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The Boston Phoenix And a Little Child Shall Read Them

Books for the literate and discriminating niece and nephew (and their parents).

By Susannah Garboden

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  There are children's books that weave themselves tightly into the fabric of a family, becoming a lifelong reference mine for adults, a speech cadence and vocabulary for children, and the very air toddlers breathe. Their authors and characters turn into sources of names for pets, boats, and even offspring.

This holiday season, you can start a child or a family down that road. We've tried to suggest appropriate ages, but it goes without saying that any of these books can and should be read aloud by willing adults.

Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome, illustrated by the author (David R. Godine, $14.95 paper). Ages six and up.

Family adventure stories don't get any better than this 1930 tale about six children who spend the summer camping and messing around in boats. The freedom of the children (the youngest is seven) and the trust their parents have in them -- and in the world not to harm them -- may make today's families weak with envy. There are more books in this series, and many children will hungrily seek them out, but the flagship stands alone.

The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber, illustrated by Marc Simont (Dell Yearling, $4.99 paper). Ages eight and up.

This is the story of an evil duke who tries to stop time, a beautiful princess named Saralinda, and a handsome prince disguised as a minstrel. Think that sounds traditional? Consider this:

The clocks were dead, and in the end, brooding on it, the Duke decided he had murdered time, slain it with his sword, and wiped its bloody blade upon its beard and left it lying there, bleeding hours and minutes, its springs uncoiled and sprawling, its pendulum disintegrating.

Finn Family Moomintroll, by Tove Jansson, illustrated by the author (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $4.95 paper). Ages six and up.

Part of a gentle series from Finland, where the books are much loved, this story traces the adventures of a family of creatures who somewhat resemble hippos -- and their friends, who resemble anything Tove Jansson knew how to draw. As a young friend says, "It's sort of like Alice because new guys just keep on coming in, but in Alice you think maybe they all mean something. In Moomintroll they just keep coming in." It's nice bedtime reading for small children, as cozy and comforting as a cup of cocoa.

Rabbit Hill, by Robert Lawson, illustrated by the author (Viking, $14 cloth; $3.99 paper). Ages six and up.

This book won the Newbery when it first came out, but it's probably considered frivolous today. Recent winners have dealt with weightier issues than the lives of a bunch of suburban animals. Yet this endlessly charming book could be one of the most perfect weddings of picture and text ever created. It's a touch dated, but its message of man and nature coexisting is right up to the minute.

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Edwards (HarperCollins, $4.50 paper). Ages six and up.

This is the tale of three siblings who befriend a professor and use a combination of magic, imagination, and self-esteem to travel to Whangdoodleland, where (with a touch of Nobel Prize-winning science) they are able to preserve the Whangdoodle's line. Author Julie Edwards, better known as singer/actress Julie Andrews, captures the children's relationship with just the right blend of rivalry and affection.

Stuart Little, by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams (HarperCollins, $13.95 cloth; $4.95 paper). Ages six and up.

Tongue in cheek but never condescending, Stuart Little tells the story of a perfectly normal human family whose perfectly normal son is exactly the size and shape of a mouse. Stuart and his family live a nice upper-middle-class life in New York City, and Stuart saunters from adventure to adventure -- coping with the problems that his looks present, but never failing to rise to whatever challenges appear.

The Trojan War and the Adventures of Odysseus, by Padraic Colum, illustrated by Barry Moser (William Morrow, $22 cloth). Ages eight and up.

First published in 1919, this book appeared from 1946 to the 1980s as The Children's Homer; it's worth keeping your eyes open for a copy of that edition, which included breathtaking line drawings by Willy Pogany. The story, however, is the main thing, and that is blessedly intact -- this is the Iliad and the Odyssey neatened up for young readers but dumbed down very little. There's a reason that people still tell the story of Odysseus' wanderings, first to fight a war and then to try to get home again, where, at long last, he finds his house overrun, his wife harassed by wooers, and his son mocked:

For long Odysseus stood with the bow in his hands, handling it as a minstrel handles a lyre when he stretches a cord or tightens a peg. Then he bent the great bow; he bent it without an effort, and at his touch the bowstring made a sound that was like the cry of a swallow. The wooers seeing him bend that mighty bow felt, every man of them, a sharp pain of the heart.

Honey, I'm home!

Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson (Viking, $14.99 cloth; $4.99 paper). All ages.

If few people still take bullfighting seriously, it may be a direct result of this hilariously illustrated book -- one of the best stories ever to challenge machismo. It would be tempting to draw a connection between the book's 1936 publication date and world events, but that would probably be wrong. It's hard to imagine a world before Ferdinand was created. We have always needed him for his humor and his insistence on his individuality.

Susannah Garboden has a Jeep named Snow White.

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