January 01, 2000 3 min read

The Last Alchemist,by Colin Thompson. (Knopf, $17; grades K-3.) Thompson, the acclaimed author of Looking for Atlantis, The Tower to the Sun, and other well-known picture books, is back again with this wise, exquisitely illustrated fantasy about an alchemist named Spinifex who has been ordered by his miserly king to create gold from scratch. Like the 18 alchemists before him, Spinifex fails to produce the precious metal, but his final, fatally flawed experiment teaches the king a valuable lesson: that happiness does not come from gold but from leading a rich life.

My Rows And Piles Of Coins,by Tololwa Mollel, with illustrations by E.B. Lewis. (Clarion, $17; grades K-2.) Like kids everywhere, Saruni dreams of having a bicycle of his own. For months, he saves what he earns helping his parents in the market of his Tanzanian village, but when he finally takes his bundle of coins to the bike merchant, the man laughs at him: Three hundred and five 10-cent coins may feel like a lot in Saruni’s pocket, but it’s not nearly enough to buy a bicycle. Seeing his disappointment, Saruni’s parents-farmers of humble means-find a way to make his dream come true. The setting for this standout picture book may seem distant and exotic to young American readers-Mollel and Lewis present a colorful snapshot of East African village life-but the protagonist and his predicament will be surprisingly familiar.

Don’t Need Friends, by Carolyn Crimi, with illustrations by Lynn Munsinger. (Doubleday, $15.95; grades K-2.) Rat and Possum are the best of friends; they do everything together. So when Possum moves away from their junkyard home, Rat is crushed. He’s so hurt, in fact, that he decides never to get close to anyone again. “Don’t need friends, don’t need them at all,” he grumbles. Although Rat acts mean and indifferent, Munsinger, an accomplished illustrator of more than 80 children’s books, shows us that he’s really sad and lonely-until a big, grouchy dog moves in and turns his world around. This cute, humorous story seems awfully true to life. It’s a good one to get kids thinking and talking about friendship and why people don’t always act the way they feel.

The Birchbark House,by Louise Erdrich. (Hyperion Books for Children, $14.99; grades 3 and up.) In her first novel for young people, Erdrich, the author of Love Medicine, describes a year in the life of Omakayas, a 7-year-old Ojibwa/Anishinabe girl who lives on an island in Lake Superior. In the summer of 1847, Omakayas and her family move to their “birchbark house.” They go to ricing camp in the fall and struggle to survive smallpox and starvation during the desperately hard winter. In the spring, Omakayas discovers herself, her gift, and a sad yet powerful secret. Written with spare grace, The Birchbark House, a National Book Award finalist, is the first of several books that will retrace Erdrich’s family history-a series that someday may stand with, and challenge, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books as an enduring and vital part of American children’s literature.

When Zachary Beaver Came To Town,by Kimberly Willis Holt. (Henry Holt and Co., $16.95; young adult.) In the summer of 1971, something finally happens in Antler, Texas. One day when “it’s too late in summer for firecrackers and too early for the Ladybug Waltz,” 13-year-old Toby Wilson and his best friend Cal McKnight watch an old blue Thunderbird hauling a house trailer decorated with Christmas lights pull into the Dairy Maid parking lot. Inside the trailer is all 643 pounds of 15-year-old Zachary Beaver, the catalyst in Toby’s discovery of the healing power of love, the need for friendship, and the possibility of redemption. Holt tells Toby’s story of a typically atypical summer in a typically atypical American small town with a keen ear and eye for the pain and humor of adolescence. This book won last year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

--Stephen Del Vecchio and Blake Hume Rodman