Innocence And Experience

LAURA SHAPIRO

One of the chief messages to be gleaned from this year's crop of children's book s is summed up nicely by a recent cartoon in The New Yorker depicting Parents' Day at preschool. "We teach them that the world can be an unpredictable, dangerous and sometimes frightening place, while being careful not to spoil their lovely innocence," explains a teacher. "It's tricky."

Sure is. Piggies and bunnies and teddies may be rampant in the children's aisles of the bookshop, but so are a host of adult worries including war, homelessness, racism and the environment. Perhaps the most extreme of these efforts to explain a sick world to a healthy child is Let the Celebrations Begin! by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Julie Vivas (Orchard. $14.95), which is about inmates in a World War II concentration camp planning their liberation party ("My name is Miriam and this is where I live. Hut 18, bed 22"). Some issues really do defy simplification. But a few of the season's books tackle tough and complicated problems with remarkable success; and children who have been asking probing questions, invariably at the wrong time ("But how come he doesn't have any money?") may welcome a more eloquent analysis than most parents can muster.

Judy Donnelly's A Wall of Names (Random House. Paper, $2.95) uses the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., as the starting point to discuss the Vietnam War from several angles including its history, the controversies at home and the experiences of soldiers enmeshed in guerrilla warfare in the jungle. Despite the tightly restricted prose style-this is one of those unfortunate exercises in writing not for real readers but for some imagined level of reading ability, in this case third grade or thereabouts-Donnelly makes excellent sense of the war years. Most impressive, she never lapses into mere flag-waving. The father and son in Fly Away Home, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ronald Himler (Clarion. $13.95), live in an airport, moving from one terminal to another in hopes that they won't be noticed. They bathe in the men's room and eat at snack bars; on weekends, when his father goes to work as a janitor, another homeless family looks after Andrew. Healthy, white and for all intents and purposes middle class, Andrew and his father may not be typical of the urban homeless, but kids will respond to their plight and their dignity.

Mary Hoffman's Amazing Grace, illustrated by Caroline Binch (DiaL. $13.95), is about a black girl, but the moral of this story-"You can be anything you want, Grace, if you put your mind to it"-applies right across the spectrum of skin colors. Grace wants to be Peter Pan in the school play, and although the obstacles of race and gender seem overwhelming, she succeeds with the help of a little grandmotherly wisdom. A mini-trend toward bilingual children's books seems to be under way, and Arthur Dorros's Abuela, with its warm, homey illustrations by Elisa Kleven (Dutton. $13.95), is a standout. Here a little girl takes an imaginary flight over the city with her abuela, or grandmother, while Spanish phrases are woven gently into the text and translated in the course of the narrative. " 'Tantos pajaros,' Abuela says as a flock of birds surround us ... We could fly to las nubes, the clouds." Perhaps the happiest approach to racial awareness is the one that takes it for granted, as in The Little Band, by James Sage, charmingly illustrated by Keiko Narahashi (McElderry. $13.95). "At first there was the sound of faraway music," this wonderful book begins. The little band is made up of children; they're all different colors and so are the people who wonder and wave as the mystery children troop through town playing their instruments. "And nothing was ever the same again."

For adults who would rather give kids a giggle than a great truth, there are some first-rate choices on the shelves, notably Old Mother Hubbard and Her Wonderful Dog, illustrated by the peerless James Marshall (Farrar Straus Giroux. $13.95). This version of the Mother Goose rhyme includes a dozen more stanzas than usual, each a gem. "She went to the fruit stand / To buy him some fruit / But when she came back / He was playing the flute." The fruit seller wears a lovely Carmen Miranda headdress, and the dog, in beret, is quite transported as he plays chamber music. As always, Marshall's cast of rotund characters are full of personality and humor. If you're looking for another new take on an old favorite, do not-repeat, do not-buy Beni Montresor's version of Little Red Riding Hood (Doubleday. $16.99) without reading it through first. On the theory, apparently, that the task of a fairy tale is to make things nice and easy for a kid's shrink, Montresor tucks his heroine into bed with the wolf, graphically pictures the wolf devouring the child head first, and ends with five full pages showing a happy Little Red in the wolf's stomach. Say goodnight to Dr. Freud, dear. Also weird, but in this case delightfully so, is Joyce Maxner's Lady Bugatti, (Lothrop. $13.95), a rhyming tale of dinner and the theater with Lady Bugatti, the classiest ladybug in town. "Bupji Beetle, Dragonia Fly, / Anatole Ant, Madame Flutterby, / Bumbly Bee, and you and I / are guests of Lady Bugatti." Talk about multicultural. The swanky illustrations are by Kevin Hawkes.

