The Midnight Horse , by Sid Fleischman (Greenwillow Books, $12.95; ages 8-up). This is an abracadabra mystery book, as the title hints, with more than a little humor tossed in. Our hero, Touch, arrives by dark, rain-drenched coach seeking his father's inheritance from his great-uncle, Judge Wigglesworth. Alas, the judge, for good reasons, is about the least beloved character in town. "Cricklewood, New Hampshire," says the road sign, "Population 217 -- 216 Fine Folks & 1 Infernal Grouch."
When Touch finally does meet the judge, his great-uncle is formidable indeed. Dressed all in black, he has eyes "as wet and baggy as live oysters." There is virtually no inheritance -- 37 cents, says the judge.
Touch is no slouch and he has heeded the warnings about this man, so he refuses to sign a paper consenting to the arrangements. Instead, he flees the room and the house. Otherwise, as his great-uncle threatened, he'd be skeedaddled off to the nearest orphanage.
A kindly innkeeper gives him shelter. At the same time, it becomes clear that the judge also wants the inn in his possession. He is trying to stage a coup that would make a greenmailer blush. A magician and a horse eventually help to foil the villainy.
The Midnight Horse is a winsome tale, told by Newbery award-winner Sid Fleischman with a ticklesome sense of imagery. Examples: "blue-streaked" used as a verb, "Crosscut saws don't come any meaner," and last but not least, "This must be the prettiest horse this side of sunset."
Shadow Play , by Paul Fleischman (Charlotte Zolotow/Harper & Row, $13.95; ages 4-up). This lovely book, light and airy in its approach, offers a play within a play. The reader joins the young audience depicted at the bottom of most pages. (Using a bottom runner is a timeless device, from the ancient and honorable unicorn tapestries to Jules Olitsky's contemporary paintings.) The shadow play is the story of how a little girl manages to tame a portly, fierce bull. (Move over, Babar and the Wooly-Wooly!) The story of the power of gentleness never grows stale as long as there are those like Paul Fleischman and illustrator Eric Beddows who are willing and able to show it in a new light, so to speak.
At the finale, like the children we've accompanied, we're treated to a peek behind the scenes. It turns out that the gargoyle-faced barker with manifold smile-wrinkles has done it all for us.
Oh yes, Paul Fleischman is Sid Fleischman's son.
A Song of Stars , by Tom Birdseye (Holiday House, $14.95; ages 6 and up). East meets West gracefully, wistfully in this old Chinese legend adapted by a midwestern writer, and illustrated by Ju-Hong Chen, a native of China now living in Oregon.
Chauchau, the heroine, is a weaver "not of wool or silk, but of the shimmering threads of the firmament." Newlang is a comely herdsman who sings softly so only his ox can hear. Their bonding has the blessing of the Emperor of the Heavens, who happens to be Chauchau's father. But courtship takes the ecstatically side-tracked couple from their duties. This offends the Emperor of the Heavens, a stern old soul, and he establishes a punishment: separation by a river of stars for all time but the seventh night of the seventh month of the year.
The two pine. Desperate, Newlang finds a boat and tries to brave it across the swirling river of stars. There is a dreadful storm, which tests the ardor and mettle of both. During the ordeal, the Emperor finds that "their love was still a fine thing for him to see, full of trust and warmth." Relenting some, he sends the Magpie King and his flock to the banks of the swollen Milky Way. Thus is formed a wing-to-wing bridge across the river, and the tryst is fulfilled on the seventh night of the seventh month.
The Riddle of the Rosetta Stone: Key to Ancient Egypt , by James Cross Giblin (Thomas Y. Crowell, $13.95; ages 8-12). Take most children to an art museum -- or let them take you -- and they invariably come away especially intrigued by art and artifacts from ancient Egypt. Why? Because of the breathtaking scale of that civilization? Because the Egyptian mystique has many animals as motifs? Whatever, if you have present or potential Egyptophiles nearby, this book well warrants sharing.
This is the story of the Rosetta Stone: its discovery by the Greeks, its 1,400 years of secrecy, its ultimate deciphering, and its current place of distinction at the British Museum.
The black basalt slab -- as easy to underestimate as America's Plymouth Rock -- is enscripted with three languages including "hieroglyphics," which means "sacred carvings" in Greek. While the ancient Greeks found the stone and tried to comprehend it, it wasn't until Napoleon's occupation of Egypt in the late 1700s that the stone was rediscovered, though not decoded.
It was called the Rosetta Stone after the site near Alexandria where it was unearthed. When Napoleon's army lost Egypt to the British, the Rosetta went as booty to the conquerors. A succession of British scentists studied the stone beginning in the early 1800s, each making slow, steady headway with the hieroglyphics.
Much of the book is devoted to the painstaking methods by which Jean-Francois Champollion gradually made his translation breakthrough. (Fortuitously, Napoleon's scholars had made prints of the stone, which became available to the Frenchman.) Champollion piggybacked on the work of his predecessors, notably British scientist Thomas Young.
This book, in addition to some scrumptious Egyptology, offers the example of the rewards of patience and solid research. It took literally centuries to comprehend the Rosetta Stone. In our time of quick attention spans, when we need a new generation of scentists with a sense of posterity, this book makes for a great adventure.
Oceans , by Seymour Simon (Morrow Junior Books, $13.95; ages 5 and up). This will not be a know-nothing generation where the environment is concerned if authors like Seymour Simon have their way. Oceans is a fine, simple, clear book on the worldwide moods the seas assume.
Rather than "moods," Simon calls them by their local or scientific names: El Nino, a phenomenon off Peru where normally cool water unexpectedly warms; the Japanese tidal wave, tsunami; "fetch," or the distance over which a wave travels, and more.
The author reminds us that, all told, the oceans are "one-and-one-half quintillion (15 followed by 17 zeros) tons. That's 100 billion gallons for each person in the world."
The writing is fluid, whetting the readers' appetite for Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us and like books. Diagrams are fathomable, and some of the photos are stunning.
Elfwyn's Saga , by David Wisiewski (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books, $13.95; ages 5-up). The illustrations -- using cut, colorful paper -- in this exquisite adaptation of an Icelandic legend nearly overwhelm the narrative. As the author explains at the end, "An X-Acto knife and over one thousand very sharp blades were used to produce the illustrations for this book. And because I paid attention, I didn't cut myself once." Cutting edge indeed!
In essence, this is the mythic tale of the origin of the Northern Lights (aurora borealis). The Hidden Folk are behind it all. Out of jealousy, Gorm the Grim puts a curse on rival chieftain Anlaf Haraldsson and his clan. Elfwyn, Anlaf's daughter, is born blind. However, a wise, joyous child, she is favored by the Hidden Folk, and ultimately saves her people.
The catalyst of the saga is a pillarish, white crystal. The people peer into it and see themselves as they have always wanted to be. Only Elfwyn, sightless but with the vision of a sage, knows that the community is decaying because the people have become obsessed with the crystal.
Just in time, with help from a swift, amiable pony, she manages to topple the crystal, which crashes into myriad bits. The Hidden Folk then empower the crystal bits to erase Gorm's curse and finally set them in the Icelandic skies as the Northern Lights.
Barbara Hall writes frequently about children's books.