Nothing Here But Kid Stuff

Before we discuss some of this year's best children's books, can we vent a little? Really: are parents so anxiety-ridden that they want to cram edification into a kid's every waking minute--worse, into every going-to-sleep minute? Arthur Dobrin's Love Your Neighbor: Stories of Values and Virtues(Scholastic. $16.95) ends each tedious tale with a moral interrogation session: "Everyone has something to offer. How do you think everyone in this story helped?" The impulse to give kids a cultural upgrade has produced A Young Person's Guide to Philosophy(DK. $16.95), which explains Kant's ethical teachings this way: "If people went around killing each other, no one would be left." And maddest of all is Lawrence David's Beetle Boy(Doubleday. $15.95), a rewrite of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" with a happy ending: "Gregory" turns back into a boy, but his parents make it clear that they'd still love him if he'd remained a beetle.

There. We feel better. Now for the good stuff.

The preachiest book to make our cut is King Midas and the Golden Touch(Morrow. $16), but Charlotte Craft's simple, elegant retelling doesn't actually spell out a moral and K. Y. Craft's pictures make gold look both butterily seductive and brazenly horrific. My Man Blue(Dial. $15.99), with pictures by Jerome Lagarrigue, sneaks in a bit of wisdom (it's OK for African-American boys to cook and read), but mostly it's the story of a kid and his mother's boyfriend warming to each other.

Young kids can learn from Geraldine McCaughrean's Grandma Chickenlegs(Carolrhoda. $15.95) that if you're nice to a wicked witch's cat and dog, they'll help you out of a jam. And while kindergartners and first graders won't learn much from David Shannon's David Goes to School(Blue Sky. $14.95), they'll rejoice when the pumpkin-headed, spiky-haired hero, always in trouble with the teacher, finally gets a gold star. And better still, he gets to go home.

The rest of our choices merely nourish the imagina--oh, shut up. See what reading this stuff does to you? The rest are just for fun.

J.otto Seibold and V. L. Walsh's go-to-sleep book Penguin Dreams(Chronicle. $13.95) is an absolutely weird inner voyage by a penguin named Chongo Chingi: a sort of "FinnegansWake" for the preschool set. Peter McCarty's Little Bunny on the Move(Henry Holt. $14.95) is more conventionally dreamy: a tiny white rabbit makes his way home through a misty landscape glowing with gently eerie light. And the quintessential dream story, Jack and the Beanstalk, is retold at least twice this year: by Richard Walker (Barefoot. $15.95), with Niamh Sharkey's Miro-like pictures, and by Ann Keay Beneduce (Philomel. $15.99), with pictures by Gennady Spirin in a more traditional style you could call cartoon Flemish. And finally, a pair of nontraditional books that owe their existence to computer technology--and show (if anybody still wondered) that it hasn't killed off the imagination. David Kirk's Nova's Ark(Scholastic. $17.95), about a young space robot searching for and rescuing his father, tells its story in eye-popping 3-D digitized images. We can also thank digital imaging for the glossy, spookily lovely processed photos in Suza Scalora's The Fairies(Joanna Cotler. $19.95), purporting to be the record of a scholarly expedition to document and catalog fairies. Adults will recognize her creatures as models, but kids will see a visionary world of sadness and cruelty, beauty and grace. Unless, of course, they've been edified beyond wonderment. In which case, they'll still find plenty to read: values, virtues, all that good stuff. Every book has something to offer. How do you think every book in this article rated? Let's discuss.