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Stories For The Season

Mon., Dec. 23, 1996

Do you shudder at the thought of hitting the malls or discount stores for last-minute gifts? Wouldn’t a bookstore be a soothing alternative?

Here are some children’s books - holiday tales and classics - that would make lovely gifts for children, families and even adults.

“Ben’s Christmas Carol” by Toby Forward.

For a mouse, Ebeneezer Scrooge’s home is a great place to live. Ben is well-fed and warm, especially during the Christmas season. Like his human housemate, Ben is also grumpy and selfish.

Poor Tim is all heart, but scruffy and undernourished. He and Ben meet in a mouse tunnel on Christmas Eve. Tim tries to hand Ben a gift but Ben doesn’t care about anything but the fat candied plum he’s dragging home.

That night Ben is visited by a ghostly mouse who shows him the error of his greedy ways. “I will bet you that I can find three others… who want something more than a candied plum tonight.”

Ruth Brown’s illustrations are the best part of this book. The holiday scenes glow with warmth and light. Others are chillingly ghostly. In the background, as the mouse plot is played out, parallel scenes portray Scrooge and his ghosts. Fittingly, both author and illustrator live in England. (Dutton, ages 4-8, 48 pgs., $15.99.)

“An Amish Christmas” by Richard Ammon.

Tired of noisily advertised toys and electronics? Christmas Muzak wafting through the stores in October? Children with dazed eyes, making and remaking a long list of wants?

In showing how Amish folk in one community mark the holiday, this cozy book celebrates the heart of Christmas, not the hype. Small gifts are exchanged in the spirit of the wise men, but most of the celebration focuses on the school Christmas program, playing with friends, sledding, feasting, visiting and eating Grossmommy’s homemade candies. On Christmas Eve and day, farm chores must be done as on every other day. And children go back to school Dec. 27. Those truths don’t seem to dampen the fun, however. Pamela Patrick’s pastel illustrations are lovely. The children’s faces glow. (Atheneum, ages 5 and up, 40 pgs., $17.)

“Nursery Tales Around the World,” selected and retold by Judy Sierra.

This imaginative collection would make a wonderful gift for a household with young children. Sierra has gathered 18 tales from around the world and grouped them in cleverly named themes, such as “Runaway Cookies” and “Fooling the Big Bad Wolf.”

The tales are short, often humorous and full of repetition and refrains that make for lively read-aloud sessions. Countries of origin include Russia, India, Zaire, England and Italy. An introduction and source notes provide valuable information about storytelling and these tales.

Stefano Vitale’s illustrations are both sophisticated and whimsical, appealing to children and adults. He paints with oils on heavily grained wood panels, creating artwork that does not patronize preschoolers as do some of the too-cute illustrations often aimed at that age group. (Clarion, ages 3 and up, 128 pgs., $19.95.)

“The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” retold and illustrated by Jane Ray.

Ray is an illustrator with a magical style. She has taken a pretty-but-plain Grimm fairy tale and turned it into something enchanting and elegant.

“The Twelve Princesses” is the story of 12 sisters who dance each night away with 12 handsome princes in an underground kingdom. The king wonders why, despite a locked door, his daughters’ dancing slippers are worn to shreds each morning. So he issues a proclamation: The first man to discover their secret wins a princess’s hand in marriage. Naturally, there’s a fairy tale ending. Readers will pore over Ray’s pictures. Gleaming gold accents add richness and the detail in fabrics, greenery and palace finery is fascinating. (Dutton, ages 4 and up, 32 pgs., $15.99.)

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” retold by Bruce Coville.

This one is highly recommended for children and adults. If Bruce Coville had been around when we were young, more of us would have developed an appreciation for Shakespeare. Coville has skillfully distilled the play to its essence, while maintaining the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and humor of this tale. My boys, 6 and 8, were mesmerized.

This is the story of a woods enchanted by mischievous fairies and hobgoblins, including the famous Puck. Two young couples and a troupe of actors enter the woods one night and much hilarious mischief follows.

Dennis Nolan’s pictures are enchanting. (But we suspect he used Michael Jackson as model for Oberon, king of the fairies.)

Coville has also done a fine retelling of “The Tempest,” wonderfully illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. (Doubleday, $16.95, or $6.95 in paper.)

If your grade-schoolers balk at Shakespeare in picture-book form, tell them that Coville also wrote “My Teacher is an Alien” and “Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher.” (Dutton, all ages, 48 pgs., $16.99.)

“The World of Little House” by Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wysse Eriksson.

For true fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder, this book has it all. Nine chapters, each one centered around one of Wilder’s books, include maps, recipes, activities, history and much more. It comes in an attractive package: blue gingham pattern on the cover, a patterned ribbon place marker, and illustrations by Deborah Maze and the beloved Little House illustrator, Garth Williams. (HarperCollins, ages 8 and up, 150 pgs., $24.95.)

“Robin of Sherwood” by Michael Morpurgo.

Here is another excellent retelling of a classic that begins when a boy finds a skull in an upturned grave and is propelled into the past to live the adventure of Robin Hood. This is an exciting read-aloud with terrific illustrations by Michael Foreman. (Harcourt Brace, ages 5 and up, 113 pgs., $22.)

“Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens (abridged by Lesley Baxter).

This is a nicely done edition, especially for young people. The adaptation retains the flavor of the original while simplifying some of the difficult language. Beautiful illustrations are by Christian Birmingham. (Dial, ages 8 and up, 144 pgs., $19.95.)

“The Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum; illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger.

Every home should own a copy of “The Wizard of Oz,” and this new edition is a beauty. The story is the original, but Zwerger’s illustrations aren’t like any Wizard of Oz pictures you’ve ever seen.

The New York Times named this one of the 10 best-illustrated books of the year. It even comes with a pair of green glasses to wear while reading the Emerald City chapters. (North-South Books, all ages, 103 pgs., $19.95.)

MEMO: Children’s book review By Tacoma writer Rebecca Young appear monthly on Families.

Children’s book review By Tacoma writer Rebecca Young appear monthly on Families.

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