Timeless Verse to Engage Young Minds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shortly after author A.A. Milne's only child, Christopher, was born, the boy was given a stuffed bear from Harrods as a present. It was, in many ways, an ordinary bear, yet it soon became the inspiration for one of the most endearing and enduring characters in children's literature.

In a 1924 collection of verses, "When We Were Very Young," Milne included a lengthy poem titled "Teddy Bear," based on his son's toy. The first edition of the book sold out the day it was released, and the poem marked the birth of Winnie-the-Pooh, a creation that came to overwhelm everything else Milne accomplished in a long and distinguished career as a playwright, novelist and magazine editor.

That poem and the rest of the children's verses in "When We Were Very Young" were recently combined with 35 poems from Milne's 1927 collection "Now We Are Six" in a keepsake edition, "The Complete Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh" (Dutton Children's Books, 211 pages, $25).

The enchanting world of make-believe that Milne creates in his poems is wonderfully illustrated by the original watercolor drawings of Ernest H. Shepard, but this volume is more than simply a collection of marvelous poems and whimsical drawings. It is a page from history, yet one that remains as fresh and enthralling as it was on the day Winnie-the-Pooh was born.

For older readers interested in the history beyond Pooh, Dutton has also released "Beyond the World of Pooh: Selections From the Memoirs of Christopher Milne" (edited by A.R. Melrose, 286 pages, $22.95). The book tells a melancholy tale of how A.A. Milne came to regret his best-known work because it so overshadowed a productive writing career, and of how his son spent much of his life trying to escape his fictional identity of Christopher Robin in the Hundred Acre Wood.

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The use of verse in children's literature is a time-worn approach that remains as popular today as it was in the years before Milne, a fact Belinda Hollyer neatly acknowledges in "Dreamtime: A Book of Lullabies" (illustrated by Robin Bell Corfield; Viking Children's Books, 48 pages, $16.99).

A teacher, writer and librarian from London, Hollyer has matched timeless works by artists such as Rudyard Kipling, Walter de la Mare and Eleanor Farjeon with new selections that make soothing bedtime reading for toddlers and beginning readers.

James Berry's "Isn't My Name Magical?: Sister and Brother Poems" (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 32 pages, $16) takes a far more modern approach as Berry gives voice to Dreena and Delroy, siblings who introduce us to their family, friends and their everyday life.

Many grade-school children will recognize themselves in Berry's verse, but even those who don't will be captivated by Shelly Hehenberger's rich illustrations.

The stunning photography of Jason Stemple, meanwhile, completely dominates "Snow, Snow: Winter Poems for Children" (Boyds Mills Press, 32 pages, $16.95). Although Jane Yolen's 13 seasonal verses capture the beauty and mystery of winter for middle-grade readers, Stemple's amazing photos make you feel the cold and appreciate the majesty of nature.

In "The Bookworm's Feast: A Potluck of Poems" (Dial Books for Young Readers, 40 pages, $15.99), J. Patrick Lewis introduces a world no camera can capture--the world that exists in the imagination.

With a twisting, lyrical style reminiscent of Edward Lear, Lewis--who in real life is a professor of economics at Ohio's Otterbein College--writes of the gentleman bookworm, an onion named Willy and the Island of the Broccoli Trees, among other things. John O'Brien's imaginative artwork provides the perfect complement for the poems, which are aimed at children ages 4 to 8.

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If you'd like more information about these books, as well as thousands of other children's and young adult titles, there are two new online sites that may provide the answers. At http://www.kidsreads.com, a child-friendly site aimed at young readers and their parents, you can meet authors, find short reviews and search for books by reading level and subject. For more advanced readers, there's http://www.teenreads.com, which offers most of the same services only in a hipper format for older readers.

Both sites are linked to Amazon.com, allowing users to purchase books online.

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