Gifts, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Harcourt, $17; ages 12-up). Le Guin, author of the revered Earthsea cycle, has a winner in Gifts, her first young-adult novel in 14 years. The tale is somber, even harrowing. In neighboring domains of the hardscrabble Uplands, an adolescent boy and girl find themselves at odds with their families' expectations for them. The Uplands peoples possess gifts -- the ability to twist limbs, say, or strike dumb -- but these two refuse or fail to use their inherited powers, at least in the prescribed ways. Orrec, the boy, goes blindfolded rather than risk destroying at a glance. Gry, his friend, won't use her power to call animals for the hunters. There are hard consequences, but harder still is their struggle to discern their real gifts. Weighty thoughts lurk here -- about the difficulty of growing up and deciding who to be and what to do, about conformity and resistance, about the abuse of power, even about that dubious educational label "gifted."
But Le Guin has a gift, too: She's a born storyteller. At her best, as here, her zest is not for lessons but for the tale and for the sensuous details that can summon up wholly imagined worlds at a stroke. We see with Orrec "the bare hills and thin woods, the rocks and bogs of Caspromant." We learn how his blindness brings out "the sound of hoofs on soft or stony ground, the creak of saddles, the smell of horse sweat and broom flower." We see with him, differently, when he takes the blindfold off: "An oil lamp on the mantel gave a tiny, smoky light." We know his house, his dogs, his horse. The story's end, though hopeful, is therefore no ending at all. It's good to hear that a sequel is in the works.
Lucky Leaf, by Kevin O'Malley (Walker, $15.95; ages 4-8). Autumn, as we know, inspires thoughts of melancholy, and the young hero of Lucky Leaf is melancholy, all right. His mom has taken one look at the sunny day and decided that he should quit his video game, get outside and play -- "Now!" He and his buddies mooch about, kicking at leaf piles, until the sight of a single red leaf hanging from a tree reminds them that catching the last one as it drops brings luck. This triggers an energetic romp -- and lets O'Malley prove that with a nimble pen and a rainbow of Photoshop colors it is possible to distill a brilliant late autumn afternoon into the pages of a picture book.
The Moon Came Down on Milk Street, by Jean Gralley (Henry Holt, $16.95; ages 3-7). Gralley made her name with the wacky Hogula, Dread Pig of Night and Very Boring Alligator. Here, given what she has called the "low-grade, pervasive, under-the-radar anxiety" of the post-Sept. 11 world, she sets out to dispense comfort rather than comedy with a picture book designed to soothe disaster-inspired fears by acknowledging them. But see how subtly she does it: "The moon came down on Milk Street,/ came down with a very soft sound./ Shh-shhh, shh-shhhhh,/ in pieces on the ground." From their bedroom windows, children look down on the great orb smashed into luminous slivers among toppled buildings. Fantasy softens the dread: The Brooklyn Bridge nestles under an edifice that looks like a big green cheese grater; other buildings are spouted boxes (homage, maybe, to In the Night Kitchen, by Gralley's former teacher, Maurice Sendak). Better yet, aid is instantly at hand with the arrival of the Fire Chief, Rescue Workers, Helper Dogs and pajama-clad "people everywhere." Before dawn, the moon is back in the sky, light and order restored. A lovely, thoughtful and, best of all, unhistrionic book.
Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes, by Margaret Atwood, illustrated by Dusan Petricic (Bloomsbury, $16.95; ages 4-8). Fans of Atwood's Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995) will be pleased to see the Canadian wordsmith doing for the letter R what she did there so irresistibly for P. The plot is kind of wild: Rude Ramsay rebels against his revolting relatives ("I am receiving a raw deal. It rankles!") and runs off with his best bud, a red-nosed rat, but is forced by the tale's ground rule to veer into rectories, rotundas and Roman-vaulted ratholes before reaching the rosy-hued ending. Plot, though, is not the point. Reading these orotund sentences aloud is. " 'You must be royally rich,' Ramsay remarked ruefully, remembering his own ramshackle residence." "They rented a veritable regatta of Rolls Royces, but they fell into arrears on revenues." As a bonus, Petricic's illustrations have just the right touch of loony solemnity. *
-- Elizabeth Ward