The Best Kids' Books You've Never Heard Of

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Writing children's books is like directing. Everyone wants to try it. And there were plenty of good efforts this year. But so your favorite small reading partner doesn't end up getting the same ones over and over, here are six sleeper beauties.

THE ADVENTURES OF BERT By Allan Ahlberg and Raymond Briggs. $16.00 Ahlberg and Briggs are the Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras of British kid lit. But — like most British tennis players, actually — they have not made much of an impression in the U.S. Reading a book by both is like seeing Agassi and Sampras play doubles: it's nimble, apparently effortless, playful work. The adventures of said Bert, who has a wife and easily waked baby, aren't too perilous. In one chapter (a concept the book cleverly introduces to younger readers), he puts on a shirt, falls into a truck and is taken to Scotland. But Bert's doings are witty and sweet and endlessly rereadable.

IMAGINATIVE INVENTIONS By Charise Mericle Harper. $14.95 This is that rare example of a children's book that's fact-filled without being dull. The "facts" are not necessarily useful or even true, which may be why the book is so much fun. In rhyme, it narrates how items such as Frisbees and piggyback rides and potato chips were invented. Harper wrote and illustrated this book, her second, and she has a spry, zippy style with pen and with brush.

MONSTER GOOSE By Judy Sierra and Jack E. Davis. $16.00 Postmodernism has come to children's books. There were at least three titles in 2001 that deconstructed nursery rhymes. This is the most deliciously icky, populated with comically dyspeptic characters and the cleverest plays on the original rhymes ("Young King Cole was a terrible troll:/ He washed his feet in the toilet bowl"). Warning: There are some lines parents probably will not want to hear over and over in the car.

I'M NOT BOBBY! By Jules Feiffer. $15.95 Most people know Jules Feiffer as a counterculture cartoonist, but he has become a subversive children's author too. Feiffer's gift, admirably displayed in his seventh kids' book, is that he assumes a pint-size view of life. "I'm Not Bobby!" celebrates from the kid's perspective one of the most annoying phases of childhood for parents, the refusal to come when summoned. Bobby will not respond because he's foraging on the frontier of his independence. Feiffer's fluid drawings bring his raw dreams to life. This is in no way a pedagogical or improvement book, but young Bobbys everywhere will recognize themselves. A perfect gift from, say, a mischievous aunt.

GUGU'S HOUSE By Catherine Stock. $14.00 It became unbearably clear this year how much people need to understand ways of life that differ from their own. A well-told story is as good a vehicle for this as any. Gugu's house is in Zimbabwe. Her life revolves around painting, rain and stories. The distinctive colors of the local soil, landscape and decorations are vividly rendered and, along with the giant zebra in the courtyard, are not like anything American children are likely to encounter in their neighborhoods.

POETRY BY HEART Compiled by Liz Attenborough. $17.95 The world pretty much divides into those who like poetry and those who don't, but even for the latter, this is poetry at its most painless. Each of the nine themed chapters is illustrated by a different artist, and the poetry ranges from comic to sad, from two lines to three pages and from Shakespeare to Edward Lear. This would be the picky reader's pick read. And before long, the lyrical language will have become infectious.