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The magic of simple illustrations

Ages 4-8: Baby Crow, by John A. Rowe, North-South Books, $16.95.

Britain's John Rowe has one of those magic styles of illustration, like those of Eric Carle or Tomie diPaola, whose beauty lies in its ability to be interestingly simple. His unerring sense of humor, evidenced in the recent titles Rabbit Moon and Jack the Dog, spangles every page of this lively yarn.

The Crow family, famous for its singing, is concerned that Baby Crow hasn't found his voice. Instead of cawing, he can only beep. Instead of the cliche ending of "letting him be himself," the story leads to a unique twist on the education process.

Ages 5-10: Winter Across America, by Seymour Simon, photos by Seymour Simon and others, Hyperion, $14.95.

Seymour Simon has written a lively and informative text as a companion to his Autumn Across America. But the stars of this effort are the gaggle of photographers, most from Dembinsky Photo Associates, who contribute memorable pictures of our darkest season. The muted colors of winter might render the book too subtle for the younger reader, a problem ameliorated by the many scenes of animals in their habitats. A whooping crane perfectly framed by a patch of light in a gloomy sky; a herd of huddled deer, curious but not startled by the photographer; a chickadee stared down by a gray owl from a facing page _ these images stand out amid equally remarkable, if more static, photos of snow-encrusted cacti and an icy Grand Canyon. The lone human pictured seems dwarfed by an urban blizzard, a fitting encapsulation of our sometimes uneasy relationship with nature.

This is a book smart enough to be kept on the reference shelf, but with photos that tempt you to tear them out and frame them.

Ages 12-up: Jesse, by Gary Soto, Harcourt Brace, $14.95.

Jesse is a 17-year-old Chicano, struggling through the complexities of adolescence in the '60s. He is as much like a modern teen as he is different. He wonders about his future, pursues a girl in his science class and tries to succeed in school. But he also questions the plight of the migrant worker, the Vietnam War and the leadership of Cesar Chavez.

He lives the simple life of a field worker and attends community college with his brother, Adam. Jesse's concern for Adam's deepening involvement with their landlady's daughter, Glenda, a non-Hispanic single mother, shows Soto's skill at delineating character.

In the subtlety of this three-way interaction, the differences of class, gender and race set the story smoldering with an almost imperceptible uneasiness that grows toward the final chapters. Soto extends to novel length the same quiet honesty he displayed in his short-story collection, Baseball in April (ALA Best Book, 1990).

The mere depiction of this teen's life, and his attempts to better himself, are a far greater indictment of racism and class distinction than any finger-pointing sermon could be. A recognizable hero, his small triumphs and tragedies, set in the recent past _ all add up to a satisfying and enlightening story.

Michael Maschinot's children's book column appears monthly.

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