Article excerpt

THE greatest gift that a parent can bestow on a child is a love of reading. A generation ago, however, Black parents had to search far and wide to find children's books that featured African-American characters. And even when you found the "Black section" in book stores, the range of offerings aimed at young, Black readers was disappointingly limited.

Thank God times have changed. Today a wealth of Black authors and illustrators are creating wonderful stories to engage and enthrall Black young people, whether they are beginning readers or adolescents. With so much to choose from, parents and children can build a personal library that the whole family will enjoy for years to come. Here are some of the most recent releases:

Lulu's Birthday (Greenwillow Books, $15.95) is a brightly illustrated story about two children and their ambitious attempts to help their Aunt Lulu celebrate her birthday, written by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard, illustrated by Pat Cummings.

In Just the Two of Us (Scholastic, $16.95), actor/rapper Will Smith follows a father/son relationship through three stages in the child's life. This entertaining picture book, with illustrations by Kadir Nelson, owes a slight hat tip to singer Bill Withers, whose 1980 hit of the same name provided the inspiration and the backbeat for Smith's 1997 rap version of the song. But both in his rap and in this rap-influenced book, Smith manages to turn Withers' love song into a joyous celebration of fatherhood.

Minnie Saves the Day (Little Brown, $12.95) is the first adventure in a series of chapter books featuring a plucky rag doll named Minnie, who, unbeknownst to Hester, the little girl who owns her, comes to life when the really-for-real folks aren't around. …