ASK ANY PARENT of young kids what presents you can get the children for Christmas or Hanukkah, and chances are the answer will be: Anything but toys.
That leaves aunts, uncles and grandparents with a couple of options. You can buy clothes, which is OK if you're not going to be in the same room when the little darling unwraps the box, frowns and quietly relegates you to least favored relative status.
Or you can buy books. Every other Wednesday from now through Christmas I'll review new books that would make good gifts. With a little imagination, it's not hard to match a kid with a book that fits better than any crew-neck sweater.
* "Esio Trot," by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Viking, $14.95) (all ages). Fans of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and "James and the Giant Peach" are in for a treat. Dahl has written another fine book for the family to read aloud. This is a clever little love story.
Mr. Hoppy is an old man who lives alone in his apartment, tending the flowers on his balcony and secretly yearning for Mrs. Silver, the widow who lives directly below him. He longs to invite her up for tea, but he's too shy to go beyond the small talk they exchange every morning.
Mrs. Silver, meanwhile, lavishes all of her love on a tiny pet tortoise named Alfie. When she is on her balcony one morning, fretting that Alfie is growing too slowly, Mr. Hoppy has a brainstorm. He gives Mrs. Silver a magic verse to chant: "Esio Trot, Esio Trot, Teg Reggib, Teg Reggib!" Spelled backward, that's Tortoise, Tortoise, Get Bigger, Get Bigger! Mr. Hoppy also hatches an elaborate scheme that makes Alfie mysteriously gain weight, and in the end, the shy man wins Mrs. Silver's heart.
* "LOOK! The Ultimate Spot-the-Difference Book," illustrated by April Wilson, nature notes bu A.J. Wood (Dial Books for Young Readers, $12.95) (ages 6-up). This is a book you never outgrow. Wilson's sumptuous paintings of wildlife habitats are reason enough to buy "LOOK!" Yet it offers much more.
Open the book and the facing pages have identical pictures of some exotic locale -- from the rain forests of the Amazon to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. On second glance, however, the panels of artwork aren't identical. Anyone who enjoys playing detective with those "What is wrong with this picture?" puzzles will delight in finding the differences. Suddenly there's a rainbow boa curled in the roots of a tree, or a fly sticking out of a tree frog's mouth.
In case you miss a few, all of the subtle differences are revealed in keyed pictures at the back of the book. There, all of the plants and animals are identified, and the nature notes tell you enough about the wildlife without turning into a textbook.
* "The Wheels on the Bus," adapted and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (Dutton Children's Books, $14.95) (ages 2-8). Still want to give a toy as a present? Here's something even better -- a pull-the-flap book that's great entertainment.
Zelinsky illustrated "Rumpelstiltskin," a Caldecott Honor Book. This time he has brought to life the traditional song that goes, "The wheels on the bus go round and round . . . The wipers on
the bus go swish, swish, swish . . . The babies on the bus cry waah! waah! waah! all over town."
Pull one tab and the wipers actually sweep across the windshield in rhythm; pull another and three babies' mouths open wide to howl. This book won't survive a 2-year-old, but it's still sturdier than most books with moving parts.
* "The Shepherd Boy," written and illustrated by Kim Lewis (Four Winds Press, $13.95) (ages 3-6). This is a personal favorite. We have two border collies, so I'm a sucker for any story that includes them. But this gentle book would be a keeper even without the dogs.
James and his parents live on a farm where James' father is a shepherd. When James asks if he can be a shepherd, too, his father tells him he must wait till he's a little older. Every day, James waits. The story takes readers through the spring, as James watches the new lambs being born, and the summer and fall.
Lewis' warm pastel illustrations chronicle the entire year, letting the pictures tell much of the story. Finally it's Christmas, and what should James find under the tree? A crook and a cap and a dog whistle of his very own. And in a basket in the barn there's a border collie pup wearing a tag that reads: "My name is Jess. I belong to a Shepherd Boy named James."
THANKSGIVING FARE: If you're fed up with tales of Pilgrims and cigar store Indians, there's a welcome new Thanksgiving story. "How Many Days to America," by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Beth Peck (Clarion paperback, $5.95), is an excellent story for ages 6-10. It's about a family that must flee its home on a Caribbean island when a dictator takes over.
It's a timeless story that blurs racial and ethnic distinctions, holding out the idea -- however idealistic -- that this is still the land of opportunity.