As a parent of young children, I'm all too familiar with the sense of being pulled in two directions at once. Work pulls one way, home pulls the other. My son wants this, my daughter wants that. My wife and I crave time alone. And what do we do when we get it? We talk about how much we miss our kids. I find this same tension in picking books for them. I realize how short childhood is, and look for those books that will weave a blanket of comfort around them, let them nuzzle into me and be as young as possible for as long as possible. At the same time, I can't wait to share with them those great treasures of literature that mean so much to me. I want to give them wisdom far beyond their years and treat them to sophistication and humor that are age-inappropriate.
Luckily, for the most part, my efforts are kept in check by my kids. What sense can my 7-year-old boy make of Twain? Why should my 4-year-old daughter care whether it was the best of times or the worst of times?
Once in while, though, the masters come through with something that really works for kids. That's why I was excited to see Elie Wiesel's latest, King Solomon and His Magic Ring (Greenwillow, $16). The Nobel Peace Prize-winning author is best known for his books that recount his experiences in the Holocaust, such as Night, one of the great memoirs of our time, and possibly the worst book to read to young children at bedtime. In recounting these legends of King Solomon, though, Wiesel has given us a gem of a children's book. As we read it, we feel as though we are sitting in the presence of a master storyteller who has opened up his hand to show that it is full of pearls.
His voice comes through in lilting language: "Come children. Come and listen," it begins. "I want to share with you strange yet marvelous tales of a very great king whom the world admired." Throughout, he poses questions and answers them: "His means of travel? The king flew upon a huge carpet of green silk that was braided with gold. This carpet, sixty miles long and equally wide, took him swiftly to the farthest corners of the earth." These are not new stories -- they're ancient -- but in his hands, we feel that he has squeezed every drop of wisdom onto the page. This is augmented beautifully by the dreamy artwork of Mark Podwal, making for a book that is as beautiful as it is uplifting.
Far more urbane, but brilliant in its own right, is the work of Mark Alan Stamaty. Readers of The Post will remember his comic strip "Washingtoon" and perhaps may know of "MacDoodle Street," the hilarious strip he did for the Village Voice, which became a book by the same name. Both strips were rich in the sort of humor that is virtually impossible to explain to your kids -- by the time you finished doing so, they would have grown up.
Happily, he has come out with Too Many Time Machines or The Incredible Story of How I Went Back in Time, Met Babe Ruth, and Discovered the Secret of Home Run Hitting (Viking, $13.99; paperback, $6.99). By way of disclosure, I must admit that I am somehow related to Mark Alan Stamaty -- second cousins, once removed, more or less -- though I have met him only once, nearly 20 years ago, at a family reunion, when we spent a whole night driving my grandmother's Gremlin all over Cleveland in search of material for a comic strip he was writing.
Having said that, I feel quite sure I would love his work even if I had no idea who he was. That is especially true for Too Many Time Machines, which the cover describes as a "graphic novel." It tells the story of Roger, who is bored with time machines. He is a misfit because all the kids in his neighborhood have time machines, and that is all they care about. Roger likes baseball.
You can discern most of the rest of the plot from the subtitle. When Roger meets the Babe, he finds that the baseball great is really interested in his time machine, and the two go off through time before the Babe gives him the secret to hitting home runs. (Hint: It has something to do with keeping your eye on the ball.)
What makes this book so great is the way Stamaty draws. Coming from his pencil, even a straight line would be funny. This, in combination with his matter-of-fact storytelling style, makes for a strangely wonderful book. What's more, his pairing up of baseball and time machines is really refreshing, given the dizzyingly high-tech times in which we live.
Weslandia, by Paul Fleischman (Candlewick, $15.99) tells the story of a very different misfit. Wesley, an outcast from his vapid suburban lifestyle, responds by founding his own civilization.
The concept of "civilization" is a rather highfalutin one for young children, but this book makes it clear. Wesley discovers that a civilization needs a stable food source. He cultivates a strange plant in his yard, which provides him with a fruit that is "an entrancing blend of peach, strawberry, pumpkin pie, and flavors he had no name for." He eats its roots, he makes his own clothes from its bark, develops a new way to tell time, invents games, creates an alphabet, devises his own language and re-names the constellations. Wesley is clearly an overachiever.
On one level, it's very appealing, this idea of the vastly over-accomplished young child. We all want our kids to be bright, go right out in the world and manifest their dreams, whether it's founding their own civilization, finding the cure for cancer or composing a symphony. On another level, though, something seems very wrong. On subsequent readings of Weslandia, I began to notice something disturbing. This kid is a little too brilliant. Too smug. Too grown-up.
As I read it to my son, I paused to look down at the little boy who was looking up at me. What message was I giving him? Be wise, be sophisticated, be a genius. Somewhere in the middle of Weslandia, I found myself pulled back the other way.
I picked up Jumbo's Lullaby, (Lothrop, $16) by Laura Krauss Melmed, with illustrations by Henri Sorensen. Like their previous work, I Love You As Much, it is a sweet bedtime book. A mother elephant sings to her baby, "Shusha, shusha. Mama's darling, stars are twinkling up high, flickering like little fishes, in the river of the sky."
As the song goes on, flowing with repetition, she sings of the colorful dreams of other African animals, the zebras that imagine themselves in colors, apes that dance and hippos that fly. Is it brilliant? Not really. A beautiful book with nice pictures, it presents a very different message. "Mommy loves you," it seems to suggest, "and daddy does too. You have plenty of time to grow up. For now, you're our baby, and that's enough."
Joel ben Izzy is a traveling storyteller who lives in Berkeley, Calif. His recordings can be found at www.storypage.com.