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CHILDREN'S BOOKS

THE PUDDLE, by David McPhail (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $15).

How much trouble can a boy get into in a puddle no wider than he is tall? That depends on the boy's luck, or the author's imagination. McPhail's effortless watercolors propel his story through one absurdity after another, as the boy's puddle is invaded by a thieving frog, an angry turtle, a helpful alligator, a playful pig and a thirsty elephant. The creator of Galore and Pigs Aplenty has come up with another gem that is sublime in its simplicity. Ages 2-5.

BUG OFF!, by Cathi Hepworth (Putnam, $15.99).

For children who love words and bugs, this is the perfect marriage. Following up her Antics!, which featured "ant" words, Hepworth expands into the creepy world of roaches, lice, gnats and other vermin vocabulary. Just as kids delight in turning over stones to find bugs, they'll enjoy turning up a "moth" in the middle of "smothered"(and the accompanying illustration of a young moth smothered in kisses). Make a beeline for this one at the bookstore. Ages 3-7.

PEGASUS, by Marianna Mayer, illustrated by K.Y. Craft (Morrow, $16).

This is a masterful retelling of the Greek legend of Bellerophon, from the team who produced The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Baba Yaga and Vasalisa the Brave. Tricked by a rival, the young hero delivers to the King of Lycia a message that bears his own death sentence. The king sends him on a hopeless quest to stay the menacing Chimera. Bellerophon's only hope is to befriend the winged horse Pegasus. Craft's classically inspired paintings, majestic and luminous, perfectly capture the soaring spirit of the tale. Ages 6-up.

THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER, by Gary Blackwood (Dutton, $15.99).

This adventure tale takes a look at Elizabethan London through the eyes of an orphan boy who accidentally becomes an apprentice at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Trained in an early method of shorthand writing, the hapless Widge is conscripted by an unscrupulous businessman to transcribe a performance of Hamlet and steal it for publication, a common practice of the time. But Widge's conscience weighs on him as he develops relationships with the company members and he falls prey to the acting bug.

Some of the main characters are sketchily portrayed, such as Julian, the apprentice who conceals a deeper mystery. But Blackwood paints a clear picture of the Bard himself, and some of his fellow players, in just a few brief scenes. The author has clearly done his homework, sprinkling the pages with fascinating details of life in the late 16th century _ the bear-baitings, the open sewers, the design of the theater and the composition of its audience _ as well as authentic historical characters and events. But he never lets the background interfere with his main mission, which is to spin a good yarn.

The plucky, sympathetic Widge seems to come straight out of Dickens, and there are elements of the mystery novel in the plot, with clues hidden in the text which will lead the careful reader to an unraveling of some of the more surprising twists. Ages 9-up.

Michael Maschinot's Children's column appears monthly.

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