PEOPLE WHO BUY BOOKS for children always wrestle with the same questions: Should I buy the thoughtful classic, the new period drama, the coming-of-age tale?>"/>
PEOPLE WHO BUY BOOKS for children always wrestle with the same questions: Should I buy the thoughtful classic, the new period drama, the coming-of-age tale? Or should I simply try to get a book in their hands by offering instant hits like the Harry Potter series? While the Harry Potter books embody both the best and the worst of the popular genre (intelligent writing, cheap thrills), his isn't the only magic in town this season when it comes to books for young adults. Dave at Night (HarperCollins, $15.95) is the latest novel from Gail Levine, the best-selling author of Ella, Enchanted, a Newbury Award recipient that every adolescent girl should read. This time Levine's protagonist is male ("let's get these boys reading" seems to be the feeling in the air these days). When his father dies and his stepmother rejects him, tough little Dave lands at the Hebrew Home for Boys, also called the Hell Hole for Brats. Set in 1920s Manhattan with the Harlem Renaissance in the background, Dave's discovery and exploration of music guide his coming-of-age. Another popular young-adult author, Cynthia Voight, recently published an original take on the period epic: Her protagonists are two young women in search of their destiny in a faraway northern land. In Elske (Atheneum, $18), one girl looks inside herself for answers while the other must fight external obstacles for her legitimate right to rule the land. Voight's evocation of their bond is thoughtful and complex. If reading about ancient Nordic heroines makes the teenage girl in your life yawn and pick at her nose ring, she may yet read something besides Seventeen and the Wicca Book of Days. In the last few years publishers have responded to urban teens' need for books that more authentically reflect the gritty realities of their lives, and their racial and economic diversity. Series like California Diaries have been big sellers, so it's no surprise that California is the setting for Francesca Lia Block's latest dark and angst-filled story, Violet & Clare (HarperCollins, $14.95) is about two teenage girls whose friendship is tested when they try to make a movie. Block's Weetzie Bat books were criticized by the usual finger-waggers several years ago, but book clerks have told me that while most young-adult books are bought by schools and libraries, hers are the kind of books kids buy for themselves. At the other end of the age spectrum, many publishers seem to think that reading is so new to the 6-and-under crowd that surely sending a lame book or two (or 50) out to that demographic is no great sin. My friend Lisa, who is a new mother, groaned after so many read-alouds with her infant that she went on a search for quality books: After all, when a child listens to a good book over and over, the book becomes a primer when the child starts to read. Here are her recommendations. Reminiscent of the classic Beany and Cecil, Penguin Dreams, by J. Otto Seibold and V.L. Walsh (Chronicle Books, $13.95), features Chongo Chingi as a penguin who "thinks even when he dreams." The graphics have the suggestive, melancholic feeling of sleep. In one verse, the penguin Chango Chingi dreams like an infant, his mind buzzing along the rhymes and rhythms that flow like the graceful illustrations of birds, penguins, airplanes, and space. Author Shirley Hughes addresses the issues of "little sibling syndrome" with humor in Helping (Candlewick Press, $3.99). The story begins with an older sister fixing a meal and letting her baby brother do the tasting. She may be jealous of the new arrival, but because of him she has new responsibilities and a pleasant sensation of independence. A child's curiosity and amazement receive thoughtful treatment in Eloise Greenfield's Water, Water (Harper Festival, $9), which offers equally thoughtful illustrations by watercolorist Jan Spivey Gilchrist. The water in the fishbowl and the bathtub is just like the water in the river and the lake! Amazing. Trips to Metro's treatment plants and discussions of iodine drops will have to wait a few grades. Ann Taylor's Baby Dance (Harper Growing Tree, $5.95) also pictures a happy child, whose eyes shine with excitement because Dad is teaching her to "dance" as he pilots her up and down through the air. The sheer volume of picture books for the 3- to 9-year-old age group makes for easy gift hunting, though wading through the pool of merely good ones to find the real gems can be daunting. Fortunately, some favorite authors do a book almost every year. Eric Carle has penned another bug book, The Very Clumsy Click Beetle (Philomel, $21.99). And the Northwest's goofiest children's poet, Jack Prelutsky, has created some unusual beings with peculiar behaviors in Gargoyle on the Roof (Greenwillow, $16), which features odes to lonely trolls with "troll-free calling," and shivery verses about vampires and bogeymen. For girls who liked Eloise, try Clarice Bean, That's Me (Candlewick, $16.99). Lauren Child's young heroine has a chaotic family and a knack for pranks. From nonsense fights with her little brother to her attempts to get noticed by her New-Agey mother (who hides in the bathtub with foreign-language tapes), Clarice charms the reader with her cleverness and spunk without being too cute. In Toni Morrison's first book for children, The Big Box (Hyperion, $19.99), everyone's talking about acting out. Three children are told they "can't handle their freedom," in this tale son invented by Morrison's son when he was just 9 years old. It's very simple, really: The adults in the book who don't like the loudmouth boy, who has "too much fun on the streets," or the farm girl, who lets the chickens keep their eggs, put them into a metaphorical "box." The children are, not surprisingly, sad in this room where they have stereos and toys, everything they should want to be happy, except some autonomy. Each child reminds the adults of the positive contributions he or she makes, and gives a moving argument in favor of freedom. One of the best children's books I've seen recently is Shibumi and the Kitemaker (Cavendish, $18.95), which is, despite appearances, more than a retelling of the Siddhartha story with a female protagonist. In an imaginary Asian empire, a young empress named Shibumi withdraws into the sky on a kite after witnessing the misery of the citizens outside the palace walls. She leaves her father, the emperor, with an ultimatum to either raise the city up to palace standards or bring the palace down to the citizens' level of squalor. Years go by, and the emperor, who misses his daughter deeply, works hard to do her bidding, though her youthful ideal never becomes reality. Elizabeth Brinkley is a freelance writer in Seattle.