Dillon Dillon, by Kate Banks (Farrar Straus Giroux, $16; ages 8-12). "What kind of parents would name their child Dillon Dillon?" the eponymous hero asks on the first page of this lovely, understated coming-of-age novel. It's his 10th birthday, his parents have just given him a red rowboat with his full name lovingly emblazoned on it, and he figures it's time to find out. The answer -- involving two deaths and an adoption -- leaves Dillon feeling suddenly adrift, not the person he thought he was. Luckily, he has the boat, a nearby island, a family of loons and the rest of an idyllic New Hampshire summer to help him work out his place in the world.

At the Crossing Places, by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Scholastic, $17.95; ages 13-up). In this sequel to last year's The Seeing Stone, Arthur de bw/slot2

Caldicot, a page in a medieval Anglo-Welsh manor, has just turned 14 and is about to accompany his lord to the Fourth Crusade. First, though, he must qualify as a squire and deal with all manner of difficulties at home. As before, his story is illuminated by the story of the original Arthur at Camelot, magically present to young de Caldicot in a piece of obsidian he calls the seeing stone, his "other world." Again, too, Crossley-Holland works magic with language. Trying to conjure up the silence of the Welsh Marches, young Arthur reflects, "Each sound . . . is sharp and bright as a white stitch on black cloth." Substitute "word" for "sound" and you have the essence of the author's style -- spare sentences, rich effects.

An Ocean Apart, A World Away, by Lensey Namioka (Delacorte, $15.95; ages 12-up). Chinese-born Namioka has written before -- notably in Who's Hu? (1981) and April and the Dragon Lady (1994) -- about Chinese teenagers trying to make it in the American education system. But those novels were set in high schools in 1950s Massachusetts and 1990s Seattle respectively. An Ocean Apart takes us to Cornell University in the 1920s, after 16-year-old Yanyan talks her wealthy father into letting her leave tradition-bound China to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. Departure also means leaving her brilliant rebel boyfriend, Baoshu, a choice she must make all over again when Baoshu comes to Ithaca to claim her. For American readers, the life Yanyan leaves behind in China may seem less well-realized than the often humorous tribulations of her life at Cornell, where being female and intellectual proves almost as exotic as being Chinese.

Picture Books Zathura: A Space Adventure, by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin, $18; ages 4-8). Any new book by Van Allsburg is exciting, but the first in seven years really sets up hopes for a classic on a par with The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, The Polar Express or The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Unfortunately, Zathura is not that book. As the sequel to 1982's Caldecott Medal-winning Jumanji, it is basically a variation on the same idea; it feels like Van Allsburg at half-throttle.

Of course, kids will want to find out what happened to the Budwings, the brothers who at the end of Jumanji walked off all unsuspecting with the havoc-wreaking jungle board game. Once back home, young Danny finds another, "more interesting" game board wedged under the "very plain" Jumanji board. This one shows "flying saucers, rockets, and planets in outer space, with a path of colored squares leading from Earth to a purple planet called Zathura and back to Earth." At the roll of the dice, cards pop out of the edge of the board (a nice touch), launching the house into deep space and summoning extraterrestrial phenomena from meteors to black holes. Danny and big brother Walter get over their sibling rivalry fast as they face these terrors together, just as the kids in Jumanji learned they had better not whine any more about being bored.

But Zathura is never as terrifying -- or sobering -- as Jumanji, partly because we now know that the board game will turn real, but also because the illustrations seem, by comparison, so hokey. Wild animals don't lose their novelty; space technology does. What child fears flying saucers in 2002? Or a robot who looks like the Tin Man with garden shears for hands? Van Allsburg's grainy black-and-white drawings have always had a '50s quality to them; it's part of their weirdly timeless charm. But when the very point of a story is the irruption of the extraordinary into the ordinary, to use Van Allsburg's own terms, there should be more of a disconnect. In Zathura, outer space just feels like the suburb next door.

As the City Sleeps, by Stephen T. Johnson (Viking, $16.99; all ages). Speaking of Chris Van Allsburg, here's a book that owes a great deal to The Mysteries of Harris Burdick yet stands on it own thanks to Johnson's artistry. Like Harris, it offers a sequence of enigmatic illustrations, each accompanied only by a title and a caption that entice readers (viewers, really) to make up their own stories. Johnson's theme is the city at "night, when words fade and things come alive." (Saint-Exupe{acute}ry). In the darkness, ordinary things are not what they seem. Thus, in "Strange Pets," the creatures lurking in the red glare of a neon hotel sign look like aliens "out for some fresh air." In "A Wondrous Find," a cluster of urban ruins is lit by "an unearthly glow" from under a pile of stones. It might be a plain old construction site; it might be the remains of a medieval castle. Kids will recognize this way of looking at the world. Grownups, if they're lucky, will remember.

Dear Ichiro, by Jean Davies Okimoto, illustrated by Doug Keith (Kumagai Press, $16.95; ages 4-8). Baseball may be over for the season, but this book is a keeper, especially since Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki is bound to be back next summer. There are two plots, nicely interwoven: In the first, 8-year-old Henry has a major falling out with his best friend, Oliver. The second kicks in when Henry's sympathetic grandfather takes him to a Mariners game. Watching Henry's heroes Ichiro and Kazuhiro "Kaz" Sasaki do their thing, Grampa, a World War II vet, reflects, "Sixty years ago, when I was in the army, if someone told me there'd come a day when I'd sit in a ballpark cheering for two fellas from Japan on my hometown baseball team, I would have said they were nuts." Henry gets the point: Given time, "hearts can heal." And what better medicine than a ball game?

-- Elizabeth Ward