Playful books for kids -- ''The Jolly Postman,'' ''Hold It!'' and more offer more than just words for children

The kids are squished into airplane seats, the snack cart is blocking the aisle, and you’re wondering if the line for the lav-atory will ever let up. It’s either ”Calgon, take me away” time or Miller time, but you can’t escape to the tub or tankard. Ta-da! Novelty books to the rescue. Books children can play with — opening flaps, yanking tabs, sticking stubby fingers through holes — are sanity-savers for parents, who, face it, are not purists. (It has a cover, an author, and pages, so it must be a book, right?) At best, such ”toy books” offer a story with something extra — an odd shape or pop-up character that delights and deactivates a squirming audience. At worst, they’re a distracting mishmash of techno-gimmicks. No tinted eyeglasses and talking computer chips, please.

Here are some things to look for when choosing among books with push, pull, and poke options: Will it stand up to a little guy who can make his crib walk across a wooden floor? Would you want to read it after some tabs and flaps have been amputated? Above all, is it good for a chuckle? A few books that pass these tests:

The Jolly Postman or Other People’s Letters Janet & Allan Ahlberg
What a route this fellow has! A friendly, tea- drinking mailman delivers letters to the Three Bears, the Wicked Witch, Goldilocks, and other familiar characters in this charming spoof of the classics. Each missive is enclosed in a sturdy pocket and, like the book itself, is colorfully illustrated with detailed, whimsical drawings. Ever wonder what happened to Cinderella after ”happily ever after”? Hint: The princess turns author. A

Hold It! Lisa Ann Marsoli and Peter Seymour; designed and illustrated by Chuck Murphy
”Icky, yucky, squishy, mushy, scary, hairy, drippy, slimy things” are served up in delectably vivid pictures and subversive one-liners (”Love me, love my lizard”). Well-placed holes facilitate ”handling” of such delicacies as dead rat, raw egg, and handful-o’-worms. This is one book you don’t have to like to appreciate. B

The Little Green Caterpillar Yvonne Hooker; illustrations by Giorgio Vanetti
A hungry caterpillar discovers the concept of ”me first.” Each time the caterpillar crawls onto an apple or pear, he gets shooed away by another garden creature who has already asserted sole nibbling rights. The snacks denied the caterpillar are rendered as a bug would see them (they’re larger than life), with holes munched out of the shiny, indestructible pages. The not-so-surprise ending amuses and enlightens, but why is the ”round, red cherry” pink? B-

The Touch Me Book Pat and Eve Witte; illustrations by Harlow Rockwell
Anyone who has juggled a perpetual-motion toddler and a book the size of an Italian restaurant menu will appreciate this one- hander, with its big print, simple drawings, and ”sneezy, giggly ticklish” textures. Small and light enough to put in a child’s hands, this baby’s-first-book is a neat diaper-bag stuffer. And at this price, who cares if it doesn’t survive teething? B

Maisy Goes Swimming and Maisy Goes to Bed Lucy Cousins
Fiendishly clever tabs and flaps allow a child to undress Maisy the mouse down to her orange ”undies,” pull on her swimsuit, and get her ready for bed in a manner to make a health teacher proud. With bright, primitive artwork, Cousins delivers gimmicks aplenty (Maisy actually bobs up and down in the water in Swimming, and the toilet flushes in Bed) but tempers the gee-whiz cuteness with practical value in teaching kids how to do for themselves. A-

The Slant Book and The Rocket Book Peter Newell
It was a simpler, more natural time, before Aprica strollers and 911. The madcap flights of a runaway baby carriage and a rocket that blasts from basement to roof are told in absurdly funny verses and half- tone pictures by this popular turn-of-the-century artist. These heirloom- quality reprints in cloth hardcover prove that less is more: Words careen down slanted pages in The Slant Book, and holes mark the missile’s path in Rocket. Newell’s work appeals to all ages. Just listen: Then through the pot the rocket shot/And made the scene look sickly!/ ”Well, now,” said Jo, ”I never thought/That plant would shoot so quickly!” A+