The saying "A book is a gift you open again and again" becomes a mantra for parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and anyone else who enjoys giving books to kids for the holidays.
They chant it to themselves after little Jessica rips the wrapping paper off the boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder paperbacks and then shoves the books aside, undetered in her search for the Barbie Dream Wedding Gift Set that everyone knew she wanted.
In a perfect world, February will find Jessica huddled under a comforter with "On the Banks of Plum Creek." In our imperfect world, book-givers take comfort knowing that their presents don't require batteries, won't break by New Year's Eve and are a snap to wrap up for under the tree.
One size fits all
Some books you never outgrow. This year's bumper crop of children's books includes several that fit the entire family.
* "The Dragons Are Singing Tonight" -- poems by Jack Prelutsky, pictures by Peter Sis (Greenwillow, $15, 39 pages, ages 4 and up) casts a dazzling spell. Mr. Prelutsky is at his rhyming, rapping best. (If you don't believe in dragons, / It is curiously true / That the dragons you disparage / Choose to not believe in you.)
And Mr. Sis, whose award-winning books include "An Ocean World" and "Follow the Dream," fills every double-page spread with scaly creatures that frighten and entrance. Some inspire giggles. Others spark romance.
* "A. Nonny Mouse Writes Again!" -- poems selected by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Knopf, $13, 32 pages, ages 4-10). This sequel opens with a thoughtful note from Ms. Mouse to Mr. Prelutsky, letting him know how well life has treated her since their first collaboration, "Poems of A. Nonny Mouse."
For the first time, her poems had been correctly attributed to her, instead of to "Anonymous." In this second collection, there are limericks and sing-song rhymes -- many familiar and all filled with silliness. It's as if the poems are stand-up comics competing on a stage, jostling one another on the pages between Ms. Priceman's frenetic watercolors.
* "The Happy Hocky Family!" -- This book for baby boomers to share with their kids (or keep for themselves) is by Lane Smith (Viking, $13.99, 61 pages, all ages). It's a parody of Dick and Jane primers, twisted with Mr. Lane's comedic and design genius.
In addition to his own "Glasses -- Who Needs 'Em" and "The Big Pets," Mr. Lane has collaborated with Jon Scieszka on "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales," and several other subversive spoofs.
The Hocky family has a pipe-smoking dad, a domestic mom and three kids. It would be '50s to the core except for the fact that in each of the 17 vignettes, it's the kids who are empowered, not the nerdy grown-ups.
The kids face setbacks (Henry does not get the pony he wants for his birthday) and catastrophes (Holly leaves the top off her ant farm, and they invade Mom's sterile kitchen). But the parents aren't hovering nearby, waiting to make it all better. Instead, the kids muddle through, as evidenced by the fact that they're ready for the next adventure, whether it be a visit from Cousin Stinky or a hilarious episode about Grandma's perfume dependency.
* "From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs" -- If it's a coffee-table book you're after, check out this hefty offering compiled by Amy L. Cohn (Scholastic, $29.95, 399 pages, all ages). Pound for pound, it's one of the most beautiful anthologies around.
The list of illustrators is a Caldecott who's who: Leo and Diane Dillon, Richard Egielski, Anita Lobel, Molly Bang, Marcia Brown, Jerry Pinkney, David Wiesner, Barbara Cooney, Trina Schart Hyman, Donald Crews, John Schoenherr, Chris Van Allsburg, Marc Simont and Ed Young.
Each artist does a chapter, which includes eight to 10 traditional stories, poems or songs. Ms. Cohn begins with American Indians and progresses through American history, with chapters on slavery, pioneers, tall tales, ghost stories and even baseball.
* "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" -- Leo and Diane Dillon's latest feast for the eyes is by Nancy Willard (Blue Sky Press, $15.95, 32 pages, all ages). Ms. Willard ("A Visit to William Blake's Inn") has collaborated with the Dillons to create a new version of the verse first popularized by Goethe in the 1700s.
It is scary -- at one point a crazed sewing machine appears ready to zig-zag the apprentice to death -- and mystical at the same time.
* "Daddy and Me: A photo story of Arthur Ashe and his daughter Camera" -- Important books don't always make great gifts, but this exception is by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (Alfred A. Knopf, $13, 40 pages, all ages). It is a story of love and loss, but mostly love.
Camera Ashe was 21 months old when her father learned he had AIDS. She was 5 when her parents told her the name of his illness.
This book of black-and-white photographs by Camera's mother is written in Camera's words: Daddy has some bad days and lots of good days. On good days we go to the tennis court. Daddy was a tennis champion. Now, when he gives lessons, I help him pick up the balls. . . . On Daddy's bad days, I take care of him. I give him his pills.
We see her father taking care of Camera, too, shampooing her hair, reading her stories at night. It hurts to see Arthur Ashe so frail, his terry cloth robe wrapped around him like cotton batting around crystal. But their hugs and kisses are filled with life. Your heart aches when you close the book because it's brimming with love, not loss.
Books for little ones
* "I Love You As Much . . ." -- Laura Krauss Melmed, whose wondrous "Rainbabies" came out last year, is back with this offering illustrated by Henri Sorensen (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $14, 24 pages, all ages.) A succession of animal mothers -- including elephants, camels and mice -- are shown comforting their children.
Said the mother goat to her child, / "I love you as much as the mountain is steep."
Said the mother whale to her child, / "I love you as much as the ocean is deep."
On the last page, a human mother cuddles with her infant.
