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Children's books: fairy tales and magic

Polly Shulman's novel, "The Grimm Legacy" (Putnam, $16.99, ages 10 and up) has a terrific premise: The magical objects from fairy tales are real. The Brothers Grimm collected not only stories but powerful items - invisibility cloaks, seven-league boots - and their collection made its way to the New York Circulating Material Repository. It is all neatly cataloged and kept safe in a temperature-regulated vault in a lovely East Side brownstone.

Like Hogwarts, the New York Circulating Material Repository exists in a complex fictional universe, with a delicate relationship to the world outside. It is a kind of lending library, with varying levels of membership, from the non-magical (theater companies wanting historical props - say, Marie Antoinette's wig) to an inner circle of sorcerers with access to the more specialized materials (say, Snow White's stepmother's mirror). Some of the Grimm Collection objects are quite powerful, so membership has distinct privileges and potential dangers.

Elizabeth Rue is definitely a Cinderella, stepsisters and all. Her adventure begins when her favorite teacher recommends her for a job as a page at the Repository - the person who brings material up from the vaults at the patron's request. Shulman captures that special satisfaction of discovering that not only can you handle your first job, but you're actually good at it. Elizabeth's talent for the work is obvious from the fact that she can recognize magic with her nose: "The smell was faint, but the sensation was powerful, flooding over me like a memory of . . . of what, though? . . . Something floral and fragile, like individual soap bubbles . . . no, something thick, like milk . . . but briny . . . no, lemony . . . "

It turns out that magical objects are disappearing from the library, along with a page, who was apparently carried off by a giant bird. No one knows whom to trust, but the teen pages stick together - bound in part by distrust of grown-ups, in part by their own complex social drama - to solve the mystery.

Lois Lowry engages her reader's body of fairy-tale knowledge in a different way in "The Birthday Ball" (Houghton Mifflin, $16, ages 9-12; illustrations by Jules Feiffer). It's hard being a princess, as everyone will recognize upon hearing Princess Patricia Priscilla complain of boredom: all those endless silk dresses, and curtsying courtiers! It's a week before her 16th birthday, when the princess will have to choose a husband from among the suitors at her birthday ball. She is determined to live a little before knuckling under to the inevitable duties incumbent upon her, notably producing an heir.

Lowry, who has the remarkable ability to write heavily philosophical and lighthearted books with equal success ("The Giver" and "The Willoughbys" are among the best-known), produces some of her best humorous effects here by playing with words. The princess' chamber maid is shocked to discover that the rulers think they "produce air": "That's foolish, miss. . . . The sky does that. Or the heavens, maybe. Sumpthin' up there, anyways." The tale spins out to its fairy-tale ending, with madcap, Roald Dahl-esque detail and loose, devil-may-care illustrations flowing freely from Jules Feiffer's mischievous pen.

First published in 1960 and now reissued, Rhoda Levine's "Three Ladies Beside the Sea" (New York Review Children's Collection, $14.95, ages 4-8) is a rhymed story of charming eccentricity and a fable-like quality. Three friends - Edith of Ecstasy, Catherine of Compromise and Alice of Hazard - live in harmony, doing their chores, drinking tea and playing chamber music. (Once you've seen Edward Gorey's pictures of their elongated persons and their odd, tower-shaped cottages, it's impossible to imagine them otherwise.) Alice has a disturbing habit of climbing a tree - in all weather! - and gazing intently out at the sky. It's a compulsion, she explains when her friends confront her about it:

"To tell the truth it is not easy

"Not to have feet on the ground;

"It's hard to sit perched on the branches

"Especially on those thin and round.

"It's hard to hold on when the wind blows.

"The sun, though it's warm, strains the eyes.

"I love the blue sky, but I'm damp when it rains.

"And often, I'm troubled by flies."

Ah, then why does she do it? There's the question, to which the Levine-Gorey answer seems to be: One has to accept all kinds of mysteries in friends.

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