ONE OF THIS season's captivating picture books is set in Baltimore, where author Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard's extended family again stars in a winning story.
Howard, who was born in Baltimore and grew up in Boston, began writing about her family in "The Train to Lulu's." That was followed by "Chita's Christmas Tree," an American Library Association Notable Book.
Fans of those two books will welcome Howard's latest work, "Aunt Flossie's Hats (and Crab Cakes Later)," illustrated by James Ransome and published by Clarion ($14.95, ages 3-7).
It's the story of two little girls, Sarah and Susan, who visit their great-great-aunt Flossie every Sunday afternoon. They sip tea and eat cookies and then Aunt Flossie lets the girls rummage through her many, many hatboxes. With each hat the girls pick out, Aunt Flossie tells the story that goes with it.
There's the green wool hat that still smells faintly of smoke from the Great Baltimore Fire, and the dark blue hat with the red feather that Aunt Flossie made to wear to the parade welcoming home the troops from World War I. Then there's the big straw hat that blew off Aunt Flossie's head and into a nearby lake. In real life, her "favorite best Sunday hat" actually landed in the water at the Inner Harbor.
Flossie Wright, well-known as a teacher in the Baltimore City Public Schools, died last year at age 101. Aunt Flossie was related to Howard's mother, while the family in "Chita's Christmas Tree" is related to Howard's father. Chita, in fact, is Baltimorean Elizabeth Shipley, who is Howard's father's first cousin.
The paternal side of the family will be the focus of Howard's fourth book, which is now in the works, Shipley said. "It's the story of how my father won the Spanish-American War," Shipley said, laughing. "I know it's true because my father told me the story many times."
Floyd Cooper, whose paintings complemented "Chita's Christmas Tree" so beautifully, will also illustrate the upcoming book. Ransome's oil-on-canvas paintings in "Aunt Flossie's Hats" are warm and inviting, although "Flossie didn't look anything like she does in the book," Shipley said.
* From the extended family to the family of man: A neat new book for kids of all ages is "On the Day You Were Born," written and illustrated by Debra Frasier (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95). Using bold cut-paper collages and language that's just as vivid, Frasier takes readers on a journey across the earth as it prepares to greet its newest resident -- you.
"On the day you were born the quiet Moon glowed and offered to bring a full, bright face, each month, to your windowsill." The animals, the trees, the wind and the people all celebrate the birth of the latest family member, and at the back of the book Frasier provides clear explanations for all of the natural phenomena described, from gravity to tides to the differences in the color of people's skin.
* The artwork almost steals the show in "The Way Home," written by Judith Benet Richardson, pictures by Salley Mavor (MacMillan, $13.95, ages 3-6). Each illustration is actually a work of fabric relief -- dyed, embroidered and sewn together by hand. The textures and three-dimensional soft sculptures are exquisite.
But the story is good, too, the kind kids want to hear again and again, long after they've memorized the punch line. It stars Savi, a baby elephant who goes to the beach with her mother. After a long, fun day, Savi's mother says it's time to go home. But Savi won't come.
Finally, the mother leaves. The sun goes down, and Savi comes out of the water, feeling cold and hungry. But her mother hasn't forgotten her.
* Take a trip through the extraordinary world of a child's imagination in "A Boy Wants a Dinosaur," by Hiawyn Oram, pictures by Satoshi Kitamura (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $13.95, ages 3-7). When Alex decides he doesn't want an ordinary everyday pet, his grandfather finally gives in and takes him to the Dino-Store to pick out a dinosaur.
Strolling through the fantastic glass-enclosed dinosaur mall, Alex falls for a female Massospondylus that he decides to call Fred. But even with her collar on, Fred is hardly a manageable pet.
Finally, after the vet says that Fred is feeling sick and needs a long walk in the country, Alex finds out that loving a pet sometimes means letting her go.