The Science of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials," by Mary and John Gribbin (Random House, $17.99; ages 12-up). Admirers of Pullman's epic fantasy trilogy will be tickled to find a pair of distinguished British science writers taking the works seriously as "science" fiction. Pullman was certainly pleased. Reading this book, he says in a foreword, "I was enormously impressed with how clever I was." Defining science as "explainable magic," the Gribbins -- both longtime Pullman fans -- explain the magic underlying such apparent wonders as the golden compass (the I Ching and psychology), Will's subtle knife (string theory), Mary Malone's amber spyglass (polarization), the Northern Lights (magnetism) and the dark materials themselves (cold dark matter and, in a detour from hard science, Jung's collective unconscious). As for Will's and Lyra's parallel universes, the Gribbins point out that "the whole 'many worlds' idea . . . is straight out of quantum physics."
Also just published: Pullman's The Scarecrow and His Servant (Knopf, $17.99; ages 8-12), a fairy tale for middle readers that is as light as the famous trilogy is dark -- though equally pitch-perfect in its way. ("I like alternating a long book and a short one, a novel and a fairy tale," Pullman writes. "It freshens the voice.") Jolted to life by a lightning bolt, a scarecrow meets a small boy called Jack and makes him an offer: How would Jack like to become his personal servant? "What would my duties be?" asks Jack. "To accompany me throughout the world," replies the scarecrow, "to fetch and carry, to wash, cook, and attend to my needs. In return, I have nothing to offer but excitement and glory. We might sometimes go hungry, but we shall never want for adventure." Nor do they. Local readers might be bemused to learn that the scarecrow's dream destination is a place called Spring Valley -- or they might just be so charmed by the tale that they forever after see D.C.'s ordinary old Spring Valley with new eyes.
Eyes of the Emperor, by Graham Salisbury (Wendy Lamb/Random House, $17.99; ages 12-up). In this companion to his terrific novel about Hawaii after Pearl Harbor, Under the Blood-Red Sun (1994), Salisbury dramatizes the true story of 25 young Japanese-American GIs from Hawaii who participated in a little-known military experiment in 1943. "The boys of Company B" had signed up before the attack; after it, they met a wall of ignorance and prejudice. "The army stopped training us," says the fictional narrator, 16-year-old Eddy Okubo, who lied about his age to get in. "The Hawaiians, Portuguese, and Chinese still got trained. But all the Japanese got was cleanup work." His buddy Cobra has it figured out: "To them we all look like Hirohito. They see us, they see the guys in those planes dropping bombs on them. We got the eyes of the Emperor." It makes Eddy and Cobra mad. But when "the Japs" are ordered to train dogs to sniff out enemy soldiers who might have the same "scent" as they do, they feel even more tumultuous emotions. "I thought of President Roosevelt and how he believed we might smell different from white guys," Eddy says after K-9 training fails spectacularly. "My president. Made me feel sad." But don't expect either anger or sadness to get the last word in this thoughtful, humane and often very funny novel.
My Friend the Enemy, by J.B. Cheaney (Knopf, $15.95; ages 10-14). Another fine novel on a related theme takes a different viewpoint. On the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, Hazel Anderson of Oregon turned 8. Three-plus years later, she and her community are still expecting a Japanese invasion. Nobody could be more diligently patriotic than Hazel. Then she meets and befriends Sogoji, a 15-year-old orphaned Japanese-American boy avoiding internment by hiding out on a neighbor's farm. Such concepts as "loyal" and "enemy" are put to a hard test, especially when bomb-bearing balloons are seen over Oregon. Like Salisbury, Cheaney uses humor and understatement to great effect on a historical subject that still arouses high emotion.
He Came With the Couch, by David Slonim (Chronicle, $15.95; ages 4-8). Who did? A stuffed animal -- er, person -- with a conical blue head and a funny topknot, that's who, apparently stuck fast to the couch that Sophie and her family have acquired from Larry's 24-Hour Rummage. They can't even get him off with a plunger. Advised by the doctor that the new arrival "needs to get out more," the family hauls him and his couch to the Grand Canyon, the beach and Washington, D.C., where, unfortunately, he only meets more permanent couch potatoes, including Abe Lincoln seated solemnly in his memorial. Slonim's utterly wacky yarn, matched with surprisingly witty cartoon-style drawings, sent me in search of his earlier book, Oh, Ducky! A Chocolate Calamity. Seriously, kindergarteners have all the fun.
-- Elizabeth Ward