For Young Readers

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Enemies of Jupiter , by Caroline Lawrence (Roaring Brook, $16.95; ages 9-12). Some lucky kids might be headed to Italy this summer, but stay-at-homes can compensate with the "Roman Mysteries" -- a detective/adventure series set in and around 1st-century Rome, by a writer trained in archaeology, Latin and Hebrew. The Enemies of Jupiter is the seventh title in the series, which stars four bright children who have forged a bond despite differing social, ethnic and religious backgrounds. They are also regular magnets for trouble. Here the quartet gets to help the Emperor Titus pinpoint the cause of a plague sweeping the city. The books' plots are blithely improbable, in the manner of a Boxcar Children or Cam Jansen mystery, and the dialogue can be stilted ("The fate of Rome may be in your hands!"). But the series shines in its depiction of daily life, reflecting Lawrence's scholarly interest in everything to do with ancient Rome, from language, social structure and architecture to food and medicine. Kids who immerse themselves in these books -- and 11 more are promised, including The Gladiators From Capua in October -- will be well prepared to appreciate Italy when (or if) they do get there.

Summer's End , by Audrey Couloumbis (Putnam, $16.99; ages 12-up). The novels of Audrey Couloumbis, like those of Polly Horvath, Betsy Byars, George Ella Lyon and Richard Peck, are a double pleasure: Not only does Couloumbis come up with original, provocative themes, but she can also write . Take the opening of this saga of a family wrenched apart, a bit like the country as a whole, by the Vietnam War: "The day before my thirteenth birthday, my big brother, Collin, went to one of those hippie sit-ins. Where he and some likewise stupid boys torched their draft cards." Instantly, the plot ignites; Daddy throws Collin's things on the porch, and the family's temporary disintegration is set in motion. But we're also alerted to an individual voice, at once innocent and sassy (just look at the edge given to young Grace's parroted judgments by that quirky use of "likewise"). It's clear that no matter how sad this story gets -- and it does -- it won't get sentimental, the fault of many books for this age group.

Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley , by Sally M. Walker (Carolrhoda, $18.95; ages 9-12). One dark night in February 1864, the H.L. Hunley became the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship, torpedoing the USS Housatonic outside Charleston Harbor as part of a Confederate effort to break the Union blockade of Southern ports. But the blockade held, and the Hunley vanished -- until 1995, when a diver located it near the sunken Housatonic. It was raised in 2000, and the crews' recovered remains were buried last year in Charleston. Walker, a veteran science writer, tells both stories in remarkable, sometimes gruesome detail -- you won't soon forget chapters on how the crew probably died and the reconstruction of their faces.

Picture Books

Bruno Munari's Zoo , by Bruno Munari (Chronicle, $17.95; ages 3-6). First published in 1963, Zoo is a classic, one of the most striking picture books of its time by a man who seemed able to do anything. A founding Futurist, Munari wrote, painted, sculpted, designed (toys, posters, buildings), taught and ruminated endlessly. In Good Design , also from 1963, he used an orange, a peapod and a rose to illustrate the ideals still revered as the Munari Principle: "lucidity, leanness, exactitude and humor." All four qualities are on display in Zoo , a wryly comic walk-through that begins with sage advice ("Don't annoy the butterflies. Leave the signs where they are. . . . Applaud the seals") and proceeds to bring some zoo favorites to life with single perfect sentences matched by brilliant, minimalist portraits. "The parrot was born on a day with rainbow." "The lion does not fear anyone." "If bears played baseball, polar bears would be umpires." If you like Zoo , look for a secondhand or library copy of Bruno Munari's ABC (1960), reissued two years ago by Chronicle but already out of print again.

The Shopping Expedition , by Andre Amstutz, illustrated by Allan Ahlberg (Candlewick, $16.99; ages 4-8). Mom, baby Harry, Wilf the dog and the young narrator set out on a shopping trip. They only want cornflakes, sausages and such, but, as the little girl tells it, the trip morphs into a fearsome adventure in which they must battle a blizzard, conquer mountains, traverse a desert, hack through a jungle and cross rivers and seas before reaching the corner shop. Pair this exuberant book with the exquisite On My Way to Buy Eggs (2003), a quieter take on the same theme by Taiwan's Chih-Yuan Chen.

--Elizabeth Ward

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