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Joy Geography

If you've recently welcomed a new baby onto the planet, one of the most joyous books you could get is surely Mary Murphy's bold black-and-white "I Kissed the Baby" (written and illustrated by Murphy; Candlewick; n.p.; ages 2-4; $12.99).

It starts fast: "I saw the baby! Did you see the baby?"

The plot picks up with velocity.

"I kissed the baby! Did you kiss the baby?"

"Of course I kissed the baby, my own amazing baby," says Duck to Mouse. "And I'm going to do it again!" she says to her little duck.

And indeed she does, "ppfffwah!" as pink hearts fly about the black page.

This book is for audience participation -- the suspense builds, and at story's climax you've got to snuggle your face right into baby's and kiss. The figures are big and clear, white against black, so that new little eyes can see the shapes.

On a more somber note, "Orville" (by Havaen Kimmel and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker; Clarion; 32 pp.; ages 5-11; $15.00) is a big black dog in a small book. He can almost break your heart. He is an ugly, half-starved, lost dog lying in a culvert, deciding never to get up again. His mind is a muddle of old memory and new smells; he vaguely recalls chains. He's been down and out so long that he has forgotten which bark means "Hello" and which means "Get out of here."

A farmer and his wife find him. The dog sniffs the farmer's boots, pants, hands, and concludes that "it wasn't the worst news in the world, but it wasn't the best." And that's just about right. The dog gets his name, Orville, and is chained again to a barn to eat and dream the days away . . . and smell the stars at night.

Until . . . until -- another scrawny creature, a "cotton-candy"-haired girl, a "half-starved thing," moves in across the street.

Of course there's an attraction, a softening and a sort of understanding. Poignantly, very tentatively, Orville guesses "it would all work out somehow."

Parker's distinguished watercolor paintings -- rough, scruffy, lopsided as the dog -- evoke perfectly the hard-bitten little tale of hope. They blend so perfectly with Kimmel's spare, unsentimental language that words and pictures become a veritable poem.

As Western nations pour their soldiers and their treasure into the Near East, Demi's tale of "Muhammad" (written and illusrated by Demi; McElderry; n.p.; all ages; $19.95) is almost compulsory reading. In "Muhammad," she has luxuriously illuminated the account of the Prophet as he receives the angelic revelations that were to become the Koran, the sacred text for the religion of one-third of the world's people. And addressing kindred worlds, "Mosque" (written and illustrated by David Macaulay; Houghton Mifflin; 97 pp.; ages 12 and up; $18.00) is the beautiful rendering of an extraordinarily complex fictional 16th-century structure -- a veritable bravura display by the Caldecott Award-winning anatomist of great edifices.

And yet, gorgeous as each of these books is, and fascinated as any adult should be, I find it hard to imagine either book holding the interest of children on their own for long.

A wondrously appropriate, economical, and long-lived acquisition is a very good atlas. The new, almost 200-page National Geographic creation for "Young Explorers" (192 pp.; ages 8 and up; $29.95) sets the standard for comprehensiveness, clarity, beauty, and ease of use.

Incorporating satellite technology in both data and images, the volume can accurately show the distribution and diversity of animal life in the seas and precisely illustrate the contours of the ocean floor. The book features the usual "political" as well as "physical" maps displaying landforms and water features and "thematic" maps that graphically set forth one element, such as climate.

Although too modestly designated for ages 8-12, this beauty could serve as basic reference for a modestly inquisitive family. If nothing else (and there's plenty!) it would teach the user to read the indispensable front and back pages, including "How to Read a Map." Reading instructions at the outset can save weeks over a lifetime.

Gerald McDermott, having begun by making films of mythologies, consulted with the great Jungian scholar Joseph Campbell. From there he went to writing and painting prize-winning books, often traditional tales or trickster mythologies. This time McDermott says his story "Creation" (written and illustrated by Gerald McDermott; Dutton; n.p.; ages 7 and up; $16.99) is based "on Genesis 1:1 through 2:3 of the Hebrew Bible, with an eye toward its antecedents in the ancient Near East" as well as on 13th- and 14th-century French and Spanish accounts.

McDermott's stunning, exalted illustrations are on handmade mulberry-bark paper whose organic textures inspired the swirls and shadings of his gesso-and-fabric color paintings. He writes that he intends the book to be "an outer expression of the inner reality that connects every human soul." In that, it succeeds. It is an eloquent object of beauty, for any age, and necessary for our times. Peter F. Neumeyer lives in California. He can be reached at Neum1400@aol.com.

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