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Color, fantasy, humor and, above all, magic are prime ingredients of the holiday season, and nowhere are they to be found in greater abundance than in the words and illustrations of books for kids. On the list below are 10 of the year's best:

  1. What Presidents are Made of

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    "Andrew Jackson? A pistol mouth, a boxing-glove nose and bullets as eyes. Theodore Roosevelt? Gears for eyes, a light-bulb nose and a coiled-wire mustache. Piven's highly inventive collage portraits are matched with amusingly quirky tidbits about the Presidents (the pugnacious Jackson's penchant for dueling, the busy Roosevelt's bustling energy). Most of the jokes are benign—George W. Bush, a former baseball-team owner, has a hot-dog nose and buns for eyebrows—but Piven also meets darker facts head on: Richard Nixon's face is formed with a tape recorder, and his prominent nose is actually an ear. It's all so sprightly that young readers won't realize they're learning history. They'll think they're just having fun. "

  2. The Friend

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    "This wistful tale in verse, lyrically illustrated by the writer's husband, tells how Belle, a neglected child of privilege, befriends her housekeeper Bea in lieu of absentee parents. Day in, day out, the pair do gardening, shopping and housework together, punctuated by regular outings to the house's beachfront—"Belle and Bea, by the sea, hand in hand." The tact with which Bea fills a maternal role is touching, the warmth of their bond palpable. One day Belle ventures onto the beach by herself and chases her big red ball into the sea. A crisis ensues that teaches her the true measure of Bea and the true meaning of friendship. In a poignant twist, the book's final page reveals the identity of grownup Belle: author Stewart. "

  3. Mister Seahorse

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    "The celebrated author-illustrator Carle triumphs again with a gorgeous undersea narrative. After Mrs. Seahorse lays her eggs in her husband's pouch for safekeeping, Mr. Seahorse drifts through a series of dazzling scenes. Clear plastic overlays bearing paintings of reeds, a coral reef, seaweed and a rock can be lifted away and—ta-da!—riotously colorful fish emerge. Mr. Seahorse meets other fish tending their eggs—a stickleback, a tilapia, a Kurtus nurseryfish, a pipe and a bullhead catfish. What they all have in common is that they are males, and Mr. Seahorse offers each a comradely word of praise for the job he is doing. By the end, two things have been delivered: Mr. Seahorse's spawn and a gentle salute to the role of at least some fathers in birthing their young. "

  4. Teeth, Tails & Tentacles: An Animal Couting Book

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    "Never was counting more fun than with Wormell's boldly beautiful linoleum-block prints. The sequence goes from 1 (rhinoceros horn) to 20 (barnacle shells on a whale). Each image is reinforced by a facing page showing the Arabic numeral, the number written out and a brief description of the critter part being counted. As the numbers go up, the images tend to get more complex (16 catfish whiskers, 18 diamond markings on a rattlesnake), but even the simpler ones are ingenious, as in a chameleon's three colors blending into a tricolor scene. After 20, the book takes us back to 1 with a lone humpback whale—an invitation to start over, which little arithmeticians will want to do again and again. "

  5. The Turn-Around, Upside-Down Alphabet Book

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    "Take the letter D, for instance. Turn it to one side and it's a laughing mouth, to the other and it's a frog's eye. Upside-down, it's a teacup handle. Or take Q. On its side, it's a magnifying glass or a tag on a dog's collar; upside-down it's a pendulum on a clock. This is hands-on entertainment (and education) in which part of the pleasure is physically rotating the book to follow each letter's permutations. For adults, Ernst's geometric designs and striking hues may evoke the color-field experiments of artist Josef Albers. Kids will be more interested in the way an upside-down A becomes a drippy ice-cream cone or a sideways E turns into an electric plug. Ernst's ingenuity is equal even to the challenge of letters that don't change when turned, like O (a bagel, an owl's eye, a fried egg) and X (a railroad-crossing sign, a treasure map's end, a ballerina's shoe ribbons). "

