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    Children's books

    By MICHAEL MASCHINOT

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 10, 2000


    MOISHE'S MIRACLE: A Hanukkah Story, by Laura Krauss Melmed, illustrated by David Slonim (HarperCollins, $15.95)

    Moishe the Milkman is not much of a provider to his long-suffering wife Baila, but he has a generous heart for all the poor people in the village. A mysterious stranger rewards him with the gift of a magic frying pan, which only Moishe can use, that serves up an endless supply of Hanukkah latkes "so light, they floated right into the air as they finished cooking!" Moishe invites all his neighbors for a free meal, but his greedy wife tries to open a cafe and sell the latkes for a kopek, with disastrous results. I'm afraid poor Baila doesn't receive a flattering portrayal -- instead of having sympathy for her poverty, Melmed chooses to show her nagging, shrewish side. But I have to admit the stereotype only makes her comeuppance more fun. Though the illustrations are a bit too dark, Slonim does an excellent job of painting Moishe's vibrant personality. Ages 4-9

    ST. FRANCIS AND THE CHRISTMAS DONKEY by Robert Byrd (Dutton, $15.99)

    Possibly the world's first environmentalist, St. Francis of Assisi preached compassion for all of nature and had a special affinity for animals. The core of this fanciful tale comprises two stories that St. Francis tells to a donkey who complains about his heavy burden and laughable looks. In the first, he explains that the donkey was once a handsome animal, but because he mocked the other creatures, he had his ears pulled long and his voice became a coarse bray. The second story tells of the animal's special place in history as the bearer of the Christ child on the way to Bethlehem. There is a folk-art quality to Byrd's illustrations, making them both immediate and timeless, abandoning the stuffy formality often associated with religious stories. Ages 5-9

    THE CHRISTMAS SHIP, by Dean Morrissey (HarperCollins, $16.95)

    The illustrator of 1994's award-winning Ship of Dreams can easily be forgiven a few awkward moments in his story, given the superb quality of his paintings. Interestingly, the highly realistic style makes the story even more magical. A toy-store owner, whose shop has just been condemned, receives a visit from Father Christmas, who enlists him to deliver presents to the townspeople. The stuffed toys in his shop come alive to help, and his fishing boat is transformed into a magic flying ship. From there the story unfolds much the way you would expect, which in the case of a Christmas tale is probably a good thing. Ages 5-9

    JOY TO THE WORLD: A Family Christmas Treasury edited by Ann Keay Beneduce, illustrated by Gennady Spirin (Atheneum Books, $25)

    You wouldn't be surprised to find selections from Dickens, O. Henry and Clement Moore in this traditional, elegant edition. And, of course, there's Frances Church's famous answer to Virginia about the existence of Santa Claus, and some of the more traditional carols and Bible excerpts. But poets Ted Hughes and Langston Hughes are also represented, to help lend a more modern feeling to the collection. All ages

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

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