When it comes to figuring out the literary taste of children, not even Samuel Johnson got it right. ""Babies do not want to hear about babies,'' he declared. ""They like to be told about giants and castles.'' Kids do crave tales of castles and giants. But babies, as any parent could have told the childless Johnson, do too love hearing about and looking at pictures of other babies. After that, it's hard to generalize. One thing we know: kids subscribe to no canon. How many grandmothers have hauled out ""A Child's Garden of Verses,'' only to find themselves reading to a suddenly empty room? Kids judge books by very personal, often inscrutable standards. Take a book like Will Goes to the Post Office (R&S Books. $13), the third in a series by Olof and Lena Landstrom that began with ""Will's New Cap'' and ""Will Gets a Haircut.'' Nothing much happens in these simply drawn, lightly narrated stories. The titles don't sum up the plots; they are the plots. Still, a 3-year-old boy of our acquaintance has visited that barbershop and post office every night for two months.
We always expect such simple storybooks to be fun; what has been harder to find is the fun in so-called educational books. Publisher Dorling Kindersley began to change all that a few years ago with its groundbreaking Eyewitness series for young readers. The Eyewitness look -- lots of pictures scattered over each page and text broken up with captions and fact-filled boxes -- has now become widely copied. The best of the bunch appropriate not only the DK look but also the attitude: it's not cool to be a passive reader. Scholastic's visually jazzy Voyages of Discovery series ($19.95 each) -- with books on painting, musical instruments, fire and space -- doesn't just show you a picture of the Lascaux cave paintings, for example; it prints it on a roughly pebbled surface so you can feel what those prehistoric artists were up against. The ornithology book from the more staid Thames and Hudson Real Kids/Real Science series ($15.95 each) wants you out in the wild bird watching, measuring eggs, learning birdcalls and comparing habitats. Still leading the pack, Dorling Kindersley is now making boxed books, or books-and-other-paraphernalia-in-boxes, called Action Packs. Inside their excellent Pyramid ($16.95), you'll find a scale model of the Great Pyramid (yes, you have to put it together), a poster, a board game, a book on the pyramids and Egyptian culture, a mummy flipbook, a secret message in hieroglyphs and a hieroglyph decoder, bookmarks, facsimile documents. This may sound awfully gimmicky, but the more you fiddle with the kit, the more convinced you'll be that its makers have hit on the best way to present the information.
More and more, kids' literature has been taken over by art-school graduates and art directors in love with computer graphics. This has not always been a blessing, but in books for toddlers, the results can be wonderful. Take Richard McGuire's Night Becomes Day (Viking. $13.99). This droll visual journey through a series of cycles (""Beach becomes hill / And hill becomes mountain'') is a perfect marriage of economical text and uncluttered imagery. Almost as striking, Holly Berry's exuberant overhaul of Old MacDonald Had a Farm (North-South Books. $14.95) envisions an animal orchestra in the barn, complete with duck on concertina and sheep on kazoo. With Sea Shapes (Gulliver/Harcourt Brace. $13.95), Suse MacDonald (no relation to the farmer) elegantly conjures up an undersea world in which a square evolves into a skate while hexagons combine to make a turtle's shell. And it will be a long time before someone comes up with a funnier counting book than One Cow Coughs (Ticknor & Fields. $14.95), a ""Counting Book for the Sick and Miserable,'' wherein Christine Loomis's loony lines (""Far away and over the hills / Ten turkeys swab sore knees with their quills'') are antically married to Pat Dypold's rambunctious illustrations. But perhaps the most enchanting work for lap sitters is Sue Clarke's All About All of You (Hyperion. $15.95), a four-volume, slipcased set of collage books devoted to feelings, bodies, clothes and faces. This is the sort of ""My first look at . . .'' book that toddlers love and parents loathe (after the first 40 times), but because Clarke plainly gets such a bang out of the visual world, her four books will make the whole family want to look and look and look again.
Children's fiction is reflecting politics -- in the last year it's become overwhelmingly conservative. It's not so much the subject matter, although there are an absurd number of books about cute bears. It's the art that hars back to the melodramatic realism of Pyle and Wyeth the elder. You won't find better illustrators than Mark Teague or David Shannon. The paintings in Teague's Pigsty (Scholastic. $13.95) and Shannon's How Georgie Radbourn Saved Baseball (Blue Sky/Scholastic. $14.95) are so strong that it doesn't matter that their stories look a little puny. Jim LaMarche, maybe the best of the new crop of illustrators, does better by matching his muscular realism to the rhymes of The Walloping Window-blind (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard. $15), Charles E. Carryl's classic nonsense epic. LaMarche's vision of a vessel that's part ocean liner, part airplane and manned by a plucky crew of boys and girls is keyed perfectly to Carryl's daft lines.
But the year's best and boldest effort has to be Swamp Angel (Dutton. $14.99), a newly minted tall tale by Anne Isaacs with sly illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky, working in a pseudo American primitive style. Their folk heroine Angelica Longrider, a giant lass from frontier Tennessee, gets an inauspicious start (""The newborn was scarcely taller than her mother and couldn't climb a tree without help''), but Angelica promises to be around for a long time to come.
Poetry can be a tough sell with children, but in putting together O Beautiful for Spacious Skies (Chronicle. $13.95), editor Sara Jane Boyers did two smart things. First, she picked a poem that most of us know by heart as a song, ""America the Beautiful,'' by Katherine Lee Bates. It's not intimidating, and the words, stripped of their music, have a strutty wonkiness, especially the second verse, the one that never gets sung: ""O beautiful for pilgrim feet / Whose stern, impassioned stress / A thoroughfare for freedom beat / Across the wilderness!'' Alongside these words, Boyers has placed paintings by Wayne Thiebaud. His neonish realist portraits of American things -- trucks and shoes and candy apples -- do a swell job of bringing the lofty idealism of the poem back down to earth. This book invites you in, no matter how old you are.
So does Gillian Avery's Everyman Anthology of Poetry for Children (Everyman's Library. $13.95). But Avery is more tart. She fearlessly feeds young readers a diet replete with the usual Tennysons, Kiplings, Dickinsons, Wordsworths and Stevensons. But spicing things up, she tosses in Milton's ""On His Blindness,'' animal poems by Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop's ""The Map'' (with its great last line -- ""More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors''). There is no talking down to kids in this book; rather, the kids have to stretch to keep up. Avery's taste, though broad, is also sly and she digs dark humor. Check the Yoruba poem about the elephant (""If he had two hands / He would tear the heavens like an old rag'') or the words to ""Clementine,'' including the fabulous last verse, which was new to us: ""In my dreams she still doth haunt me, robed in garments soaked in brine, / Though in life I used to kiss her, now she's dead I draw the line.'' This anthology ably fulfills its creator's aim: ""to assemble a collection of poems that the owner will not outgrow.'' That philosophy and this book are models worth copying by anyone in the business of making books for children.