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The latest in kids' products

The latest in kids’ products — EW reviews the newest books, TV shows, videos, and music for the younger set

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The latest in kids’ products

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THE TURNIP, AN OLD RUSSIAN FOLK TALE
ILLUSTRATED BY PIERR MORGAN PHILOMEL, $13.95; AGES 3 TO 8

A giant turnip so purple it looks positively succulent, its leaves so crisp and green you want to take a bite — Pierr Morgan’s bright, folky paintings for this read-aloud Russian story are zestfully apt. This is a cumulative tale, the kind that the smallest children love to hear again and again for its satisfying pattern of repeated sounds and words. The Turnip has an extra fillip because the characters’ names are exotically Russian and rhymeful. Baboushka tries to help Dedoushka pull the turnip; then their granddaughter Mashenka helps, and finally even the dog, the cat, and the mouse join the tug, till they triumph. (Young readers won’t miss the cooperative point, especially the fact that it’s the tiny mouse that makes the difference.)

Morgan’s unusual artistic techniques include black india ink outlines that make the colors hum with vibrancy. And the neat touches of country-style simplicity (like the endearingly silly chickens) are just right. A

VIDEO

ANIMAL STORIES
CHILDREN’S CIRCLE
(800-KIDS-VID) $19.95; 30 MINUTES; AGES 3 TO 9

”He who owns books and loves them is wise,” Petunia the goose muses in ”Petunia,” the first of three well-known stories faithfully and sensitively adapted for this delightful tape. But Petunia has yet to learn what it is about books that makes one wise — their content — so she simply carries one around, feeling wiser by the minute and liberally offering misinformation to her barnyard friends. Thinking a box of firecrackers is candy because she can’t read the label, she advises her friends to open it. The ensuing explosion blows Petunia’s book open, revealing the words inside. She realizes that to get something out of books, she must learn to read.

The animation for this story is drab, but dramatic tension builds as Petunia gives out more and more wrongheaded advice — she even tells the cock his comb is made of red plastic.

The poetic ”Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears,” a fable about why the insect is so annoying, is as tart and witty as a ”Just-So Story” and offers a colorful canvas and appealing music that’s heavy on clackers and drums.

In story No. 3, ”Andy and the Lion,” a boy befriends a circus lion by pulling a thorn from its paw. When the lion later escapes, Andy saves the day by reassuring the circus crowd that the animal is harmless. Though the brown and black sketches (photographed from the book) are evocative, they’d be much more vivid on paper. And the narration is sometimes flat. But the story, about the power of knowing your own mind, will prove inspiring for a young child. A-

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NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBORS
BY SARAH ELLIS
MARGARET K. MCELDERRY, $11.95; AGES 9 TO 12

A child’s shyness may strike you as an almost quaint complaint — but it’s not so rare as it might seem. For the children of extroverted and sociable parents, shyness can be a particularly embarrassing hassle.

The tone of this novel is almost quaint, too, with its gentle 1950s setting, its atmosphere of family warmth, and the particular social dilemmas of a minister’s shy daughter adjusting to her father’s new parish.

Peggy, 12, on the outs with the in-group at her new school, falls back on the friendship of George, the misfit kid next door. George is a funny-solemn Russian immigrant whose naïvété exasperates Peggy. They’re a great pair — spontaneous, open-hearted, likable even when they clash. With the help of a Chinese ”houseboy,” the kindly Sing Lee, they turn their lonely summer vacation into an engrossing (and triumphant) venture into play-writing and puppeteering. The two friends grow in self-assurance; when school begins in the fall, they know how to cope.

It would be a mistake to overlook this novel just because it’s untrendy. Like some shy children, it has unexpected strength of character, authenticity of voice, and surprising charm. B+

VIDEO

THOMAS GETS TRICKED AND OTHER STORIES
STRAND VCI ENTERTAINMENT
(213-396-7011) $14.95 36 MINUTES; AGES 2 TO 7

The seven morality tales on this tape, like the Railway Series books on which they’re based, are slightly mean-spirited toward children. But kids find them deeply absorbing anyway — the main character, Thomas, an enthusiastic young engine who lives with an eclectic group of other engines in a trainyard, has long been a star of British TV.

Maybe that’s because Thomas is a sympathetic character to kids — he often lets his feelings run away with him and suffers the consequences. And maybe it’s because the animation makes for realistic-looking countryside and lots of satisfying detail.

In the first tale, Gordon, an older engine, wants to teach Thomas a lesson for teasing him about being lackadaisical, so he hooks up Thomas to his train and takes him for a long ride. ”Maybe I don’t have to tease Gordon,” Thomas says, puffing wearily home. (Maybe he’d better not tease Gordon is more like it.)

Another story is about Henry, a vain engine who won’t come out of a tunnel because he doesn’t want the rain to ruin his paint job. When the trainmen wall off the tunnel, Henry is miserable because no one can admire his looks. But imprisoning Henry seems like an awfully strong punishment for his narcissism.

In the final installment, an engine called Toby feels his job is Unimportant — he pushes ”breakdown” trains used to save troubled engines — until he has a chance to become a hero.

The background music, some of it a brisk ragtime, moves the stories along. And Ringo Starr’s avuncular and somewhat patronizing narration suits the tone of the stories perfectly.

But though the characters are expressive and unique, they’re awfully ungenerous, and the morals of the stories are prudish and unsatisfying. B-