Hana's Suitcase, by Karen Levine (Albert Whitman, $15.95; ages 9-12). A tattered, empty suitcase was among several artifacts sent from the Auschwitz Museum to a Holocaust education center in Tokyo in March 2000. Painted on the suitcase were a name, Hana Brady; a birth date, May 16, 1931; and one word -- Waisenkind, German for orphan. No one knew anything more about Hana: who she was or what had happened to her. The Tokyo center's director, Fumiko Ishioka, resolved to find out. In alternating chapters, Canadian writer Karen Levine tells of Ishioka's patient search for clues and the story she uncovered of the little Jewish Czech girl who left that suitcase on the Auschwitz station platform before being herded into the gas chamber one day in 1944. Family photos supplied by Hana's brother, whom Ishioka traced to Toronto, breathe life into his memories of their family before the war.
For a contrasting response, read Nancy Patz's Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat? (Dutton, $14.99; ages 9-12), a brief poetic meditation inspired by the author's fascination with a hat she had seen exhibited, without label or explanation, in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. "And did she put cream in her coffee -- whoever she was, whoever she was?" Unlike Ishioka, Patz had no clues to follow back to the historical person behind the mute artifact, but her goal remains the same -- to honor the life, and all the lives, it represents.
I Am Not Esther, by Fleur Beale (Hyperion, $15.99; ages 12-up). Kirby, a smart, independent-minded New Zealand teenager, lives a tough but not unhappy life with her "dizzy flake" of a single mother. Then things take an unimaginable turn for the worse. After suffering a breakdown, Kirby's mother leaves her with some "crazy relations" -- crazy because these people are members of an austere and authoritarian religious cult. Kirby is renamed Esther, denied even the most trivial choices and subjected to a particularly humorless form of discipline. Predictably, Beale gets a lot of mileage out of the clash between a modern teenage sensibility ("It's bloody lucky they can't read my thoughts") and a strict fundamentalist mindset. Less predictable and more interesting are the unexpected attachments Kirby forms to her newfound cousins and her discovery that there's more room in her life for "Esther" than she had supposed possible.
Stanley, Flat Again, by Jeff Brown, illustrated by Scott Nash (HarperCollins, $14.99; ages 6-10). Stanley Lambchop wasn't born flat. He got that way when a bulletin board fell on him, as readers of Flat Stanley (1964) well know. After a stint of sliding under doors, being airmailed to California and other memorable experiences, he was cured when his brother reinflated him with a bicycle pump. Although the apparently ageless Stanley has had other adventures since then (see Invisible Stanley, Stanley in Space et al.), he has stayed round -- until now. And this time the pump trick fails, giving Stanley a chance to try his hand as a sail and a rescue worker before a new solution is found. While this sequel is a bit, well, flat compared to the brilliant original, it is still a must-read for all Stanley fans. (Readers will also be pleased to know that, despite a change of illustrator, ties are still everyday accessories for the Lambchop males.)
The Big Blue Spot, by Peter Holwitz (Philomel, $13.99; ages 3-7). That's what it is, all right: a big, blobby, inky-blue spot that "has what it needs, and that's not a lot." Yet one day the spot opens its eyes, "right out of the blue," and finds that it feels blue in more ways than one. It's lonely. Slyly, it asks you to "tip this book just a bit to the right." You do, and eek! the spot slides right off the page and onto the next. It's off to see whether there are any more spots around. You can guess what happens when the blue spot meets a captivating yellow spot on a facing page and you helpfully close the book, just a little, so they can get together. While owing perhaps too much to Leo Lionni's Little Blue and Little Yellow, The Big Blue Spot has an undeniable charm of its own. Read both.
Anna the Bookbinder, by Andrea Cheng, illustrated by Ted Rand (Walker & Co., $16.95; ages 5-9). Anna's papa smells "like paper and leather and glue"; he is a bookbinder, and Anna, who looks about 10 in this thoughtful story of a vanished era, acts as his unofficial apprentice in the family bindery. Besides offering a glimpse of a dying craft ("People don't know that the big binderies . . . use glue instead of stitches to bind books. They don't know that the glue will harden and the books' spines will crack"), Cheng makes a general plea for a slower, more painstaking approach to life. "We may not be fast," says Papa, "but we do a good job." A pity, then, that this book is itself glued, not stitched.
-- Elizabeth Ward