Little Tree

, by e.e. cummings, illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray (Crown, $9.95; all ages). Parents of 2- and 3-year-old children know how personal, joyous and innocent a child's relationship with a Christmas tree can be. The lit and garlanded pine or fir is, to some children, a living being which has somehow miraculously materialized in the living room. Hence the real devastation of the day when the tinder-dry tree must finally be taken down and thrown away. Hans Christian Andersen captured some of these complex infantile feelings about Christmas -- from the point of view of the tree -- in his lovely story, "The Fir-Tree."

The American poet, e.e. cummings, wrote about a Christmas tree too, from the point of view of the two children, a brother and sister, who help choose and decorate it: "little tree/little silent Christmas tree/you are so little/you are more like a flower/who found you in the green forest/and were you very sorry to come away?/see i will comfort you." In this edition of cummings' "Little Tree," illustrator Deborah Kogan Ray brings the poem to life line by line with scenes rendered in the bright, soft colors of brownstone, lamplight, green pine-needles and red tinsel, inspired by images from her native city of Philadelphia. "the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,/put up your little arms/and i'll give them all to you to hold/every finger shall have its ring/and there won't be single place dark or unhappy." The poem's spirit (like Christmas and very young children) is unabashedly sentimental, but with its spare text and muted illustrations, Little Tree may still be the most refreshingly low-keyed Christmas book of the season.

Bad Egg: The True Story of Humpty Dumpty

, by Sarah Hayes, illustrated by Charlotte Voake (Joy Street Books, $12.95, ages 2-5);

The One and Only Robin Hood

, by Nigel Gray, illustrated by Helen Craig, (Joy Street Books, $12.95; ages 3-7). Toddlers love a nursery rhyme and invariably have the liveliest ones off by heart almost instantly. But they also love to fool around with the rhymes and characters they know like family, a fact which may explain the enduring popularity of books such as Janet and Allan Ahlberg's Each Peach Pear Plum, with its revolving-door introductions of celebrated characters from Tom Thumb to the Three Bears.

Here is a pair of new books appealing to the same delightfully anarchic streak in younger readers. Bad Egg offers the "true story," never before told, of what happened to Humpty Dumpty between the times when he sat on the wall and had a great fall ("Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall./A horse came up to watch./'Can you sit on this wall, horse?' said Humpty Dumpty./'Of course,' said the horse").

The One and Only Robin Hood is a considerably more sophisticated attempt to fill us in on the details of a little-known encounter between the King (in his counting-house), the Queen (in her parlor), the maid (in the garden) and Robin Hood ("Who came creeping through the garden dressed in green?"). The maid of course turns out to be named Marian and Little John is naturally to be found in bed with his trousers on; but all ends more or less comprehensibly under a greenwood tree, amply fulfilling Robin Hood's promise to the maid. "This is going to be fun!"

All in One Piece

, by Jill Murphy (Putnam, $9.95; ages 2-6) Jill Murphy scored a great success last year with Five Minutes Peace, which depicted the trials of a mother elephant being horribly harassed by her three offspring from breakfast table to bathtub. The tone was airy enough and the illustrations positively genial, but it has not been a book I've been very comfortable reading to my own three offspring, nor do they seem to find its moral -- kids are nuisances who should stop bothering their mothers -- particularly amusing. One can't help feeling that this is a book less suitable for children than for their parents, to be chuckled over ruefully in private.

Murphy's new book, All in One Piece, is similarly pitched. Mr. and Mrs. Large, the elder elephants, are preparing to go out for dinner. Granny is coming to babysit. Once again the little elephants hound their mother unmercifully, getting into her make-up, cramming their toys into her tights and so on -- " 'Hands off!' said Mrs. Large to her paint-smeared children." Once again the idea is that children are for the most part intolerably burdensome -- " 'We escaped,' said Mr. Large with a smile, closing the door behind them." Well, yes, sometimes they are, but it's nice to think that no matter how difficult the day, storytime remains as an opportunity for parents and kids to call a truce, start over, make a little magic together. Despite its humorous intent, All in One Piece is likely to suggest strongly to children that Mom and Dad are just faking.

