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BEAUTIFUL WARRIOR: The Legend of the Nun's Kung Fu, story and pictures by Emily Arnold McCully. (Levine Books/Scholastic Press, $16.95; grades 1-4.)THE LITTLE HUMPBACKED HORSE:A Russian Tale, adapted by Elizabeth Winthrop, with illustrations by Alexander Koshkin. (Clarion Books, $14.95; grades 1-4.)A WEAVE OF WORDS, retold by Robert San Souci, with illustrations by Raúl Colón. (Orchard Books, $15.95; grades 1-4.) These three exotic folk tales are remarkable for their lyrical language and the beauty of their illustrations. Beautiful Warrior's Wu Mei is an unusual heroine, a young Buddhist nun who is also a master of kung fu. When a desperate girl seeks help turning away an unsavory suitor, Wu Mei teaches her that strength of mind and body can defeat the enemy. Watercolors, tempera, and pastel in muted tones recreate scenes from 17th-century China with humor and drama.

In The Little Humpbacked Horse, Ivan, a young peasant, frees a beautiful white mare, who in turn rewards him with a small horse. The humpbacked horse can speak in a human voice, and his advice proves so wise that Ivan captures magical beasts, wins the heart of the beautiful Tsarevna, and becomes tsar of Russia. Brilliantly colored paintings by the noted Russian artist Koshkin fill the tale with wonder.

In A Weave of Words, an adaptation of an Armenian folk tale, Prince Vachagan falls in love with Anait, the weaver's daughter. She agrees to marry him only after he learns to read, write, and master the art of weaving rugs. In return, she learns to ride a horse and handle a sword. The skills they acquire for the marriage are put to the test when they are confronted by a terrifying three-headed monster. Somber, elegant paintings in shades of brown and purple give this unusual tale an authentic medieval backdrop.

TO MARKET, TO MARKET, by Anne Miranda, with illustrations by Janet Stevens. (Harcourt Brace, $16; grades K-2.) This book is a riot, guaranteed to send students and teachers alike into spasms of uncontrollable laugher. Miranda starts off with the familiar nursery rhyme about going to market to buy a fat pig. But the verse doesn't get much beyond the first "jiggity jig" before things go terribly awry. The befuddled shopper—an absurd-looking woman with big purple glasses, a garish yellow hat, and too much rouge—makes numerous trips to market, each time coming home with a different animal, presumably to cook for lunch. After the pig comes a hen, followed by a goose, a trout, a lamb, and more. But once she gets them home, each of the animals manages to escape, and together they wreck the poor woman's kitchen. The woman bears the increasing chaos with stoic grace—until she loses it completely: "I'm a shopping disgrace," she declares, glasses askew, hair a mess, goose on her head. "Everything's running all over the place." Miranda's spare verse is rhythmic and clever, but it is Stevens' illustrations that make this book special. Using acrylic, pastels, and colored pencil on black-and-white photographic images, she transforms a neat, modern kitchen into a barnyard you can practically smell. With text and art interwoven throughout, the pages are busy, but not too busy; Stevens' colorful characters stand out perfectly against the black-and-white settings. Finally, the woman, with animals in tow, makes one last trip to the market, coming home this time with a cartful of vegetables for a tasty soup. The last page shows them all—woman and animals—sated and asleep on the kitchen floor.

THE AMBER CAT, by Hilary McKay. (McElderry Books/Simon and Schuster, $15; grades 4-6.) When 11-year-old Robin and his friends Dan and Sun Dance all come down with chickenpox, they stay together at Porridge Hall, Robin's big house on the Yorkshire coast. To entertain the sick children, Robin's mother tells of an unusual summer she spent at the seaside as a young girl, regaling them with tales of rivalries, a dare that gets out of hand, and a ghost. The dialogue is witty, the plot inventive and highly entertaining.

NERO CORLEONE: A Cat's Story, by Elke Heidenreich, with illustrations by Quint Buchholz. (Viking, $15.99; grades 3-5.) A rapscallion of a kitten born on an Italian farm becomes the terror of the barnyard and acquires the name Nero for his black body and Corleone for his lion's heart. Seeking a life softer than the one he has found on the farm, Nero cheekily worms his way into the affections of a vacationing couple who take him and his timid sister, Rosa, back to Germany. There, with the vicious swish of a white paw, he quickly establishes his supremacy. Heidenreich's refreshingly original tale and sly humor paired with the lovely paintings by Buchholz are a winning combination.

AFRICAN BEGINNINGS, by James Haskins and Kathleen Benson, with illustrations by Floyd Cooper. (Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard Books, $18; grades 4-8.) This is a well-researched and fascinating introduction to 12 ancient African kingdoms and cities, including Kush, Benin, Kongo, Nubia, and Timbuktu. A brief history of each is followed by a discussion of lifestyles, music and dance, art and religion, and slavery and colonization on the African continent. Cooper's paintings evoke the proud history of these civilizations.

SWALLOWING STONES, by Joyce McDonald. (Delacorte Press, $15.95; young adult.) When Michael triumphantly fires his new rifle into the air on the Fourth of July, the bullet ricochets and kills the father of Jenna, a classmate. His best friend persuades him not to admit his responsibility for the accident, but his guilt and Jenna's devastation lead to a surprising conclusion.

WE PLAYED MARBLES, by Tres Seymour, with illustrations by Dan Andreasen. (Orchard, $15.95; K-2.) Two boys spend an idyllic afternoon playing on an old Civil War battlefield. Where soldiers ate "a watchful worried breakfast of old biscuits," the boys make mud pies. Where Mississippi gray shouted the rebel yell, the boys run footraces. But when they pick up sticks and begin playing soldier, one of the boy's grandfathers shows up and tells them to quit. He pulls a round Civil War bullet from his pocket, and together the three of them shoot marbles. Seymour and Andreasen have created a gentle, contemporary story haunted by history.

TOOT AND PUDDLE, by Holly Hobbie. (Little, Brown, $12.95; K-2.)Toot and Puddle are best of friends, and yet they are very different. When Toot leaves for a yearlong trip around the world, Puddle opts to keep the home fires burning, taking vicarious pleasure from his pal's monthly postcards from exotic places. Hobbie has written and painted a charming book about the cutest pigs imaginable.

—Barbara Hiron and Blake Rodman

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