Parents of the '90s -- at least those who tend toward trends -- are buying their children retro-presents, the Erector Sets and Easy-Bake Ovens of their '60s youth.
The same holds true for their choice in children's books. "Where the Wild Things Are," Dr. Seuss, "Eloise" and Laura Ingalls Wilder never go out of style. Sticking to the classics, however, means missing out on a mother lode of wonderful new books.
So before snapping up that copy of "Horton Hatches the Egg" to wrap for a loved one, thumb through some of this year's releases. Discovering a new book with a child can be just as much fun as sharing an old favorite.
One size fits all
The books in this category are for kids of all ages, from 4-year-olds who love hearing stories to grown-ups who want to be entertained as they read aloud.
* "John Henry" by Julius Lester, pictures by Jerry Pinkney (Dial, $16.99, 40 pages) lives up to the promise of such a distinguished collaboration. Mr. Lester ("To Be a Slave," "The Knee-High Man and Other Tales") comes through with an energetic re-telling of the legend, and Mr. Pinkney ("The Patchwork Quilt," "Back Home," "The Talking Eggs") illuminates the tale with his wondrous paintings of watercolor, colored pencils and pencil.
Mr. Lester treats his subject with the respect befitting a man who single-handedly ripped a railroad tunnel through "a mountain as big as hurt feelings." But the author doesn't mind nudging his modern-day readers in the ribs with lines like, "The sun yawned, washed its face, flossed and brushed its teeth, and hurried up over the horizon."
* "George Washington's Cows" by David Small (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15, 32 pages) is a goofy delight from the man who brought us "Imogene's Antlers" and "Ruby Mae Has Something to Say."
Readers follow the rear end of a cow through the front door of Mount Vernon, where farm animals have the run of the place. Hogs dressed in powdered wigs and waistcoats serve dinner to humans who aren't as well-mannered as the well-bred swine. And scholarly sheep in mortarboards and gowns tutor men and women who struggle to keep up with the latest geometry lesson. It's no wonder George feels inadequate. As he shoves off to cross the Delaware River, he shouts, "Sell the farm, I'll try politics."
* "BUB, or The Very Best Thing" by Natalie Babbitt (HarperCollins, $15, 32 pages) features finely detailed watercolors. It's a well-paced tale about a king and a queen who set off to find the one thing that is best for their toddler son.
They get plenty of advice from folks around the palace -- sleep is the one thing, says the night nursemaid; sunshine, says the gardener; a song, says the court musician. "Bub," says the little prince, meaning love -- the wisest answer of all. Dog-lovers will delight in the antics of the prince's golden retriever.
* "Zeke Pippin" by William Steig (HarperCollins, $15, 32 pages) is another winner from the author of some of the best children's stories of the past quarter-century, including "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble" and "Doctor DeSoto."
Zeke is a pig who plays a mean harmonica. But when his family falls asleep during the prelude to "La Traviata," Zeke is so offended he runs away. Later he discovers the harmonica is enchanted and always serenades its listeners to sleep. He uses its power to outfox a band of robbers and escape from a death-dealing coyote, and finally Zeke finds his way home, much to the relief of his worried family.
Of local interest
* "The Great Ball Game: A Muskogee Story" retold by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Susan L. Roth (Dial, $14.99, 32 pages, ages 3-8) has two Baltimore connections. The first is Ms. Roth, who lives here and whose books include "Gypsy Bird Song" and "Ishi's Tale of Lizard." The second is lacrosse -- the sport played in this particular ball game of long ago between the birds and the animals.
It's an action-packed traditional tale made even more raucous by Ms. Roth's cut-paper collages of varying textures and temperament, from the hulking, razor-toothed bear to the athletic crane. Don't miss it.
* "The Wave of the Sea-Wolf" by David Wisniewski (Clarion, $16.95, 32 pages, ages 5-9) is another cut-paper creation by another area artist. Mr. Wisniewski lives in Bowie, and the intricacy of his work increases with each book -- "Rain Player" and "Sundiata: Lion King of Mali" are his most recent.
This story draws on the myth of the Tlingit Indians of the Pacific Northwest coast, and Mr. Wisniewski incorporates many Tlingit motifs into his three-dimensional illustrations. The star of the story is a courageous young woman -- another plus.
* "Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm" by Jerdine Nolan, illustrated by Mark Buehner (Lothrop, Lee & Shepherd, $15, 32 pages, ages 4 and up) stretches the imagination and delights the eye. Ms. Nolan lives in Baltimore, where balloon farms are few and far between.