Your Amazing Senses: 36 Games, Puzzles and Tricks That Show How Your Senses Work

, by Ron and Atie van der Meer, (Aladdin, $9.95; ages 8-12). This modestly produced little book looks like but amounts to rather more than your average quasi-scientific pop-up book, which is generally long on ingenious "paper engineering" and short on information. Your Amazing Senses offers a real "hands-on" exploration of the intriguing worlds of sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste and co-ordination. Test the speed of your reflexes. Try fooling your own and your friends' eyes with optical illusions. Feel a real braille alphabet. Discover the link between taste and smell. Besides these and many other activities both diverting and educational, the book features concise anatomical explanations of how the senses work, written in a straightforward, easy-to-understand prose that occasionally verges on the eloquent, e.g. "Your eyes are balls filled with a watery liquid, placed in sockets in your skull." Kids will certainly enjoy, and maybe even learn a few things from, Your Amazing Senses.

Prehistoric Pinkerton

, by Steven Kellogg (Dial, $12.95; ages 3-7). Remember Pinkerton, not the detective agency, but Steven Kellogg's loony, oversized Great Dane puppy, he of the surprised button eyes and airplane ears? If so, you will be cheered to know that Pinkerton is back, this time caught up in a Dinosaur Day adventure ("Everyone will meet at the museum at 1:00 costumed as his or her choice of dinosaur"). Pinkerton, as it happens, has begun the teething process and is experiencing a strong urge to chew. Rawhide bones are recommended. When his young owner takes Pinkerton along on the field trip (disguised as a stegosaurus), the predictable occurs: the sight of all those stupendous rawhide bones causes him to run amok or, as the museum curator more vividly puts it, "Merciful heavens! It's a dog! Mobilize the staff! Call the guards! Alert the pound!"

Judging from his books -- most recently, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, starring two larger-than-life legendary heroes -- Steven Kellogg is a fellow of prodigious energy and excitable temperament as well as a knock-'em-down slapstick humorist -- not unlike a normal 4-year-old boy. And 4-year-old boys, of all ages, will relish Pinkerton's paleontological escapade.

Rumpty-Dudget's Tower

, based on the fairytale by Julian Hawthorne, retold and illustrated by Diane Goode (Knopf, $11.95; ages 5-8). In this age of moral relativism, the 19th-century fairytale with its pointed moral lessons glimmers like some old oil lamp; quaint, pretty, but of little practical use in a world of electric light. Yet, when the power fails, doesn't the oil lamp assume value? To those disenchanted with the supposedly secularized present, stories like Ruskin's The King of the Golden River, Andersen's "The Snow Queen" or Wilde's "The Happy Prince" (all marked by a strong sense of human evil and an equally strong belief in the redemptive power of goodness or love) have a special appeal.

Julian Hawthorne, son of the great moral allegorist Nathaniel Hawthorne, first published Rumpty-Dudget's Tower in St. Nicholas magazine in serial form in 1879. The story was later issued in book form but has been out of print for many years. Artist Diane Goode (The Random House Book of Fairy Tales, When I Was Young in the Mountains) has revived this minor Victorian classic, complete with modernized prose and full-page color illustrations in her familiar lustrous, dainty style (which owes more perhaps to medieval than Victorian conventions). The younger Hawthorne's imagination may be pallid and a trifle saccharine compared with the Grimm's or Ruskin's or his own father's, but Rumpty-Dudget's Tower is still a finely-balanced and satisfying story.

Prince Frank, Princess Hilda and Prince Henry are the best-behaved children in the world until they are bewitched and baby Henry is kidnaped by the evil dwarf Rumpty-Dudget. In his tower overlooking the palace, the dwarf has a room with 1001 corners in it, all but the 1001st occupied by children who have been naughty. With Henry stood in the last corner, Rumpty-Dudget will become lord of the realm. Can Frank and Hilda find in their hearts the superhuman courage and love needed to save their little brother? Can any child resist a tale of good guys prevailing over bad guys, even if the weapons used are Diamond Waterdrops and Golden Ivy seeds rather than power swords or advanced missile systems? Try Rumpty-Dudget's Tower on yours and see. ::

Elizabeth Ward writes frequently about children's books for Book World.