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Books: For the Young: Dreams and Memories

7 minute read

DESPITE noise, television, Marshall McLuhan, and the much publicized decline in public school reading skills, quality children’s books sell and sell. Such literary prosperity owes a good deal to the fact that more than 75% of juvenile sales are made to libraries that buy carefully, and often have federal funds to help them do it. Yet much of the allure of the children’s book trade is due to the continuing output of a handful of illustrious, variously gifted and apparently inexhaustible authors and illustrators.

This year half a dozen such perennial favorites have fine new books out:

The Trumpet of the Swan (Harper & Row, $4.50) is only the third book in 25 years by E.B. White. Nevertheless, he is the one living American writer whose words have done most to prove that a children’s book can be a work of art and a thing of enduring charm and usefulness. Stuart Little (1945) still reigns pretty much supreme in the small-furry-animal-in-spats market. Charlotte’s Web (1952), which has just been released again on Pathways of Sound records with White himself reading aloud, is a masterpiece about love and death in a New England barn, and has sold more than 800,000 hardback copies. Charlotte succeeded in making a small, confused pig-of-good-will and a humane spider touching and unforgettable. Trumpet somewhat less successfully attempts the Bildungsroman of a trumpeter swan with a speech defect. As a cygnet, young Louis has to be furnished with a store-bought trumpet, and soon tootles his way into many hearts and places. White’s main achievement, though, is Louis’ father, a cultivated cob who talks a brand of rhetoric such as might come of an alliance between Leda and the Late George Apley.

The Erie Canal (Doubleday, $4.50) is the 30th book by Peter Spier, a Dutch-born, academy-trained artist whose illustrations are to most juvenile scenery what a Tiepolo ceiling is to a hand-decorated pup tent. Too many children’s books present lumpily massive, poster-hued semi-primitive drawings that intrigue for only one or two cheerful skim-throughs. Spier, by contrast, spends months accumulating visual research and folios of tiny sketches for his subjects. When he shows the 19th century harbor of Honfleur (in Hurrah, We’re Outward Bound!) or the 18th century Thameside (in London Bridge Is Falling Down!), he knows as much about the shops and ships, the rigs and ragamuffins as a sharp eye and a keen mind can acquire. The result encourages young (and old) to brood upon details and be delighted by the beauty of black ink and watercolor washes that blend a Delacroix-like delicacy with the liveliness of Thomas Rowlandson. Erie Canal follows a barge through Clinton’s Ditch (circa 1850), seen in four seasons and drawn down to the last mule harness and quayside bollard.

In The Night Kitchen (Harper & Row, $4.95), Maurice Sendak’s 59th book, once more orbits a young protagonist from home and bed into a surrealistic land of magic, fear and some wonder. This time young Mickey has an edible complex−he winds up falling into a bowl of cake batter, being stirred and cooked by three fat chefs. And so−via a dough-plane that he sculpts himself−safely back to bed. Night Kitchen is not quite up to Sendak’s classic, the tiny Nutshell Library (1962), with its “chicken soup” doggerel, its pre-Sesame Street counting devices and unlucky Pierre, the “I don’t care” boy, who is eaten by a lion. The fantasy trip in Night Kitchen lacks the magic, youthful anger and return to love shown in Sendak’s fabled Where the Wild Things Are. But it is cheerful and self-assured, and when Mickey is floating around in the altogether or wrestling with all that dough, it may even seem hilarious to the under-five set.

Babar’s Birthday Surprise (Random House, $3.95) is the 15th and latest volume in a series that began in 1931 with The Story of Babar, by Parisian Jean de BrunhofT, and became a family business when, after his death, his son Laurent de Brunhoff took up this diverting peck of pachyderms. This time the plot thickens around just the kind of civilized problem that Arthur, Celeste and their colleagues can handle: how to keep King Babar from finding out that they’ve cut a massive birthday statue of him in a nearby mountain. The inexplicable charm of the Babar stories is that they can be read with equal pleasure by kids who have barely heard of Paris and francophile parents.

Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals (Little, Brown, $2.95) is that all but unheard-of success, a “how-to-draw” book that really works. Nearly everyone would like to be able to sketch a grumpy spider, a smiling octopus, or a porcupine jumping over a stone. Now, it turns out, nearly anyone from the age of five up can do just that, simply by mastering a few graphic shapes−the numbers 1, 2 and 3, ten letters like Y, M and D, plus a few dots and special squiggles. With clear, entertaining verbal instructions, visual examples lead easily from simple dots to scaly dragons. The book is a splendid departure for Emberley, who has previously won readers and prizes for brisk, handsome woodcuts and brief texts on such things as The Story of Paul Bunyan (1963); Yankee Doodle (1965), which illustrates more verses of that song than there were redcoats at Bunker Hill.

Other notable new children’s books include:

Hi, Cat! (Macmillan, $4.50), by Ezra Jack Keats. The author is a white illustrator who specializes in attractive books−neither painful, patronizing nor candy-sweet−about Peter, a little black boy in the slums. The handsomest, called The Snowy Day (1962) used ingenious cutout patterns to follow Peter through an inviting all-white world of big drifts, cotton draped trees and wet feet. Hi, Cat! is sometimes slapstick-funny, and always bright in telling how an alley cat and a dachshund reduce a street-corner charade to shambles.

Fish Is Fish (Pan+heon, $3.95), by Leo Lionni. This book shows off the same pastel shades of watercolor as Swimmy (1963) to present a very finny view of the earthbound world (birdfish, cowfish and peoplefish), dreamed up by a minnow as he listens to a frog friend tell stories about life outside the pond. Mainly for fours and under.

Tell Me o Mitzi (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $4.95), by Lore Segal, illustrated by Harriet Pincus. Three very real short stories about coping with children in and out of a city apartment. Each one begins: “Once upon a time there was a Mitzi,” and they include Preschooler Mitzi, her baby brother Jacob, their parents, even a grandmother in bed with a cold. The illustrations−dumpy Jacob bundled in a snowsuit, red-nosed sick father taking his medicine−are bright, reasonably funny, and only occasionally too grotesque for comfort.

Whats Happening? (John Day, $4.50), by Mircea Vasiliu. Double-spread drawings show the life of a small-city neighborhood from dawn to bedtime in Bruegelian detail. The book has no real text. Instead, it simultaneously offers a maze of individual lives and stories, actions and brief bits of dialogue−the shrill alarm clock waking sleepy parents, children dawdling to school, workmen repairing the sewer, even the final bedtime lament of a child, “I want a drink of water.”

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