STONES IN WATER, by Donna Jo Napoli. (Dutton, $14.99; young adult.) War stories written for young people abound, but this novel is a cut above most, focusing, as it does, on a little-known aspect of World War II: the German kidnapping of Italian boys to use as slave labor throughout Europe. Many of these youngsters ultimately died, but some escaped and managed to find their way back to Italy, where they often joined the partisans. This remarkable story is based on the author's extensive research and the real-life wartime experiences of a Venetian friend. On a beautiful day in Venice in 1942, Roberto, his brother, Sergio, and two friends, Memo and Samuele, sneak off to the cinema to see an American western. On the way, Sergio hides Samuele's Star of David armband, which Jews at the time were required to wear. Minutes into the movie, German soldiers rush the theater. They herd all the boys to the railway station and force them into train cars. The friends protect Samuele, giving him the more Italian sounding name Enzo. When the train arrives in Munich, the Germans divide the captives into work units. Sergio and Memo are separated and disappear, but Roberto and Enzo are left together. They are sent to various work camps, first to dig trenches and then to build airstrips in Germany and the Ukraine. The living conditions are appalling, and the boys live in constant fear of the brutal guards. What's more, they must protect themselves from other captives who do almost anything for food and clothing, including stripping the bodies of the dead and the living. Napoli pulls no punches. She describes several graphic scenes of violence that show the horror of the boys' ordeal. Through it all, though, Roberto and Enzo remain fiercely loyal friends. After a terrible tragedy, Roberto manages to escape. But this is hardly the end of his troubles. On the journey home, he confronts wild animals, hostile locals, and starvation. Napoli has written a haunting novel, intense and gripping, with memorable characters whose friendship transcends religion and war.
BROTHER RABBIT: A Cambodian Tale, by Minfong Ho and Saphan Ros, with illustrations by Jennifer Hewitson. (Lothrop, $16; grades K-4.) Brother Rabbit may be small and physically vulnerable, but he is so clever and crafty that the world is virtually at his command. When he wants to feast on rice seedlings in a field across the river, he prevails upon an enormous crocodile to ferry him over. And when he finds himself in a particularly sticky situation, he gets an elephant to help him out. What's the secret to his persuasive powers? Some might say smarts and ingenuity, but others would call it deceit and trickery. When he desires some sweet, ripe bananas to round out his meal, for example, he lies lifeless in the middle of the road as a woman balancing a basketful on her head approaches. Taking the limp rabbit for dead, the woman tosses him into the basket, intending to cook him for dinner. This is just what Brother Rabbit is hoping for: He eats every last banana and makes his escape. In an introductory note, the authors explain why tales about small, quick-witted animals like Brother Rabbit have always appealed to Cambodians. "In Cambodian society," they write, "farmers and villagers saw themselves as small and weak compared to the powerful landlords, soldiers, and kings above them, and they reveled in stories in which the tables were turned and the weak came out on top." In most children's stories these days, wrongs are made right, good prevails, and the moral is written in bold letters across the sky. In this story, however, the message is refreshingly ambiguous. Ho and Ros remain true to their central character's cheerful mischievousness right through to the end. Brother Rabbit prevails with such aplomb and glee that we can't help but admire his feats and derring-do--even if we can't always admire his methods.
THE SECRETS OF ANIMAL FLIGHT, by Nic Bishop. (Houghton Mifflin, $14.95; grades 2-5.) Each two-page chapter of this beautifully designed book describes a facet of flight in clear terms, with simple black-and-white drawings and superb color photographs of insects, birds, and bats. This is a must for school libraries and science classrooms.
OVER THE TOP OF THE WORLD: Explorer Will Steger's Trek Across the Arctic, by Will Steger and Jon Bowermaster. (Scholastic, $17.95; all grades.) In 1994, Steger led an international team of four men, two women, and 33 dogs across the Arctic--from Siberia to northern Canada--by dogsled and "canoe-sled." This book is a record of that arduous journey told through Steger's lively diary entries, informative sidebars, and dramatic color photographs.
VERDI, by Janell Cannon. (Harcourt Brace, $16; grades K-4.) As yellow as the sun, python hatchling Verdi lives on the wild side, hoping he will never grow fat, lazy, and green like the elders he sees lounging aimlessly in the trees. But try as he might--and he tries pretty hard--he can't hold back nature. Cannon, author of the award-winning Stellaluna, has written and painted a comic gem with a message for children and adults alike: Just because you have to grow up doesn't mean you have to grow boring.
SUN & SPOON, by Kevin Henkes. (Greenwillow, $15; grades 3-5.) Since the death of his beloved grandmother, Spoon has secretly longed for a keepsake to remember her by. Careful to avoid his nosy younger sister, he steals a cherished object only to be struck by remorse when it is missed. But by the end, his grandfather has eased his guilt, showing him that memories--and keepsakes--can be shared.
TWILIGHT IN GRACE FALLS, by Natalie Honeycutt. (Orchard Books, $16.95; young adult.) The closing of the local lumber mill is a disaster for the people of Grace Falls, especially for Dasie and her family. Her father loses his job, her friends move away, and she must come to terms with other dramatic changes in her life, including a family tragedy. Honeycutt has written a realistic story about a community in crisis and the importance of family solidarity.
ARCHITECTURE: The World's Greatest Buildings Explored and Explained, by Neil Stevenson. (DK Publishing, $24.95; all grades.) Sumptuously illustrated, this book showcases 50 of the world's greatest buildings of all time. Each structure is featured on a double-page spread that includes the building's history, a brief biography of the architect, technical data, and glorious photographs, diagrams, and drawings.
ALI: Child of the Desert, by Jonathan London, with illustrations by Ted Lewin. (Lothrop, $16; grade K-3.) Crossing the Sahara for the first time with his father and a herd of camels bound for market, Ali and his trusty camel, Jabad, get separated from the others in a blinding sandstorm. Wandering the desert, Ali finally meets an old Berber herdsman who feeds and befriends the boy. Ali must decide whether to wait in the desert for his father to find him or to accompany the herdsman into the mountains, not knowing if he would ever see his family again. It's a moving story about desert life, illustrated in rich detail by Lewin's watercolors.
--Barbara Hiron and Blake Rodman