Mr. Peabody's Apples
Written by Madonna
Illustrated by Loren Long
Callaway, 28 pp., ages 6-10, $19.95
A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound
Written by John Irving
Illustrated by Tatjana Hauptmann
Doubleday, 40 pp., ages 7-11, $15.95
Children of the Lamp: The Akhenaten Adventure
By P. B. Kerr
Orchard, 355 pp., ages 10 and up, $16.95
Almost everyone believes he or she can write for children. Almost no one outside of the major leagues thinks he or she can play pro ball. E. B. White noted, ''Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears. . . . Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth."
This has not stopped celebrity authors -- sports figures, comics, well-known adult authors, and politicians -- from turning out books for children. (Strangely, children's-book authors have seldom gone out for pro teams, comedy spots, or political office.) These books are like the little girl from the nursery rhyme -- when good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad they are horrid. One can pass over the horrid in silence. Happily, some are very good indeed.
''Mr. Peabody's Apples" is a story about friendship, gossip, and truth. After Madonna's first novel for young readers -- I promised to pass over this in silence -- I was dubious about this first picture book, and yet here it is, an exquisite Jewish folk tale, recast in modern dress, presented with economy, dignity, and a touch of sharp humor. Mr. Peabody, of the story's title, is a teacher in winter, and in summer a popular Little League coach in Happville, ''(which wasn't a very big town)." One day a child sees Mr. Peabody pocketing an apple from the market without apparently paying for it. That child tells his friends, and before long the whole town believes that Mr. Peabody is a thief. Thanks to a plucky hero, Billy Little, ''(who wasn't a very big boy)," Mr. Peabody has a chance to prove his innocence. But how does one call back an ugly rumor, and how can Mr. Peabody teach this lesson to a child? By setting him a task that's like undoing the damage gossip creates; apparently simple, actually almost impossible.
A great deal is accomplished by illustrator Loren Long. His art is jewel-colored, exuberantly playful. Figures are elongated, gestures heroically exaggerated, yet the effect is that of a luminous superrealism. The full-color, full-page pictures are supplemented by drawings and decorations, illuminated letters, and borders, all of which make ''Mr. Peabody's Apples" a visual delight. Without Long's art, the book would have been half as strong -- surely in later editions he, too, deserves his name on the jacket.
An odd but winning book comes from the pages of John Irving's powerful adult novel ''A Widow for One Year." That novel features an unlikable children's-book author who writes ''the kind of children's literature that is intent on frightening the very young," notes Irving in his introduction. Irving is right that this new book is the ''gentlest" of his stories. Still, it is spooky, back-shadowed, not quite for ''the very young," and, maybe precisely for that reason, exactly right for the slightly older child who can savor a bit of darkness with his fiction.
''Tom woke up, but Tim did not. It was the middle of the night." So, elegantly, begins ''A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound." Tom looks about 7; Tim ''was only two." Tom tries to explain to their father what woke him. '' 'It was a sound like, in the closet, if one of Mommy's dresses came alive and it tried to climb down off the hanger." Or, more vividly, ''like a monster with no arms and no legs, but it was trying to move." That would have been enough to send my toddler son screaming out the door; now he's a teenager who likes horror movies. It's all a matter of timing, as this story proves. Eventually, the father figures out, ''it's just a mouse, crawling between the walls." Tom falls asleep, while baby Tim stays up, terrified; he ''didn't know what a 'mouse' was," a stroke of irony that some children -- especially those with a younger sibling -- will relish.
Here again, illustrative genius is at work. Tatjana Hauptmann casts a tender blue tint over the book, rendering each room in the house chilly and spooky. She's equally adept at figures, rooms, and human faces, and brilliantly, she has positioned the father entirely out of the book; we never see him, though we hear his voice. Tom's lone companion through the dark night is his own imagination, embodied here by his teddy bear. ''A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound" may not be for everyone, certainly not for the most timid, but it has a satisfying and haunted originality that will win its own fans.
Popular British thriller writer Philip Kerr has reinvented himself as P. B. Kerr, author of a sparkling, fast-paced novel of adventure and fantasy in ''Children of the Lamp: The Akhenaten Adventure." John and Philippa Gaunt are 12-year-old twins whose wisdom teeth come in surprisingly early, revealing -- but then, if I reveal what they learn about themselves, I will spoil a good part of the charm of the book. Let's just say that ''Children of the Lamp" flies from England to Egypt, with humor, danger, mystery, history, and beautiful, piquant writing all through: ''Eavesdropping on stairs is how most children find out about the important things that affect their lives." Major and minor characters delight and abound; it's the forces of good against the forces of evil. Both the title and the book's end suggest that further adventures lie ahead.
Liz Rosenberg's "I Just Hope It's Lethal," an anthology of poems for teenagers co-edited with Deena November, is due out from Houghton Mifflin in 2005. She teaches creative writing at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.