In Meg Rosoff's latest book for young readers, "Picture Me Gone" (Putnam, $17.99, ages 12 and up), 12-year-old Mila observes of her father's friend: "She's one of those [adults] who thinks that because I'm young I'm blind to what's true and what's not. I see her far more clearly than she sees me, perhaps more clearly than she sees herself." This statement captures a point of view that drives many good children's books: The child as observer. Although children may lack the experience to evaluate what they see, they also lack the baggage that often leads grown-ups to make erroneous assumptions.
Mila's exceptional powers of observation, coupled with a sensitivity to language -- her household is multilingual, her father a translator -- make her an excellent companion when her father sets out to track down an old friend who has gone missing. Has something disastrous happened to Matthew, or has he chosen to walk out on his life? Although the elusive friend was a larger-than-life figure of her father's childhood, Mila wonders whether his life has turned out to be just like any other grown-up's: "There are so many unexploded bombs in Matthew's life."
A more innocent version of the child-as-observer is in evidence in "Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things" (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.99, ages 8-12), the first in a mystery series by Newbery Award-winner Cynthia Voigt with illustrations by Iacopo Bruno. Max is accustomed to being either audience or improvised sidekick to his histrionic parents, who are actors and proprietors of a theater company in a Victorianesque town. When his parents are apparently abducted by steamship, Max is left to fend for himself. He sets up shop as a problem-solver, relying on an eye for detail, an uncanny talent to create a character with a costume and the research support of a librarian grandmother.
Kevin Henkes has created many characters who observe closely but keep their thoughts to themselves. "The Year of Billy Miller" (Greenwillow Books, $16.99, ages 7-10) chronicles the mental life of just such a second-grader. In four chapters, each devoted to a person with whom Billy has a complicated relationship -- teacher, father, sister, mother -- Billy struggles with a strong emotion for which he can't find the right expression. When his teacher catches him clowning in class, Billy fears she will think he's not a nice person. He comes up with a hilariously convoluted solution: He collects a handful of silver things -- a paper clip, a dime, a nail -- to leave anonymously for the teacher, whose name is Ms. Silver. Although "he didn't think he could find the words to explain . . . he hoped this gesture would take care of the situation."
Todd Strasser's "Fallout" (Candlewick, $16.99, ages 10 and up) is a book for kids who are fascinated with the grim questions of human life -- the kind who want to know the menu of the Donner party's last meal. It's the summer of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Scott's family has built the only bomb shelter in the neighborhood. They are roundly mocked for their caution, until the Russians really do attack. In the few minutes people have to react while the sirens blare, the neighbors remember there is one safe place. There is a nod to philosophy here, but much, much more about how 10 people can survive in a bunker built for four.
There is no dearth of atlases for children, but Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski's "Maps" (Big Picture Press/Candlewick, $35, all ages) is a standout. Only the basics of physical geography are here -- mountain ranges, major rivers, and a clarification of how the continent of Europe is distinguished from Asia. The authors are not completists, and their choices for featured countries are quirky: why Iceland and not Denmark? Mongolia but not Iran? Still, their enthusiasm and love for facts kids might want to know shine forth in charming little illustrations.
Finally, we take note of the second volumes in two appealing middle-reader series. Lemony Snicket's "All the Wrong Questions" continues on its merrily ominous and lexically clever way with "When Did You See Her Last?" (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, $16, ages 8 and up). In "The Mystery of Meerkat Hill: A Precious Ramotswe Mystery for Young Readers" (Anchor Books, $6.99, ages 7-10), Alexander McCall Smith further develops the girl who will grow up to be the wise, kind sleuth in his adult mystery series, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency."