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The tow-headed boy with his parents beside him looks up at the minister after church and asks: "How long before they start doin' unto me what I do unto them others?"

It's a question on the minds of many kids and adults, but one that is out of character for even a child to announce out loud - unless the boy is the trusting, fearless sort known to millions of comics readers as Dennis the Menace.In a new book, "Dennis the Menace: Prayers and Graces," published by Westminster-John Knox Press, Dennis' creator, Hank Ketcham, matches cartoons and popular prayers to give children, parents and grandparents a gentle way to talk to God.

"I do think that a little child shall lead them," Ketcham said in a telephone interview from his home in Pebble Beach, Calif.

Ketcham began drawing Dennis more than 40 years ago, but the character with the familiar blond cowlick may never have been a hotter property than he is today. The book comes out just before a John Hughes movie "Dennis the Menace," scheduled for release this summer, with Walter Matthau portraying the long-suffering neighbor Mr. Wilson.

The book combines cartoons on religious themes with traditional prayers, blessings and table graces. It concludes with an illustrated version of the 23rd Psalm, using Dennis as the psalmist.

Ketcham dedicated the book in part to his Sunday School teachers at First Methodist Episcopal Church in Seattle "and to those others who were fooled into believing I was a little angel."

Back when he was growing up, grace before meals and nightly prayers were a family routine. But Ketcham said he realizes that he is speaking to a different generation today, one in which for many, rituals of family prayer may never have been established.

He said the book is designed to help parents today move their children into the habits of daily prayer. "I certainly think there is a vacuum to be filled, and this little book might help fill it," Ketcham said.

As for the fear of controversy that prompts many cartoonists to steer clear of religious subjects, Ketcham says "the devil take the hindmost" with that attitude.

"I'm not trying to sell anything or lead anyone around," Ketcham said. "But this is part of Dennis' character. . . . He does talk to God." And getting the child's point of view in such conversations is a great device for humor, Ketcham adds.

Ketcham said his favorite cartoon in the book is one where Dennis and his friend Joey are lying in a field with their shoes and socks off. Dennis wonders, "If it's this good here, I wonder what it's like in heaven on a day like today?"