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For children, missions mysterious and hands-on

Aristotle tells the story of a donkey who stands equidistant between two bales of hay, starving to death because he can't make up his mind. That precisely is my problem with the treasures among this year's children's books. Surely the most irresistibly playful book of 2003 was ''Dragonology," a faux Victorian compendium on dragons. Now, in the same vein, follows ''Egyptology," the 1926 journal of one Miss Emily Sands, whose goal is to find the tomb of Osiris, god of the dead, and ''reveal its treasures to the whole world."

With pluck and camels, the indomitable Miss Sands travels from Cairo to Nubia, filling the journal with sketches, notes, photos, and little artifacts such as a ''Small Sample of Mummy Cloth" (which you can feel) and a small dictionary of hieroglyphics. Two months after setting forth, Miss Sand reaches Biga and, very likely, the tomb of Osiris, the object of the expedition. But we'll never know. As they are about to make the archeological find of the century, Miss Sands and the rest of the party receive an ominous warning. Here, abruptly, the journal stops, and a few odd reddish spots adorn the last page.

A brief and obviously joking note at the back tells us that there's scant evidence for the journal's truth and that we should enjoy it ''as it stands." That's not hard to do.

On a more sober note, ponder this:

Who killed Cock Robin? ''I," said the sparrow, ''With my bow and arrow." . . . Who caught his blood? ''I," said the fish, ''With my little dish."

How in the world does so much grisly nursery lore embed itself in the memory of the human race? Who knows? And what to make of this antique and anonymous verse, which begins with a murder and proceeds from a confession by the sparrow, right on to a burial and protracted mourning for the deceased, each task assumed by a different bird or beast? The rapid entrances of successive characters, line by line, beg for illustration. In Etienne Delessert's stunning version of ''Who Killed Cock Robin?," handsomely designed by the artist's wife, Rita Marshall, the pages burst with a surreal and visionary panorama of large-beaked birds, owls, moon, insects, fish, and that poor, arrow-pierced robin, stiff and glassy-eyed.

Yes, this retelling could be frightening -- in the same way, perhaps, as John Tenniel's illustrations for ''Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" are frightening. Still, discomfort notwithstanding, the haunting words combined with the stunning illustrations make this a treasure and a keeper -- however odd.

What a contrast is the unassuming little picture book ''Dig!," appearing so simple, being so perfect. In fact, what seems on first glance merely another ''yellow truck book" is the poetical saga of Mr. Rally, his backhoe, and his dog, Lightning, and the five jobs the team undertakes today. The illustrations echo one another in the double plot of man and dog, one doing major tasks with the backhoe, the other keeping tally with five white bones. The result is a sophisticated performance that, while it appears to be effortless, is in fact so graceful, shapely, funny, and sweetly reverent of work and play that it is a revelation for readers of any age.

''See the City" is the creation of Italian architect Matteo Pericoli, who for two years drew the Manhattan skyline -- 19 bridges and 1,500 buildings -- on two scrolls. You see the West Side if you read from front to back; the East Side if back to front.

''See the City" is, of course, an exciting virtuoso graphic performance. But its major virtue is that it may compel child and adult to grab a pencil and sketchpad and, right here, now, set themselves to sketching the nearest skyline.

Any art student knows that this is an exercise in looking. The result is a revelation in seeing. Using this book as a springboard, you can try the task with any child. And because for once you're both starting from the same place, you can develop a lovely rapport -- however briefly. I know this from experience.

Given the current administration's engagement with our planetary environment, what could be more timely than Phillip Hoose's cliffhanger elegy to the ivory-billed woodpecker, ''The Race to Save the Lord God Bird"? The gorgeous bird once ranged from Canada to Louisiana and was treasured by native inhabitants. Inexorably, inevitably, fashion and lumbering, greed and stupidity, took their toll. Hoose's narrative movingly and factually tells the story of this enormous, thrilling bird, and of the individual brave men and women dedicated for years to its survival. From the photographs, from 20 seconds of recorded film, we may see what has since the year 2000 been lost -- forever. For us, for our children, and for theirs to come. A sadly beautiful book, and a companion piece to last year's remarkable ''Swan Song," J. Patrick Lewis's intricately varied poetical elegies for 20 extinct animals, paired with engravings by Christopher Wormell.

Peter F. Neumeyer lives in California. He can be reached at neum1400@aol.com.

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