Picture Books

Hot City, by Barbara Joosse, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Philomel, $16.99; ages 4-up). Summertime, and the city is sizzlin' in an outstanding picture book about two children who take refuge "in the coooool library" (cool in more ways than one, naturally). Out in the streets that R. Gregory Christie depicts as blazing orange rivers of heat, the narrator and her little brother are too enervated even to eat their dripping princess-pink and dinosaur-green snow cones fast enough. But in the library, plopped down in big old chairs, "smooth and cool," they become a princess and a dinosaur in glades of airy green and blue. Joyful and vivid, Hot City does for an urban summer day what Ezra Jack Keats's iconic The Snowy Day did for a winter one back in 1962.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke, by Jean Fritz, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (Putnam, $16.99; ages 8-up). Another excellent summer title, especially for families heading to North Carolina's Outer Banks. Jean Fritz is the doyenne of American juvenile nonfiction authors, and she's in peak form with this page-turner about the 115 English settlers who vanished from Roanoke Island, tucked in behind Cape Hatteras, sometime between 1587 and 1590. Fritz examines all the clues and theories but concludes that the colony's fate remains a mystery. "It is still hard for Americans to look at the country's history and see that hole right at the very beginning," she writes -- although that, of course, is also what makes the story so fascinating.

The Sons of the Dragon King: A Chinese Legend, by Ed Young (Atheneum, $16.95; ages 5-8). As the old story goes, the Dragon King was disturbed by reports that none of his nine grown sons was behaving in a way befitting a prince. One would just sit staring into the distance. Another made monstrous noises. A third did "nothing all day, nothing at all, but fuss about in the kitchen." Yet the wise king, visiting each son in turn, recognizes their apparent failings as clues to their aptitudes. These three, for instance, he encourages to become a sentinel, a musician and a chef, respectively, and the symbols of all nine still appear on Chinese buildings, bridges and everyday objects. Caldecott Medalist Ed Young retells this parable of good parenting with a minimum of sentimentality, and his illustrations, done with ink and cut paper on a linen-weave background, are models of classical restraint.

Absolutely Not, by Matthew McElligott (Walker, $16.95; ages 4-8). This gently witty tale stars two bugs -- Gloria, who looks like a grasshopper, and her friend Frieda, who might well be an ant. Like Russell Hoban's Frances books, it is composed mostly of repartee, since, like Frances and her sister (also a Gloria), the heroines are constantly at odds. "Look around you," says Gloria, the impulsive one. "Isn't this a perfect morning?" "Absolutely not," says wary Frieda. "It's frightening." And so it goes throughout the walk Gloria persuades Frieda to join her on, with the pictures slyly commenting on their exchanges (is that a log or a dog? a giant or a bicycle?) until both are proved right in a clever and very satisfying ending.

Tiny's Big Adventure, by Martin Waddell, illustrated by John Lawrence (Candlewick, $15.99; ages 2-5). Waddell says he got the idea for this charming book when he saw a rusty old tractor nestled in high grass on a farm. "It looked like an exciting place to play," he said, "but who would play there?" Well, a tiny field mouse might. Hence the tale of Tiny and his big sister Katy and their adventures, some quite frightening, in the wheat field. As memorable as the sweetness between the siblings are John Lawrence's vinyl engravings, washed in blue, orange and gold, which give the book the look of an old almanac. And kids will appreciate the mouse-eye view, i.e., how big everything up there looks from way down here!

On the same theme, don't miss Lindsay Barrett George's Inside Mouse, Outside Mouse (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 3-up), an ingenious tale of two mice who simultaneously begin matching journeys, one inside and one outside, that will take them down, across, under, up, in front of, into, out of, behind, between, below, over, through, along and around various objects until they finally meet -- where else? -- at the window. The amazingly lifelike illustrations reveal a naturalist's eye for detail and a humorist's eye for comic parallels. Finally, reaching back to a classic in this obviously teeming subgenre, there is John Steptoe's heartbreaker, The Story of Jumping Mouse (1984 but still in print, HarperTrophy; paperback, $5.99), based on the Native American tale about a hopeful, brave and kind-hearted little rodent who learns to fly like an eagle.

-- Elizabeth Ward