Several outstanding books this year beckon children into the arts, simply by making them seem wonderfully inviting. Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch, by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (box) (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $18.95), looks at the bizarre doings in the work of the painter from the point of view of his housekeeper, who is fed up with the odd creatures who populate his home. A Young Painter, by Zheng Zhensun and Alice Low (Scholastic. $17.95), is about Wang Yani, a teenage artist in rural China who has been painting since she was 3. Her work is based in traditional techniques but her style is bold and original; children who like paintings will be fascinated with these and with their young creator. Jan Brett's many fans will welcome her latest, Berlioz the Bear (Putnam. $14.95), the tale of a furry orchestra that almost doesn't make it to the next gig. Berlioz plays the double bass, and a strange buzz in his instrument is what saves the day. For dance students and other young ballet-goers, Violette Verdy's Of Swans, Sugarplums and Satin Slippers, illustrated by Marcia Brown (Scholastic. $15.95) tells the stories of six famous ballets. In her years with the New York City Ballet, Verdy was known as a brainy, musical and wonderfully expressive dancer; here she puts all those skills to work as a writer. The ballerina many children know best these days is Angelina, a graceful white mouse often seen practicing at Miss Lilly's ballet studio. In Angelina's Baby Sister, by Katharine Holabird, illustrated by Helen Craig (Potter. $13), Angelina throws a huge tantrum in honor of that dubious distinction, a new sibling in the house.

The theme of heroic quest has always attracted writers, and this year's most noteworthy adventurer is-well, he or she doesn't have a name. In fact, Pat Schories's Mouse Around (Farrar Straus Giroux. $11.95) doesn't even have words. In a series of absorbing pictures, a curious baby mouse crawls and topples its way from a cozy nest into the world outside and, at length, back home again. This miniature Columbus has a counterpart in Follow the Dream, by Peter Sis (Knopf $15), whose simple retelling of Columbus's first voyage is enhanced with splendid illustrations wittily evoking the 15th century (box). Victor, the appealing hero of The Houdini Box, by Brian Selznick (Knopf $13), has a different kind of dream: he's obsessed with Houdini, whose exploits he reads about in the newspaper. Victor is constantly locking himself in trunks, only to find he can't work Houdini's magic and has to be rescued by his mother. Finally he meets his hero in person, but it takes many years for Victor to unlock Houdini's secrets. Paul Fleischman's Time Train (HarperCollins. $14.95), illustrated by Claire Ewart, takes a school group on a strange journey indeed-into prehistoric times in the American West. The teacher seems surprised, but the kids are delighted. "I decided to study stegosaurus eating habits," reports the pleased narrator.

If you're lucky enough to know children who truly love reading and delight in all that sentences can do, make sure they grow up with E. Nesbit (1858-1924), the British author whose prose is rich with irony and witty understatement. Her novel The Railway Children (Philomel. $16.95) first appeared in 1906 and has been newly reissued with evocative watercolors by Pamela Kay. It's funny and sad and perfect. As it happens, the best of the season's Christmas books is also one that glories in language. Jane Ray's The Story of Christmas (Dutton. $15.95) takes its text from the King James version of the Bible and illustrates the words with elaborate, yet simple-hearted images of Christ's birth. Hers is folk art with a touch of grandeur, and it makes the familiar phrases sing aloud.

Illustrations: Great truths, and giggles too: (clockwise from above) Ray's folk angel, Sis's Columbus, players in 'The Little Band,' enchanting Lady Bugatti, more players (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: PETER SIS, KEIKO NARAHASHI, KEVIN HAWKES, KEIKO NARAHASHI, JANE RAY)

Illustration: An invitation to the utterly, delightfully bizarre: 'Pish, Posh ' (THE DILLONS)

In 1982, Peter Sis crossed the ocean blue-not from Spain but from Czechoslovakia. Not surprisingly, he is intrigued by New World exploration. A few years after he arrived in America, the 41-year-old illustrator says, "Columbus was starting to fascinate me completely. The journey was the liberation of the spirit." For "Follow the Dream," in which he illuminates Columbus's voyage, Sis tried a new technique. First he prepared the surface of his paintings with gesso, then built up thin layers of oil color. The magical result, especially rich in a range of blues, is both thick and transparent. But it's tiny details that may captivate tiny readers, especially delicately inked symbols-jousting knights, a spouting whale, the alphabet-on the golden frames around many of the illustrations. "I was trying to get in as much information as I could, even in a spiritual way," Sis says. "At that time navigators in the Mediterranean could taste water and tell how far they were from land. Now we are maybe losing something in our senses."

Photo: (LARRY BARNS)

Diane and Leo Dillon, who have been drawing and painting together since they met in art school in the '5Os, started out working for sci-fi and girlie magazines. ("We did arty things," Diane says.) The couple moved on to record jackets, book covers and, in the mid-'60s, to illustrations for children's stories. "Kids' books offer us a lot of freedom for our own personal storytelling," says Diane. "Our primary concern is to read the book over and over and live with it. We try to show what's between the lines. We can add our own kind of visual messages." In any picture, there's no telling where one Dillon begins and the other ends. Teamwork has an advantage, Diane says: "There's always another mind coming in with new ideas. We inspire each other." In the enchanting "Pish, Posh, said Hieronymus Bosch," their fanciful, lush paintings explode with anthropomorphic activity. The sepia line drawings above the text are irresistible, especially Mom (a spool), Dad (scissors) and offspring (a thimble-toting needle, linked to Mom by a thread) out for a walk. It's enough to inspire a kid to sew.

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