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Warm up with delectable children's books

A good children's book is nourishment for the soul, as fine as a bowl of chicken soup on a winter's day.

And food is a key ingredient in children's stories because for children, food is still all-encompassing. It still fascinates —"What's in that chicken nugget?" "Why are beans green?" "I wonder how many bananas I can stuff in my mouth in five minutes?" —in ways that are lost on adults.

So to help you to recapture your inner banana-stuffer, here are four books that will make tasty reads during the holiday break, for those oh-so-long days after all the new toys have been played with and what's left is a chorus of "I'm bored!"

Do not, however, allow the grown-ups to slink away. These books may have been written for young readers, but they have depth of meaning, beauty of language and plot enough to rival anything on adult shelves. They are suitable for every book lover at the party, young and old.

Read these aloud, taking fortifying bites of desserts along the way to sweeten your appetite for the rest of the story.

* "The Squirrel's Birthday and Other Parties" (Boxer Books, 2009), written by Toon Tellegen and illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg.

Toon Tellegen is considered a national treasure in Holland, where he writes award-winning poetry for adults and adored stories for children. When you read these short tales about Squirrel, Ant, Elephant and the rest of the animals of The Woods, you will understand why. There are obvious comparisons to A.A. Milne's Hundred Acre Wood, but in Tellegen's imagination, there is one oak tree, one ocean, one squirrel, one ant — and indeed, each one is so charming and individual that you need no other one.

Elegantly translated by Martin Cleaver, the stories in this collection are so heartfelt and deceptively simple that they achieve a Zen-like profundity. The title story is about how Squirrel, worried that he will be alone for his birthday, decides to invite the entire world to his party. Beginning very early on the morning of his birthday, he makes a cake for every animal he has invited.

"There were cakes everywhere — lying, floating, standing, and hanging. There were black cakes, white cakes, lopsided cakes, spherical cakes, tall cakes, and enormous, clumsy cakes that slowly disappeared into the ground."

* "The Polar Express: 25th Anniversary Edition" (Houghton Mifflin, 2009), written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg.

This is a new edition this year of the Caldecott-winning book, first published in 1984. It includes a silver keepsake tree ornament and a CD of Liam Neeson reading the story. If your only familiarity with "The Polar Express" is the 2004 Robert Zemeckis motion-capture animated film, you owe it to yourself and the young readers you know to curl up with a steaming mug of hot chocolate and read the story as Van Allsburg envisioned it. It is quiet, melancholy and thoughtful.

And beautiful: His illustrations are saturated in deep purples, blacks, reds and browns. Figures seem to emerge out of the darkness like images in a dream.

* "A City in Winter" (Viking, 1996), written by Mark Helprin, illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg.

Suitable for older children, this is an interesting tale about a mountain kingdom near the fictional Veil of Snows, which is under the thumb of the evil Usurper, who murdered the king and stole his throne. The story's heroine is a 12-year-old princess, Damavand's rightful heir, who infiltrates the castle by becoming a "yam curler" in its vast kitchens. A yam curler stands in front of a vat of yams and "curls" or directs them down various chutes for use in different recipes.

* "Madame Pamplemousse and Her Incredible Edibles" (Bloomsbury, 2008), written by Rupert Kingfisher, illustrated by Sue Hellard.

This is the story of Madeleine, a poor, budding young chef who works in her uncle's restaurant in Paris. He treats her badly, and he's a rotten chef himself. One day, under orders to find some pate, Madeleine comes upon an obscure shop on the Rue L'Escargot (Snail Street) owned by the mysterious Madame Pamplemousse, who looks like a cross between Coco Chanel and Morticia of "Addams Family" fame.

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