Keeper of the Doves, by Betsy Byars (Penguin Putnam, $14.99; ages 8-12). Amen McBee, the narrator of this brief but intense novel, is the youngest and sharpest of five daughters in a well-to-do, late-19th-century Southern household. The "keeper of the doves" is a mysterious recluse named Mr. Tominski, who lives nearby under the protection of Amen's father, tending and training wild birds. When the family dog is killed, Amen's malevolent twin sisters blame the childlike old man. He overhears their words, with tragic consequences. But Amen, a poet, knows that words are also a shaping force for good. Byars explores this and other themes -- about observation and judgment, for example -- in language as light and precise as Mr. Tominski's performing doves.
The Dungeon, by Lynne Reid Banks (HarperCollins, $16.99; ages 16-up). The prolific children's author best known for The Indian in the Cupboard and its sequels is now offering older readers something completely different: a swirling historical melodrama set in 14th-century Scotland and China. An embittered laird, bent on avenging the loss of his family during a raid by a rival, orders the construction of a dreadful dungeon, then travels to far-off China to escape his memories. While there, he buys and enslaves a beautiful, pure-hearted child named Peony, who repays his abuse with devotion. On his return to Scotland with Peony years later, his plans for revenge go horrifyingly awry. Say it for Banks: She might lay it on a bit thick -- from the hokey stage accents to the Dickensian plot twists -- but The Dungeon is as mesmerizing as a lone piper on the battlements.
Secret Heart, by David Almond (Delacorte, $15.95; ages 10-up). Almond is a prize-winning British children's author of the "literary" rather than the popular variety, whose books have been praised for their "mystical fragrance." But the fragrance is far too heavily applied in this mawkish novel about a slow, shy boy who discovers, thanks to a visiting circus troupe, that he has the heart of a tiger. For dialogue that puts Almond's to shame, read anything by Betsy Byars (see above). And if it's British mysticism they want, kids would do better to read Alan Garner or the incomparable William Mayne.
The Village that Vanished, by Ann Grifalconi, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Dial, $16.99; ages 5-up). When the people of an African Yao village learn that slave traders are in the vicinity, it's the women who save them. Clever Njemile comes up with a plan -- or what we might nowadays call a faith-based initiative -- and her mother and young daughter help the doubting Thomases carry it out. Kadir Nelson's lush double-spread illustrations share the trio's defining qualities of wit and dignity.
Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School, by Mark Teague (Scholastic, $15.95; ages 5-8). Fed up with her dog Ike's numerous "behavioral problems," Mrs. Gertrude LaRue enrolls him for a term in the Igor Brotweiler Canine Academy. Or PRISON, as Ike puts it in the first of his pathetic, hilarious letters home. "You should see the other dogs, Mrs. LaRue," he tells her. "They are BAD DOGS. I do not fit in." Full-color pictures show Ike lolling and disporting himself in luxury at what amounts to a canine Club Med, '50s-style; matching black-and-white illustrations depict the grim, Nazi-guarded fortress of his imagination.
The Three Billygoats Gruff and Mean Calypso Joe, by Cathrene Valente Youngquist, illustrated by Kristin Sorra (Atheneum, $16; ages 3 to 7). Tropical colors light up a sparkling Caribbean version of the classic Grimm tale. Little Billygoat, medium-size Williegoat and the mighty Captain Bill E. Goat yearn for the "delectable goat treats" to be found on the other side of their divided island. But you know how the story goes. "Hey, man!" roars Calypso Joe, the fearsome troll who guards the bridge. "Who's dat crossin' me bridge? Makin' all de racket, distuhbin' me sleep!" Only after Biggest Brother butts him right into the water does the smart-talking one get it right: "Now everybody can go 'cross dis bridge, no problem, man . . . no toll!"
-- Elizabeth Ward