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“The Boyhood of Burglar Hill,” “Little Rabbit’s New Baby”

by Payal Kapadia

“The Boyhood of Burglar Hill,” Allan Ahlberg, Puffin Books; 2006; 181 pp.

What I like best, yes most of all In my whole life, is kicking a ball Those are a couple of lines from author Allan Ahlberg’s “Heard It in the Playground” (1989), a collection of poems inspired by playground happenings — but they sum up his latest work. Right from the kickoff, this book is about that round object that can make right-thinking men — and women — leg it up and down a field in an attempt to connect boot with ball. Yes, it’s all about soccer: shots, passes, tackles and all.

The title is also a playful reference to one of Ahlberg’s early books, published in 1977, about a burglar called Bill. “The Boyhood of Burglar Bill,” meanwhile, is a nostalgic look at Ahlberg’s own boyhood days growing up in Oldbury, England, a working-class town near Birmingham. It’s the year 1953, the year Queen Elizabeth II was crowned at a coronation ceremony in London’s Westminster Abbey, and an interschool soccer competition has been announced to celebrate Coronation Year. And Mr. Cork, the coach, is obsessed with training the boys on the top pitch to win the cup.

The top pitch is for the boys who can play. But for Ahlberg and his buddies, the odds and sods in Mr. Cork’s opinion, there’s the bottom pitch where they can kick a ball around listlessly without ever getting noticed, let alone win a game.

“We could get a team up,” says Spencer, one of the sods — and that’s our starting point for this hilarious story about growing up, playground bullies, friendship, scrapes and skirmishes, and of course, soccer. Practice begins, but it involves: searching for a goalie (who comes in the form of the ice-cream vendor’s slow-witted son); saving up for team shirts; and getting Edna May Prosser to play outside right (that’s right, a girl!) because she played so well that “you almost forgot she was a girl.” That’s how the Malt Shovel Rovers are formed (named after the local pub).

Do they win? That’s not really important when you’re so caught up in a narration that is as excited as a pundit commentating at a cup final, yet as wry as good British humor can be. And the story is so, well, British, evoking the no-fuss lifestyle of the working classes, where boys were routinely beaten soundly by laborer-dads and harried moms. These are the postwar years, where supplies are tight, and everyone has bits and pieces missing — Mr. Cork has only one good arm, and even Archie the dog has three paws where there should be four. The boys come from troubled families, but making do with so little comes easily when you’ve never had it all. This book will make you want to jot down all the people and places that make up your childhood — I bet Ahlberg never dreamed that his boyhood memories would make for such a good read one day.

Note: For kids 8 to 12 years. It also helps to be a soccer-lover.

“Little Rabbit’s New Baby,” Harry Horse, Puffin Books; 2006; 28 pp.

Every child’s first library should have the Little Rabbit collection — which includes “Little Rabbit Goes to School,” “Little Rabbit Runaway,” and the latest in the series, “Little Rabbit’s New Baby.” No matter if you have a preschooler fretting over her first day at school, a toddler exerting his newfound sense of independence or a child resisting the arrival of a new sibling, author Harry Horse makes all the newness of a “first time” seem less threatening in his fabulously told stories.

In “Little Rabbit’s New Baby,” our floppy-eared hero in the adorable blue suit can’t contain his excitement over becoming a big brother to triplets. That’s till the babies actually come home from the hospital — once he sees how much they sleep, how easily they cry and how thoughtlessly they handle all his favorite toys, he thinks differently. But jealousy and insecurity soon give way to protectiveness and a wonderful sense of belonging.

In “Little Rabbit Runaway,” Little Rabbit decides to build a home of his own where his parents can’t tell him what to do any more. And in “Little Rabbit Goes to School,” our hero navigates all the “perils” of school on his own — and ends up loving it all.

With playful imaginativeness and an incredible eye for detail, the author’s illustrations bring to life the tiny world contained within a rabbit-hole — and make all the rites-of-passage in a child’s life seem so much more enjoyable.

Note: For children 3 to 6 years.