* "Rub A Dub Dub, Who's in the Tub?" -- by Jun Takabatake (Chronicle Books, $10.95, 40 pages) is listed for ages 2-6 but will get giggles from even younger kids. A little boy who's supposed to be taking a bath procrastinates by sculpting animals out of soapsuds. But pretty soon some very real creatures -- a gorilla and a rhino, to name two -- are crowding the tub. Parents of toddlers will welcome the wit.
* "Carl Goes to Daycare" -- Carl, the Rottweiler/nanny of every parent's dream, returns in this tale by Alexandra Day (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $12.95, 32 pages, all ages). Now "baby" has a name -- Madeleine -- and Carl goes with her on a visit to the day care center.
When the teacher gets locked out, Carl is there to save the day, playing games, leading crafts, supervising snack time and getting everyone down for a nap. Carl's reading skills are also revealed for the first time.
* "Rock-A-Bye Rhymes" -- A good gift for parents-to-be is this set of four miniature books packaged in a durable cardboard rocking horse (Chronicle Books, $16.95, 32 pages each, ages 2-6). The tiny versions of Mother Goose favorites are excerpted from "The Land of Nursery Rhyme" by Alice Daglish and Ernest Ryes. The old-fashioned, lithograph-style illustrations enthrall my 4-year-old.
* "Pat the Beastie: A Pull-and-Poke Book" -- For "Pat the Bunny" graduates who have become jaded and cynical, there's this edition by Henrik Drescher (Hyperion, $9.95, 18 pages, ages 4 and up). It's not suitable for children under 3 because it contains small parts -- the plastic worm boogers that crawl out of the Beastie's nose. That should be enough to tell you that kindergartners will love it, even if they don't "get" the parody.
* "Grandfather's Journey" -- Allen Say has created this as a companion to his award-winning "Tree of Cranes" (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95, 32 pages, ages 4-8). It is an intimate portrait of his grandfather's immigration from Japan to America, the yearning that drew him back to his homeland and the unfulfilled dream to see California one more time before he died.
It comes full circle, as Mr. Say, the narrator, leaves Japan as a teen-ager to see the land his grandfather had loved. He settles in California, but he, too, aches for what he has left behind. Mr. Say's watercolors are spectacular.
* "Ship" -- Another master, David Macauley, has a new work (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95, 96 pages, ages 10 and up) that more than measures up to his past achievements ("The Way Things Work," "Black and White," "Cathedral").
Mr. Macauley is a teacher who can inspire the most disinterested student. The first part of "Ship" follows a group of underwater archaeologists as they discover a Spanish shipwreck in the Caribbean. The second part takes us back to the construction of the ship 500 years ago. This is fiction, but it's packed with historical and scientific fact.
* "Bull Run" -- Another fictional account of history, this one is by Paul Fleischman, woodcuts by David Frampton (HarperCollins, $14, 104 pages, ages 10 and up). Mr. Fleischman ("Saturnalia," "Joyful Noise," "Townsend's Warbler") tells the story of the Civil War's first major battle through the eyes of 16 people.
They include a newspaper artist, a Confederate general, a light-skinned black man determined to fight for the Union and an 11-year-old boy who bluffs his way into the war as a musician. Their chapters alternate throughout the book, and the maps on the endpapers help readers keep up with the action on the battlefield.
* "Searching for Laura Ingalls: A Reader's Journey" -- by Kathryn Lasky and Meribah Knight, photographs by Christopher G. Knight (Macmillan, $15.95, 48 pages, ages 7-11) is the perfect gift for fans of the "Little House" books.
Meribah Knight, the daughter of Ms. Lasky and Mr. Knight, gets to fulfill a fantasy, taking a vacation to South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin to visit places where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived. The family -- including brother Max, a reluctant participant -- flies to Minnesota and rents a modern version of the prairie schooner, a motor home. Meribah keeps a journal of the journey, to go with her mother's narrative.
A novel approach
* "Love You, Soldier" -- by Amy Hest (Puffin paperback, $3.99, 48 pages, ages 7-11).
Know a youngster who dreads reading? Here's a novel so short he or she can conquer it in one sitting -- and probably ask for more. Katie is 7 when her father goes off to World War II, leaving Katie and her mother, a nurse, to fend for themselves in their New York City apartment. It is a simple story with complex layers, and readers grow with Katie as she survives loss and greets a new life.
* "Stealing Home" -- Mary Stolz introduced Thomas and Grandfather in a picture book, "Storm in the Night." Next there was "Go Fish," an early reader. Her latest is for middle-schoolers who are growing up right along with Thomas (HarperCollins, $14, 128 pages, ages 8-12).
Grandfather and Thomas, happy with their life together on Florida's Gulf Coast, find their days of baseball, fishing and cribbage games rudely interrupted by the arrival of Great-Aunt Linzy. She's a neat freak who can make even-tempered Grandfather lose his patience. But the menfolk learn to put up with her -- and even come to appreciate her, at least a little.
* "Crazy Lady" -- by Jane Leslie Conly of Baltimore (HarperCollins, $13, 180 pages, ages 10 and up) is set in a neighborhood near Memorial Stadium that locals will recognize as Waverly. The protagonist, Vernon, is starting junior high. His mother died three years ago, and his father tries to look after the five kids, when he's not working a double shift.
Vernon comes of age when he stops taunting Crazy Lady -- TC neighborhood woman with a drinking problem -- and befriends her retarded son, Ronald. Vernon finds affection, and with it a purpose: trying to make sure Ronald doesn't lose his mother, too.