations. As a result, the family decides to keep her, since "life without Hally just wouldn't make any scents.''

Meet another talented pooch in Officer Buckle and Gloria (Putnam, $15.95; grades K-2), by Peggy Rathman. Though Officer Buckle knows more safety tips than anyone else in Napville, his school lectures are a big snooze until he pairs up with Gloria, a smart police dog. All of a sudden, children sit up and pay attention to each mundane tip ("KEEP your SHOELACES tied!''), for, unbeknownst to Officer Buckle, Gloria is acting out each pronouncement with great panache behind his back.

Ten-year-old Peter Fortune, the title character of Ian Mc-Ewan's The Daydreamer (HarperCollins, $14; grades 4-7), has a fertile imagination that lets him trade places with such acquaintances as the aged William Cat, a baby cousin, and even a grownup falling in love. Whether he's fighting with his sister's Bad Doll, making his family disappear with vanishing cream, or deflating the school bully's insightful fantasies and observations will make your students sit up and take notice of what is going on around them.

Dick King-Smith's Harriet's Hare (Crown, $15; grades 2-5) is a charming, satisfying chapter book about 8-year-old Harriet and an erudite rabbit named Wiz, actually a visitor from the peaceful planet Pars. The story describes their encounters, including finagling by Wiz that brings together Harriet's widowed farmer dad and Jessica, a children's writer who has just arrived in the village.

Margaret Bechard creates a whole new world in her fresh and entertaining science-fiction novel, Star Hatchling (Viking; $13.99; grades 4-8). When what appears to be a falling star comes down in the forest, Flathead Shem and his cresthead sister, Checko, investigate and discover a creature who, unlike them, has no grippers, claws, gills, ear flaps, or tail. The alien, a rebellious human girl named Hanna, had been playing hide-and-seek on the spaceship Alan Turing II when an escape pod she'd ducked into separated from the ship and landed on the planet. She finds a baffling new world where females dominate, Outsiders threaten, and friendship is an unknown concept. Hanna must dredge up all the seemingly useless survival skills she'd learned on the ship.

In Lloyd Alexander's latest epic romp, The Arkadians (Dutton, $15.99; grades 6-9), we meet bean counter Lucian whose discovery of corruption in the king's counting house is not appreciated; in fact, it forces him to run for his life. Along the way Lucian befriends former poet Fronto, changed into a jackass after drinking from a forbidden pool, and feisty Joy-in-the-Dance, a young woman who is also a pythoness oracle. The storytelling is spirited and filled with good humor and interesting insights into war, power, and the significance of myth. As Fronto says, "If a storyteller worried about the facts--my dear Lucian, how could he ever get at the truth?''

An original tall tale with a giantess heroine second to none in "buckskin bravery,'' Swamp Angel (Dutton, $14.99; grades 1-6), the Caldecott Honor winner by Anne Isaacs with illustrations by the amazing Paul Zelinsky, is a mesmerizing picture book and an instant classic. Angelica Longrider, nicknamed Swamp Angel after rescuing a wagon train of settlers mired in Dejection Swamp, sets out to earn the title of Champion Wildcat by killing Thundering Tarnation, a bear of powerful strength and bottomless appetite. Heedless of the taunts of the all-male Tennessee daredevils signing up for the hunt, she seeks and defeats the bear in a wild four-day confrontation that kicks up the dust of the Great Smoky Mountains. Children will pore over Zelinsky's detailed, folk-art-style illustrations.

In Karen Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice (Clarion, $10.95; grades 6-12), an orphaned adolescent girl (named Dung Beetle by the boys in the village) is taken in by Jane the Midwife. In exchange, Beetle cleans the cottage and collects the herbs Jane needs to help women in labor. Set in 14th-century England, the story traces a year in the girl's life as she takes the name Alyce, saves a village boy from drowning, and secretly teaches herself midwifery.

David Shannon's dark, brooding acrylic paintings set the mood for Jane Yolen's swashbuckling narrative poem The Ballad of the Pirate Queens (Harcourt Brace, $15; grades 3-8), based on the true adventures of women pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Reade, who sailed the Caribbean with "Calico Jack'' Rackham on his gallant sloop Vanity in the 1700s. When a man-of-war is dispatched to bring down the pirates, the two women call out to the men, who are too intent on drinking and sporting down below to heed the warning. As a result, all are captured and sentenced to death. But the two pregnant pirate queens "plead their bellies,'' and the judge, unwilling to kill their innocent unborn children, sets them free.

In Robert San Souci's The Faithful Friend (Simon & Schuster, $16; grades 3-6), a retelling of an 18th-century folk tale from the Caribbean island of Martinique, two best friends, as close as brothers, are threatened by the evil machinations of wizard Monsieur Zabocat. When dark-skinned Clement falls in love with Pauline, the niece of the wizard, fair-skinned Hippolyte must save his friend and the young woman from three zombie women. In the process, however, Hippolyte is turned to stone. True love and friendship prevail. Readers will appreciate Brian Pinkney's dark, elegant oil and scratchboard illustrations.

The poor girl who narrates Jon Scieszka's hilariously bizarre and frantic picture book Math Curse (Viking, $16; grades 2-5) can't stop creating number problems after her teacher, Mrs. Fibonacci, remarks in class that almost anything in life can be thought of as a math problem. Each page of Lane Smith's collage-style paintings is saturated with word problems, charts, and diagrams. (Luckily, the answers--some sensible, some not--are printed across the back cover.) The book opens the door to all sorts of other possibilities when, on the last page, science teacher Mr. Newton says, "You know, you can think of almost everything as a science experiment . . . .''

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