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Children's books

By MICHAEL MASCHINOT

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


The Wibbly Pig series, by Mick Inkpen (Viking Books, $5.99 each)

This British import is just what a toddler needs in a board book series -- simplicity, cuteness and just enough action to keep the thick pages turning. The titles say it all: Wibbly Pig Likes Bananas, Wibbly Pig Opens His Presents, Wibbly Pig Is Happy!, Wibbly Pig Can Make a Tent. A 4-year-old will have fun following along with the very simple text, but even if your children are still in the teething stage, Inkpen's darling illustrations will give them something to chew on. Ages 1-4.

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A Visit to William Blake's Inn, by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen (Harcourt Brace, $16)

This re-issue from 1981 is special in more ways than one. Its poetry, worthy of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear, earned it the Newbery Medal, a rare feat for a text suitable to 4-year-olds. It is doubly distinguished as a Caldecott Honor book for its faithfully witty illustrations. The inn is owned by the visionary poet William Blake, so it's only natural that it's staffed by dragons and angels, and the guests include the Man in the Marmalade Hat, the King of Cats, and a full menagerie of literary oddities. It's not necessary to know Blake's work to enjoy this book, but it doesn't hurt. Ages 4-up.

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Queen's Own Fool: A Novel of Mary Queen of Scots, by Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris (Philomel Books, $19.99)

Yolen, distinguished author of more than 200 books, and first-time novelist Harris would seem a collaborative odd couple, but they have crafted a fascinating look at a fascinating historical figure. Mary Queen of Scots is seen here through the eyes of her court jester Nicola, a 12-year old girl whom she discovers in an Italian acting troupe. Nicola is badly mistreated by her uncle the troupe master, and the queen takes pity on her and takes her into her French court. It strikes me that Nicola is not a very good jester -- her jokes and witticisms are quite lame -- but as a narrator she is intimate and honest, seeing a side of the queen that few in the court have access to. The queen demands only one thing of her fool -- honesty. When Mary's French husband dies, she is forced to move back to her native Scotland. There she falls hopelessly in love with Lord Darnley, a worthless rake, and their union is the beginning of the queen's downfall. When Nicola learns the truth about Darnley, she must decide whether to put herself in danger by exposing him to the queen, or risk her integrity by keeping silent. The novel is peppered with historical figures, including John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism, who finds Mary's French ways scandalous. Queen's Own Fool succeeds as both a personal look at an adolescent's life and as a treatise on one of history's more savage periods through the innocent eyes of one of its survivors. Ages 11-up.

Michael Maschinot is a writer who lives in Decatur, Ga.

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