RESPECTFULLY submitted is my annual holiday survey of the books Maryland kids are reading and borrowing.
Right off, I'll dispense with Harry Potter. The winsome student of wizardry has sold 28 million volumes - and counting. He's so popular that the Baltimore County Public Library has ordered the fifth in J.K. Rowling's series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, sight unseen, six months before publication.
"Harry Potter is right up there with John Grisham," says Lynn Supp, a Baltimore County children's librarian.
But Supp and other librarians and sellers take pleasure in directing children to books that might not have the glamour of Harry Potter but that are wonderful reads. And this year, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, some children and their parents are looking for comfort, inspiration or just some diversion.
Way behind Harry Potter in second place among children's novels are Lemony Snicket's tales of the hapless Baudelaire orphans, subtitled A Series of Unfortunate Events. The third book in the series, The Wide Window, is so popular that it's hard to find in some public and school libraries. "Except for Harry Potter, it's the hit of the season," says JoAnn Fruchtman, proprietor of the Children's Bookstore in Roland Park.
The picture book of the year - in our unscientific survey - is Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer. Olivia, a precocious piglet, goes to the circus, only to find that all the performers are out sick with ear infections. "Luckily, I knew how to do everything," she says. And she does.
For the youngest readers, Supp recommends Ten Seeds by Ruth Brown. A true picture book with few words, Ten Seeds shows how seeds are scattered and eventually turn into seedlings and plants. The surviving plant, a sunflower, drops 10 seeds, and the cycle begins again. For toddlers who like to eat what they read, the book is printed on sturdy stock with round corners.
Our survey turned up a book - and a series of books - for boys who are reluctant readers. Car Wash, by sisters Sandra and Susan Steen, takes readers through a car wash from a child's perspective. The Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey relates the adventures of a comic book-like superhero who wears underpants. "He's a twisted sister; what can I say?" says Supp. "But kids think this stuff is hysterical." (I met Pilkey at an English teachers convention last month, and he's as twisted as his characters.)
Poetry isn't dead in children's literature, though it's having a tough go of it, Fruchtman says. Two poetry-related books she recommends are Poetry by Heart, an anthology of classic poems that should and could be memorized by children, and Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech, the free-verse journal of a boy who discovers the pleasures of poetry, thanks to his teacher, Miss Stretchberry.
Two of the most beautifully illustrated books on library and bookstore shelves this season are Little Green, written and illustrated by Keith Baker, and The Tin Forest, written by Helen Ward and illustrated by Wayne Anderson. In Little Green, a small boy communes with a hummingbird. In The Tin Forest, an old man replicates his imaginary jungle with pieces of junk.
"It's really about making something live out of something dead," Fruchtman says of The Tin Forest, "and I've been recommending it to a lot of people, especially since Sept. 11."
Since the terrorist attacks, Fruchtman says, "I've noticed that more people are anxious to spend time with their children, talking about meaningful things. Sharing books is a good way to do that."
Two children's books that explore themes of death and grief are Poppy's Chair by Karen Hesse, about the death of a grandfather, and You Hold Me and I'll Hold You by Jo Carson, in which a little girl describes what happens after the death of an aunt.
Finally, there are the classics, the durables, the perennials. There's even the return of what should have been a classic. Margaret Wise Brown's 52-year-old My World - the little-known companion to the hugely successful Goodnight Moon - has been reprised after being out of print for three decades.
It's Winnie-the-Pooh's 75th anniversary, after all, and Charlotte's Web is still snaring many a young reader. C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia are riding Harry Potter's wizard's coattails, and there's an upward tick in interest in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings even before release of the movie. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, still entrances. Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game is one of the best mysteries ever written for children. Somehow, it's gotten to be 34 years old! And Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton, is fresh and original after 62 years.
"The trouble with Mike Mulligan," says Jeff Ridgeway, a children's librarian at the Washington County public library in Hagerstown, "is that you have to explain to kids these days what a steam shovel is - or was."