Heaven, if you believe in it, can be a marvelously comforting concept to both children and adults. The idea of a place where people can exist after death, in some state or another, helps many of us get through rough patches in our lives.

But what exactly is heaven? Three children's books -- two of them newly-published and one an old favorite of mine -- attempt to answer that formidable question.

The first book, "What's Heaven?" (Golden Books, $15), has generated lots of attention, mainly because it was written by the television journalist Maria Shriver, better known to most kids as the wife of the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. To be honest, I didn't want to like this book. As a children's book critic, I am deeply biased against books by celebrities. I find they are rarely worth the paper on which they are printed.

Yet "What's Heaven?" turns out to be one of the rare celebrity books that lives up to the hype that surrounds it. Using the motif of a mother-daughter conversation, Shriver writes candidly about the sadness of death, as well as the grief-tinged joy of realizing how the dead person's spirit remains alive in us.

The best part of the book, aside from Sandra Speidel's lush pastel illustrations, is the way Shriver stimulates her young readers to think about heaven. While the mother attempts to answer her daughter's questions, she also allows the child to tap into her own views of death and of heaven.

This, in turn, empowers young readers to do their own reflection about this challenging topic. (Ages 6-10).

Author/artist Nicholas Allan takes a light touch in his book titled "Heaven." Published in the United States in 1996, this book is now out of print here. Yet it is available in paperback from amazon.com's British partner, www. Amazon.com.uk., and well worth the trouble it takes to obtain it. Like Shriver, Allan tells his story through a conversation -- this one between a girl named Lily and her dying dog, Dill. Lily is upset that Dill seems comfortable with dying, asking him how he can be sure he'll like it "up there."

Dill, however, has it all figured out. Heaven, he believes, is filled with bones "with bits of meat on them," hundreds of lampposts, and a legion of "whiffy things to smell on the ground." Lily is disgusted, saying that, in her mind, heaven is home to a carnival "where all the rides are free and you're never sick once."

Lily and Dill bicker on and on. Yet when Dill is finally led away by angels (dogs with wings), the two embrace tightly, and Lily is overwhelmed by sadness. Allan explores Lily's grief for a few pages, then ends the book with a zinger that will leave readers laughing into their tears.

The text of "Heaven" is delightfully spare, yet filled with vivid images. Allan's colored line drawings, meanwhile, add both hilarity and poignancy to the story. (Ages 5-10).

"Stunning" is an overused adjective, but it fits the literary tour de force that author Cynthia Rylant has produced in her latest book, "The Heavenly Village" (Blue Sky/Scholastic, $15.95).

Rylant, who won the Newbery Medal for "Missing May," has written many wonderful children's books, including two "Dog Heaven" and "Cat Heaven." In "The Heavenly Village," she has created a book of slight size (95 pages) but great spiritual power.

The book is an exquisitely written series of eight connected short stories, each focusing on a resident of a place called the "Heavenly Village." The village is a resting-place on the way to Heaven, a place where God lets "reluctant spirits" stay and finish their life stories.

Living in the Heavenly Village is a woman who can't bear to go to Heaven until her beloved cats--still on Earth--can join her. There's also a doctor who worked so hard that, even as he died, he couldn't remember any special moments with his young son. He lives in the Heavenly Village and spends his evenings "watching over" his son on earth. Rylant's cozy vision of a heavenly way station offers inspiration to young readers who wonder about the afterlife. And it fills adult hearts, too. (Ages 10 up).

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