  6. Polar Bear Night

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    "A cold, still night. An arctic expanse of sea and ice. A frosty moon above. In another book those could be elements of a lonely, scary adventure. Here they're the setting for a strangely soothing bedtime story, illustrated by charmingly simple drawings. A polar-bear cub ventures out of the cozy den where her mother sleeps, drawn by "something in the moonlit stillness [that] quietly beckons. What is it?" The air of expectancy and mystery builds as she passes other sleeping animals—walrus, seals, whales—and arrives atop a mountain of snow, where "she waits, wondering." The moon, her companion, waits with her. Then a spectacular shower of shooting stars lights up the world and the other animals, and the little bear shines bright too. After this moment of mystical harmony with nature, she trudges home to her mother's soft, warm fur. It's hard to say what all this means. Better to simply say, Good night, little cub. "

  7. Alice The Fairy

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    "Alice cheerfully admits she's only a temporary fairy. She can use her wand to make herself disappear (by pushing the light switch) and can use fairy dust (a.k.a. sugar) to turn oatmeal into cake. But trickier feats, like turning her bath water into strawberry Jell-O or casting a spell so that her dog floats on the ceiling, she realizes, are reserved for permanent fairies, who go to advanced school and must pass a lot of tests. Alice is still at a level in which she suffers setbacks like accidentally turning her white dress into a red one (spilled juice). Spunky, sassy Alice, delightfully portrayed in Shannon's zestful drawings, is a fairy who seems content to remain grounded in the everyday. She senses—and her antics prove—there's plenty of magic there too. "

  8. A Spree in Paree

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    "After farmer Monmouton sighs that he could do with a vacation in Paris, all his animals squeeze into his truck and beep impatiently. They're ready for a break too. The entourage descends on Paris and quickly fans out—the goats to smell (and sometimes taste) the flowers in the Luxembourg Gardens, the cows to gaze at paintings of cows in the Louvre, the hens to cackle at the cancan dancers at the Folies Bergère. One of the joys of Stock's exuberant watercolors is the absolute sangfroid with which waiters, pedestrians and other Parisians greet this animal invasion, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. Home again, Monmouton swears off vacations as too exhausting. But in the barn, the animals are already looking at travel brochures for New York City. If this signals a sequel in the making, then allons! "

  9. Circle Unbroken

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    "In the sea islands off South Carolina and Georgia, an old woman teaches her granddaughter the intricate art of sewing sweet-grass baskets. It's a skill that goes back to the West Africa of four centuries ago, what is now Sierra Leone and Senegal. This eloquently written, resplendently illustrated book tells how the practitioners of that art endured enslavement and deportation to America, the Civil War, the coming of the 20th century and the social dislocations of World War II—all the while struggling to preserve their native traditions. Today sweet-grass baskets are sewn mostly for the tourist trade, but that hardly matters to the grandmother- narrator. The unbroken circle of the title is not only the structure of the baskets but also the continuity of a proud people and their culture—in the words of the grandmother, "the knot that ties us all together." "

  10. Bunny Mail

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    "Old fans and new will welcome this latest installment in a popular series about two rabbits, feckless Max and his sensible sister Ruby. As usual, key plot developments are illustrated with flaps—and who can resist lifting a flap to see what's underneath, especially in Wells' bright, cartoony drawings? Max covets a Sand-Spitter motorcycle with Bigfoot tires like Wilma Warthog's, so even though it's July, he writes to Santa Claus requesting one. "Nobody writes to Santa in the summer," Ruby reminds him. His letter is diverted to Grandma, who, since it consists solely of tire tracks, misunderstands and replies with a picture of a bulldozer. Kids will enjoy being way ahead of both Max and Grandma on this. Max tries twice more, adding splotches of red to his tire tracks, but Grandma still doesn't get it until she sees Wilma putt-putting up the street. On the Fourth of July, right in the middle of Ruby's picnic, Max gets his motorcycle by special delivery. Santa finally understood—or somebody did. "

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