My children's birthday parties are events I anticipate with equal parts delirium and dread. With younger crowds, I often start by reading a book out loud. At my twin daughters' recent five-year-old bash, for example, 11 of their friends raced into our family room on a late spring day that featured bone-chilling wind and snow flurries. In other words, a potentially hazardous situation: lots of energy combined with no outdoor games every mother's nightmare. Thankfully, the entire crowd sat with rapt attention for two picture books. What happened afterwards is another story. In any case, here are some excellent choices for your next fiesta.

To get everyone in the mood, start with Rocko and Spanky Go to a Party, a lively new book and the first in a series of adventures featuring twin sock monkeys. The duo was conceived by a team of two sisters living in the Boston area, Kara and Jenna LaReau, the first of whom happens to be an award-winning children's book editor. Their simple story combines excitement and tension as Rocko and Spanky receive an invitation to a party and worry over the right gift to bring, what to wear and whether they've got the right time and place. Indeed they do, as the party turns out to be a surprise for them! The artwork is both retro and visually tactile, featuring a hodgepodge of materials that include digital photography, acrylics, crayons, "one pair of Red Heel socks," sequins, glitter, maracas and googly eyes. Rocko and Spanky are definitely cool cats, even though they're monkeys.

A princess comes calling

If you know a birthday princess, she's bound to fall in love with The Princess's Secret Letters about an exchange between a girl named Lucy and the real princess, Isabella, she invites to her party. As they write each other, we learn all sorts of royal secrets. For instance, Princess Isabella actually likes pizza much better than the official menu of cucumber sandwiches, and she prefers gifts of in-line skates to silver candlesticks and teapots.

Of course, what the princess loves most of all are secret visits, and she makes a surprise one to little Lucy's party, swinging her around the room in her arms once she arrives. This book also comes with a special pack of notes and envelopes, so little princesses can write their own secret messages. This pretty, pink book, written by Hilary Robinson and illustrated by Mandy Stanley, is packed with girl-appeal. Rebecca Emberley's new Piñata!will definitely be a standard feature of parties at our house. It's excellent on many levels, starting with its bilingual Spanish-English text. Using mixed-media collage throughout, Emberly begins with a short one-page history of the tradition, explaining that it may have actually started in China. With a bright red background on every page, the colorful piñata and objects that fill it stand out in high relief. An assortment of these items adorns each page, such as whistles, yo-yos, jewelry, toy bugs, confetti and candy. At the end, readers can guess the names of these objects, then make their own piñata just like the one in the book.

Beating the big sister blues

Finally, Chloë's Birthday . . . and Me by Giselle Potter is a refreshingly different birthday tale, not all sweetness and song. It's a riveting story of sibling rivalry, based on the author's own childhood, which was spent in Europe with her puppeteer parents. As Giselle narrates the story, she and her family are in France and it's her little sister's birthday, which makes Giselle absolutely green. Giselle and her mom go gift shopping, finding a perfume called "Chloë." Every single detail of the day is focused on her sister, so when they family goes to the beach to celebrate, Giselle is so miffed that she buries the perfume in the sand. The gift is lost for a while, but eventually turns up. In the end, even Giselle learns to enjoy the day. The tale is real without being one bit preachy. Potter's funky art, often featured in The New Yorker, is in an almost primitive style in pastel shades, and the book also includes a birthday card inside with Giselle on the cover.

Take it from me try some books at your next birthday party, and you'll have a group of excited but calm revelers on hand.

Alice Cary writes from Groton, Massachusetts.

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