, , illus. by Boris Kulikov. . FSG/Foster, $16 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-374-35063-5

With empathy and imagination, this tale explores the sometimes angst-filled arena of children's birthday parties. An opening scene reveals young Morris so immersed in the picture he is painting that he does not want to go to his friend Benjamin's party. Any child can relate to the situation Segal (Tell Me a Mitzi) maps out next: after Morris chooses a present, he longs to keep the birthday boy's gift for himself. At Benjamin's party, Morris holds the blue-ribboned gift box in a death grip. Emphasizing the psychological aspects of the situation, Kulikov, in an impressive debut, portrays the box literally growing to enormous proportions, inhibiting Morris from eating his cake and playing with his friends. Finally, the boy relinquishes the burdensome gift and, after initial disappointment (" 'It's only paints,' said Leah. 'Paints we get in school,' said Rosie"), the party-goers join Morris in a gleeful painting spree, indicated by blobs and splatters scattered across the pages. "There was umber and sepia and olive and emerald. There was rose madder and viridian..." Kulikov's extraordinary paintings would fit right into a Roald Dahl tale. An off-kilter, funhouse feeling pervades the full-spread compositions, and the children (dressed in vintage knickers, sailor suits and bonnets) sport big heads atop bodies tapering into tiny feet, and eyes with the unsettling fixed gaze of marionettes. He softens this delectably mad style with an autumnal palette of mossy greens, apricots and cocoa, and a sincere undercurrent of compassion for the artist-protagonist. Ages 4-8. (May)