BAD ALPHABET and counting books are easy to come by these days. Because the market for children's books continues to grow despite the recession, some publishers rush to print books of dubious quality. A-B-C and 1-2-3 books are easy to slap together, so choose carefully. If it's a crummy book, kids will get bored.
Here are some alphabet and counting books that kids of all ages will open again and again, not because "they're good for you," but because they're good.
* "Alison's Zinnia," by Anita Lobel (Greenwillow, $14.95). Anyone can become a lover of flowers after getting hooked on this book. Lobel uses watercolor and gouache to create delicate yet vibrant botanical prints that are suitable for framing.
Her artwork is matched by the text that accompanies each of the 26 flowers. The verbs rush the reader along: "Maryssa misted a Magnolia for Nancy. Nancy noticed a Narcissus for Olga. Olga ordered an Orchid for Paulette. Paulette plucked a Peony for Queenie."
And so it goes all way to "Yolanda yanked a Yucca for Zena. Zena zeroed in on a Zinnia for Alison," tying the ending to the beginning.
* "One Gorilla: A Counting Book," by Atsuko Morozumi (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $13.95). This is the author/illustrator's first children's book; here's hoping she'll craft many, many more. It was selected one of 1990's 10 best illustrated children's books by the New York Times Book Review.
The artwork is lush and soft at the same time, as if all of the settings -- ranging from a jungle to a Himalayan forest to a coral reef -- were deliberately muted to match the gorilla's silvery sheen. Morozumi makes sure readers have fun as they follow the gorilla on his travels.
* "Aardvarks, Disembark!" by Ann Jonas (Greenwillow, $14.95). This isn't an alphabet book in the familiar sense, but it does use alphabetical order to introduce an amazing array of animals. Using the story of Noah as a point of disembarkation, so to speak, Jonas parades a zoo's worth of exotic creatures across the pages.
We all know there were two tigers on the ark, but what about the two tamarins, the two takins and the two tuco-tucos? Jonas shows us what they look like, and the glossary at the back explains where the animals are from and tells whether they are endangered species. It's a great book to share before a trip to the zoo.
* "Albert B. Cub & Zebra: An Alphabet Storybook," by Anne Rockwell (Harper Trophy paperback, $4.95). Even the most clever 5-year-olds will be challenged by this inventive book. Rockwell's appealing watercolors tell a wordless story about Albert B. Cub, who sets off in search of his friend Zebra. Each page is crammed with objects that begin with a certain letter of the alphabet.
At the back Rockwell has written one version of the story, identifying many of the alphabet pictures. But kids will feel free to imagine their own plots and create their own clues as they go along.
* Africa is the setting for three excellent alphabet/counting books that are aimed at school-age children. "Ashanti to Zulu, African Traditions," by Margaret Musgrove, pictures by Leo and Diane Dillon (Dial Books for Young Readers, paperback $4.95 and hardback $15.95) won the 1977 Caldecott Medal. Adults will be captivated by the descriptions of different tribal customs, as well as the Dillons' rich illustrations.
Another husband/wife team, Muriel and Tom Feelings, combined on "Moja Means One: Swahili Counting Book," and "Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book." Both were Caldecott Honor books, "Moja" in 1972 and "Jambo" in 1975, and both are published by Dial (paperback $4.95 and hardback $13.95). It's amazing how quickly first- and second-graders will pick up the language after spending some time with these two books.
* Finally, any fan of "The Polar Express" or "Jumanji" should definitely check out "The Z was Zapped," by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin, $15.95). Van Allsburg must have had great fun dreaming up the surrealistic scenes in this hilarious 26-act play. The characters are all familiar, yet each page brings another surprise. This should be a classic.
FOR THE HOLIDAYS: With Easter and Passover coming up, here are a couple of timely reading suggestions. "The Four Questions," by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, paintings by Ori Sherman (Dial, $15.95, ages 6 and up) brings magic to the story of Passover. Why is this night different from all other nights? Sherman's fantastic paintings of wise old monkeys in yarmulkes and elephants eating matzo are a whimsical accompaniment to the excellent text. The pictures steal the show. They're reminiscent of the folk art of India, with gold and saffron undertones. Each bordered painting is a split image, so you'll be turning the book upside down to enjoy the view.
"The Easter Egg Artists," by Adrienne Adams (Aladdin paperback, $4.95, ages 5-8) is the story of the Abbotts, a family of rabbits who paint Easter eggs. Orson is the Abbotts' son, and in the course of the book he becomes an accomplished artist. But he doesn't stick to eggs: Readers will enjoy guessing just what Orson will decorate next.