Children's Bookshelf: Abbott & Costello for kids

'Who's on First?,' by Bud Abbott and Lou

'Who's on First?,' by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, illustrations by John Martz (Quirk Books, $16.95) (Credit: Handout)

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Simple graphics, expressively deployed, intertwine story and illustrations in Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld's charming picture book, "Exclamation Mark" (Scholastic, $17.99, all ages). On a background of ruled paper (the kind on which kids learn to write their ABCs), we meet a punctuation mark. He is a heavy pencil line, vertical, with two eyes and a mouth drawn in the circle that anchors him and identifies him as an exclamation point. "He stood out from the very beginning," we read. Indeed, he does stand out, towering over the identical periods lined up across the page. Try as he may to fit into the neat row, he cannot hide or disguise his vertical. He attempts to curl it up in a squiggle and sit on it. Dejected, he uses his vertical as a stick to hang the bundle that is slung over his shoulder in the cliche of running away from home. Finally he meets a question mark. She is comfortable with her long tail, and has learned its use: She asks questions constantly, punctuating them with insistent curves. She so overwhelms poor exclamation mark that he finally cries "Stop!" -- which is how he discovers his voice. And here's the lesson, though readers won't interrupt their chuckles to ponder it: Punctuation gives sentences expression!

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's classic baseball comedy routine is available in many forms -- in recordings, on YouTube, in fine print on mugs and T-shirts. In John Marz's picture-book version, "Who's on First?" (Quirk Books, $16.95, all ages), it's a bear and a rabbit who conduct the hilariously confusing conversation. Pointing out the title on the book's cover (in baseball jersey script, of course), the bear jump-starts the nonsense: "That's the name of the book." "What is?" the rabbit asks. "No, no, he's on second," says the bear. At this point, only the initiated will get the joke. Marz's clever graphics make the premise clear to the youngest readers with a diagram of the diamond, putting Who, a worm, on first; What, a dog, on second; and I Don't Know, a chicken, on third. Parents can now introduce the routine earlier than has been traditional for young fans -- and, as we all know, participating in tradition is the essence of the love of baseball.

It has been 70 years since Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote "The Little Prince" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, deluxe gift set $24.99, all ages), a children's book that is also a novel containing deep truths about human existence. The introduction to the anniversary edition, which includes two unabridged CDs, accurately calls Saint-Exupéry "a writer of philosophical novels." Actor Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings") begins the narration in an almost affectless voice. The delivery suggests a phlegmatic French pilot, a cigarette possibly dangling from the corner of his mouth; Saint-Exupéry's story takes place during the days he spent downed in the Sahara Desert, trying to repair his airplane while running out of water. Mortensen warms with the story, as the pilot learns about the mysteries of friendship from the boy he meets in the wilderness. When a person has love, happy or sad, the Little Prince teaches him, the world contains truth hidden from the eye: The fox, for example, cares nothing for wheat, but if he has been tamed by someone with golden hair, his heart will forever leap when he sees a golden field of waving grain.

The premise of Sally Gardner's "Maggot Moon" (Candlewick Press, $16.99, ages 12 and up) is that England went to the fascists in the Second World War. The country has developed as a totalitarian state. Since institutionalized schoolyard bullying is a highly developed trope in British literature, its exaggeration here serves as a shorthand for an entire alternate political history. There is a heavily suppressed underground, made up largely of misfits too feeble to be taken seriously by the state. The government is at a precarious moment, however, for it is preparing to broadcast a scientific triumph: the first landing of a man on the moon. The dyslexic Standish Treadwell's unorthodox way of seeing the world helps him reliably keep right and wrong in perspective. The quirky style of this book will be particularly satisfying for fans longing for the next volume by Meg Rosoff ("How I Live Now," "There Is No Dog").

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