For children every Christmas there are plots, fables, dreams and allegories, the best of them imaginatively conceived and presented. But this year there is a detectable, if subtle, change in children’s books. The narrative lines are tougher than in years past, the artwork is less sentimental. Though mice, frogs, pigs and cats continue favorites, this year’s derring-doers also star red-toothed carnivores. In the illustrations their teeth are chiseled, and they use them in the fiction if they’re provoked. What follows is a celebration of some of the season’s most interesting, least shopworn gifts.
For the seven-to-nine-year-olds: books about animals.
The Terrible Troll-Bird (Doubleday, $7.95). Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire have been writing and drawing Norwegian trolls for almost half a century. A giant chicken stalks the land and terrifies the village ... and four children roast him nicely in the end. This picture book has panache, as all the d’Aulaires’ books do, shot with movement in color and restless black and white. The lithographs are cheerful, and the mayhem is presented as a delightful fantasy.
As its opposite. The Foxes Of Chironupp Island (Dutton, $7.95), story and art by Hiroyki Takahashi, is about peace. On an island in spring, an old couple adopt a fox cub, nurture her, then leave her with her family for the winter. But man declares war on man and soldiers arrive on the island with the winter. Gradually they shoot the foxes; finally they trap the cub. When the old couple return to the island after the war, fox roses are blooming in remembrance. Plenty here for pacifists: the book is a moving indictment of violence.
Man is the hero when he’s true to his promise to honor creation. Man is the enemy when he’s not. Crocodile Crocodile (Collins, $7.95) deals with the enemy
directly, swiftly and suddenly, in terms that are exactly what the enemy deserves. A crocodile hears about a crocodile store in Paris. He travels from Egypt up the Champs Elysées only to discover he’s the commodity, not the customer. What can a croc do? Why, swallow a lady and return to Egypt, with her French perfume wafting out of his mouth across the Nile. Crocodile Crocodile is a cheeky plea for an endangered species, originally rhymed by Peter Nicki, dashingly translated by Ebbitt Cutler, a Canadian, and hauntingly illustrated by Binette Schroeder.
Alligators introduce young readers to the concept of the orchestra in Alligators And Music (Macmillan, $ 10.75) by Donald Elliot, with Clinton Arrowood fleshing them in in ink and acid. Dressed as 18thcentury gentlefolk, they play instruments, and each instrument talks about its use. The result is elemental and urbane—and a great way to learn about harmony.
Tigers are the treat in Richard Adams’ The Tyger Voyage (Clarke Irwin, They’re exploring. Raphael and Ezekiel Dubb, two tygers (as Adams, author of Watership Down, insists on calling them), visit a volcano and survive to glory in the quest. Londoners throw a banquet in honor of the returning Dubbs, for all the world as if they were the proportions of Livingstone and Stanley. And why shouldn’t tygers chart a course; why shouldn’t there be whimsical verse to welcome them back? Nicola Bayley’s pictures for Richard Adams’ poem are inspired, intricate and Victorian. (Victoria’s was the golden age for explorers.)
But the best of the animal-adventures is the wizard rat in Ratsmagic (Clarke Irwin, $6.95), told by Christopher Logue and envisioned brilliantly by Wayne Anderson in a world set apart, a frame outside time and space. The action is odd and eerie. Witch Dole wants the contents of the Bluebird’s
marvelous egg so she steals the Bluebird, who is about to lay. The egg is hatched in captivity, releasing a company of midnight sprites. Rat rescues them, Bluebird and all, since he is the only one truly suited to the task; in vest, spats, collar and cane, he works marvels as an Edwardian Merlin. He is one of the first of his kind to turn himself into a hero: if a rat can so drastically improve his image, mankind can surely follow.
For the 10-to-12-year-olds: books about families and friends, introducing children to the way of becoming adults.
A Farm (Longman Canada, $8.25) is a vision of social harmony and the home of Carl Larsson, a Swedish artist who captured its rural pleasures in luscious paintings around the turn of the century. This book is definitely for art and nature lovers and will fill a need for the historically curious as well. Unfortunately Lennart Rudström’s text, flat and dry, cannot compete with the eloquence of Larsson’s scenes. Fortunately Larsson’s work, a visual record of pastoral innocence, says everything for Rudström about life as it ought to be.
And seldom is. Life is rarely simple and direct. Words and cities complicate. The Wooden People (McClelland and Stewart, $7.95), by Calgary author Myra Paperny, is a novel about isolation, about the effects on four children of moving constantly, about their loss of security and their recovery of identity through puppets. Through their puppet theatre, the children make real friends at last and learn to belong.
The moral is simple: love heals and recreates: it liberates. That is also the message Marilyn Sachs conveys in A December Tale (Doubleday, $5.75), which takes a fierce look at alienation of a crippling, almost disastrous kind. Unwanted by mother or father, a little girl of 10 hides in a dream, seeks love in an illusion of Joan of Arc, and because she has a touch of the poet she finds it. Bravely she struggles to emulate Joan and achieve a reality that has given her nothing but pain. Reality is what the young prefer to uncover in adolescence: in a few years, they may prefer to forget, returning to fantasy.
Is any synthesis of fact and fancy possible? Perhaps for rare souls who are unusually well balanced. George Eliot must have been one, as she appears in LouAnn Gaeddert’s All-In-All (Dutton, $9.25), an unusual children’s biography which deals with an unusual heroine. Not a soldier, inventor, nor patriot, the 19th-century author of Middlemarch and Adam Bede is shown battling convention and a cold, unforgiving family to live with the man she loves, to write as she must, to be equal in an unequal society. It’s only fitting that a book about a novelist should incorporate the novel’s timeless theme of growing up. George Eliot’s life is a profile in courage— and this treatment of it, intelligent without condescension, is recommended for the whole family.
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