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Bewitching rhythms for a silent season

In the Snow
Written by Sharon Phillips Denslow
Illustrated by Nancy Tafuri
Greenwillow, 40 pp., ages 3-8, $15.99

The Princess and the White Bear King
Retold by Tanya Robyn Batt
Illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli
Barefoot, 40 pp., ages 7-11, $16.99

Winter is here for the long haul, but the winter solstice lies safely behind us. This means the days are imperceptibly lengthening, and one can lighten them further with a few good cold-weather books.

''In the Snow" celebrates the quiet days of winter, in clear lyrics by Sharon Phillips Denslow, with equally poetic watercolors by two-time Caldecott Honor-winning artist Nancy Tafuri.

Tafuri has a distinctive illustrative style, a way of coming close to her subject, as if the reader is personally invited along for the ride. Yet there are elements of mystery in her work as well, glimpsed at the margins of the double-spread color illustrations, a sense of life ongoing beyond what we are being shown -- birds flying off, tree trunks reaching up, a child's boot walking out of the page. Look closer, her pictures seem to tell us, come nearer, which is exactly what ''In the Snow" is all about.

''Someone's coming / in the snow / for the seeds / left high / and low." This ''someone's coming" becomes a recurring and changing mystery -- who will appear next? Denslow's rhythms are slow, so subtle one might almost miss the fact that not only does the whole text rhyme, but the final word in every other line rhymes with ''snow" (sparrow, crow), a tour de force for any poet, elegantly executed here. One by one the creatures of the winter world come out for food: cardinals, chickadees, red squirrels, ''bunnies hopping / soft and slow," which, if you've ever had the pleasure of seeing them, is just how they look when they think they've found food.

''Field mouse stops / as shadows grow." Day turns to dusk, the full moon rises, and the last character to join in the search is ''Old Man Possum, / eyes aglow, / dark shape / crunching / seeds in snow." Possum is the only animal to look the reader full in the eyes, and he's still in the tree as the sun rises next morning, waiting for more food, brought by a child bright as the cardinal in cherry-red hat and mittens.

Every aspect of the book's design invites a child nearer to the natural world around him or her -- the front endpapers are full of drifts of snow, the closing endpapers reveal all the animal tracks we've seen through the book. By close observation, it's possible for the child naturalist-in-the-making to identify each individual track. Tafuri's palette of colors celebrates the hues left to us in the long month of January: the gold of bent grasses, pale yellow on a chickadee's breast, blue sky, evergreen needles. How lovely that the words are printed very large, and that the poem is written out in very short lines. In this way, the text becomes an open invitation for even the newest reader, the smallest lap sitter. Reading ''In the Snow" aloud is an altogether happy way to spend a winter's hour.

''The Princess and the White Bear King" is that difficult, delicate hybrid, a picture book for older children. It is loosely based on at least three European tales: ''East of the Sun, West of the Moon," ''The Black Bull of Norraway," and ''The White Bear King." Many tale lovers will recognize aspects of other classic tales, notably ''Beauty and the Beast" and the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche. It's a wintry book, whose landscape is imaginative and wild: '' In the North, where the thickly needled pine forests are deep and dark and the snow falls bride-white, there once lived three Princesses."

Only the youngest princess, the dreamer, is brave enough to ride the back of a large white bear, ''over great frozen lakes and through dark forests," to a castle far away. There she is happy at first but gradually grows homesick, and allows herself to ignore the bear's warning: ''Do not listen to your mother's advice, for if you do, bad luck will befall us both."

There is enough material here to fill several volumes in Freud's home library, but suffice it to say, the princess looks too soon at her love's true face and must rescue him from the Troll Queen, who lives east of the Sun and west of the Moon. For this perilous journey, she relies on her own bravery, persistence, and cleverness -- and the gifts of several old women along the way. She comes through cold and snow, and a mountain of glass (i.e., one very long winter), to find and win back her love. Summer seems to explode, golden- and green-glazed, from the final pages of this book, and a wedding feast follows: ''With food enough for gods and paupers / Music that called trees to dance / Wine enough to fill an ocean / And luck enough for all to chance."

Tanya Robyn Batt's retelling evidences the lush adjectives and rhythms of a true storyteller. Nicoletta Ceccoli's illustrations in acrylics, pencils, and oil pastels have a distinctly Italianate flavor, with whimsical figures moving slantwise against immense landscapes. Her illustrations are dreamlike, queer, and strange, in jewel tones that gleam against the snowy backgrounds. ''The Princess and the White Bear King" is an international production -- its author lives much of the year in New Zealand, the artist is Italian, the publisher is right here in Massachusetts, the printing was done in Hong Kong. Double-spread illustrations alternate with tiny colored sketches, miniatures, and decorations, which make the tale feel doubly and triply full of life. It, too, is a fine book for reading aloud, and its roots in the oral tradition give it a music worth hearing in the silences of winter.

Liz Rosenberg teaches in the English Department at the State University of New York at Binghamton. She was chair of this year's National Book Award for Young People's Literature, and her newest book for young readers is ''I Just Hope It's Lethal: Poems of Sadness, Madness and Joy," co-edited with Deena November.

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