Stories, pictures that kids will lap up

March 03, 1995|By Carol Doup Muller | Carol Doup Muller,Knight-Ridder News Service

Jeremy Kooloo is a bumptious white cat who loves milk. It doesn't take a genius to predict what will happen when he finds himself alone beneath the kitchen table that holds four full glasses and the carton of non-fat. But it does take a terrific artist to turn this teensy scenario into "Jeremy Kooloo" (Dutton, 32 pages, $13.99), a remarkably accomplished picture book debut by Tim Mahurin. JK, as you might be tempted to think of him -- because he is a fat cat with facial fur that reminds one of a robber baron's muttonchops -- has a story of few words. "A Big Cat . . . Drank . . . Every Full Glass" and so on, until the kitchen is totally disordered, but the story has played out, in ABC order, to a sleepy Zzzz.

Mr. Mahurin's oil paintings are pure delight: The milk-sated Jeremy wears the expression you see on children who have somehow gotten custody of an entire box of Thin Mints. When this cat pats his belly, readers sigh right along. The most jaded collector of ABC books will want to have this one.

Animals and ABCs go together like a horse and carriage in several recent children's books. Check out the following:

* "Alpha Bugs" (Little Simon, 28 pages, $16.95) is a pop-up book by David A. Carter, the bug-eyed master responsible for "Bugs in a Box," "Jingle Bugs" and more. As many of these books as he's done, Mr. Carter still comes up with new feats of paper engineering: the perfectly dazzling "yellow yin-yang Yo-Yo Bug," for example, which spins as the reader manipulates a tab to make it drop and rise. Twenty-six stunts, of the kind the Bugs are famous for, is a lot of paper gimcrackery: Readers who grow nervous about whether Mr. Carter can pull it off will be relieved to find the couple of letters that, for variety's sake, rely on a scratch-and-sniff strip or a tiny piece of plush reminiscent of "Pat the Bunny."

* "Alphabestiary: Animal Poems from A to Z" (Wordsong/Boyds Mill, 62 pages, $16.95, ages 4 to 8) is the kind of anthology that everyone thinks he or she can do, but that takes a great deal of sophistication to do well. Author Jane Yolen (130 books and nearly as many prizes to her credit) and illustrator Allen Eitzen certainly are up to the task.

"A" begins with Ms. Yolen's poem "Anteater" paired with "Ant Song" by Mary Ann Hoberman. Ms. Eitzen's sly illustration manages to juxtapose calm devouring of ants on the left-hand page alongside a humorous ant court gathered around a regal ant queen on the right. Within the book's 72 poems, there's a wonderful mix of famous poets (William Blake's "The Lamb," of course, and Ogden Nash's "Octopus"), recognized children's poets (Hilaire Belloc on "The Vulture"), new voices (Christine Crow on a mole rat named Zemmi) and translated verse. (In "The Prayer of a Cat" by Carmen Bernos De Gasztold, a meek supplicant slyly speaks to the Lord: "Wouldn't You like someday to put a curse on the whole race of dogs?/If so I should say,/Amen.")

* "The Alphabet Tale" (Greenwillow, 56 pages, $15) is a resurrected book: Jan Garten first published it in 1964, and lTC Muriel Batherman has provided new illustrations. Each letter of the alphabet opens on the right-hand page with a rhymed clue and a drawing of the tip of an animal's tail. Turn the page, and there's the rest of the animal. Garten's rhymes are very sharp; I especially like "In building dams, she's a great believer. This is the tail of a busy (turn the page) Beaver." A terrific book both for reading aloud and for early readers.

* "The Sweet and Sour Animal Book" (The Opie Library/Oxford, 48 pages, $15.95, all ages). A lost (or very unjustly ignored) manuscript of Langston Hughes makes its way into print for the first time with glorious illustrations by the first-, second- and third-graders of the Harlem School of the Arts. The 27 short and clever poems are fresh as peppermint, and the illustrations -- mostly sculpture and collage in the tempera palette we associate with grammar school -- have the energy of a field trip to the zoo. The title probably comes from Hughes' S entry:

Mrs. Squirrel

Can look so sweet

When she finds

Her nest is neat.

When baby squirrels

Mess up her bower,

Mrs. Squirrel

Indeed looks sour.

George Cunningham's afterword to the book explains how Hughes, making a distinction between his poetry and his light verse, used the "serious fun" of poems like these to extend both his audience and the range of modernist poetry.

With any luck, "The Sweet and Sour Animal Book" will find a huge new audience for Hughes that will grow in its appreciation for this great poet as they grow into adulthood.

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