Picks and Pans Main: Etc.

updated 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

One pleasure of the holiday season that is reserved for adults is the satisfaction of buying and reading books for their children. Senior Editor Ross Drake, who performs these services for his daughter, Shana, 12, and son Ross, 7, has scouted the 1984 field and reviews some of the year's best new kids' books below.

For 37 years John Masefield bore the title of Britain's poet laureate, a deadening honorific that may have consigned him prematurely to the status of relic. His 1935 children's fantasy, The Box of Delights (Macmillan Publishing Company, $14.95), republished in abridged form nearly five decades later, should have a revivifying effect on his dry-bones reputation, combining as it does some of the imaginative pleasures of C.S. Lewis' classic Chronicles of Narnia with the melodramatic invention of an old-fashioned thriller. Young Kay Harker, returning home for his Christmas school holidays, encounters a mysterious old man, hunted by a shadowy band of outlaws, who entrusts him with a magical box. There ensues a dizzying chase, through time and other dimensions, ending in triumph for the forces of goodness. The book lacks the tight internal logic of the very best fantasies—there is a phantasmagoric quality to the story that is sometimes intriguing but too frequently baffling—and offers an irritatingly conventional ending that provides Masefield with a facile quick exit. Still, the tale is told with humor and verve, leaving the reader with a what-happens-next? sense of urgency. An adaptation will be presented this month, in three parts, on the PBS series Wonder Works.

The studio of Chris Van Allsburg is a black hole of sorts, into which awards for illustration are inexorably drawn. An instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design, Van Allsburg is both author and artist, but it is on his remarkable pictures, suggesting mysterious worlds unseen but impending, that his growing reputation depends. The transparent premise of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (Houghton Mifflin, $14.95) is Van Allsburg's supposed introduction, by a publisher friend, to 14 black-and-white drawings left behind years before by a stranger who vanished without explaining their meaning. The pictures, each marvelously evocative and ambiguous, are accompanied only by titles and single-line captions, leaving the reader to search his own agitated imagination for the stories the drawings might have been intended to illustrate. A few of the ideas are comic in a Charles Ad-dams vein (one illustration shows a startled householder, with chair upraised, about to smash a cantaloupe-size lump moving eerily beneath his living-room carpet); nearly all are memorable for their power of suggestion.

Lurking at the fringes of juvenile fiction, like some zany carnivore lusting for yocks, author Daniel Pinkwater beggars description, which he makes little attempt to provide. Suffice it to say, as he would say, and has, he is never mistaken for anyone else. The Snarkout Boys & The Baconburg Horror (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, $11) marks the return of Walter Gait and his pal, Winston Bongo, who, with their two-fisted female friend, Rat, sneak out nightly to the local Snark Theater, there to gorge on offbeat double bills. Once again, as in 1983's The Snarkout Boys & The Avocado of Death, they are confronted by the archfiend Wallace Nussbaum, the so-called Napoleon of Crime, who has loosed a thrill-seeking werewolf on Baconburg. The drooling beast is eventually brought to bay at the local drive-in movie during an improbable all-lycanthrope show. But that's not the half of it. The cast of characters alone is as large and strange as the author himself, who is one part Marx brother and one part cracked social satirist, with a particle or two of werewolf thrown in.

In an age when even the most trivial picture book may cost as much as a best-selling novel, Piero Ventura's Great Painters (G.R Putnam's Sons, $15.95) is a rare and unqualified bargain. A survey of the highlights of Western painting from the early Renaissance to the present, this is a 160-page oversize volume, printed in color on rich glossy stock and illustrated with 140 reproductions of masterworks. Several of the paintings are miniaturized, some to their detriment—the teeming Bruegel canvas known as Flemish Proverbs, reduced more than tenfold, might as well have been reproduced on the head of a pin—but the sweep of the book dazzles the eye. Nor is the volume just a series of photographs. Older readers may follow Ventura's scholarly though unintimidating text, while younger ones will be drawn by the irresistible color and by the Milanese artist's own appealing line drawings, illustrating the social and historical background against which the great artists worked.

Exploring the decaying barn at her family's new place in the country, braving the cobwebs and dry rot, 10-year-old Wren Stern is searching for something she can call her own, a way of proving herself to two skeptical brothers. Then she hears a sound in the stable below. "Let it be alive," she murmurs to herself. "Let it be waiting to be found." What she finds is a phantom, a spectral stallion that, like Ban-quo's ghost, won't go away until a wrong is made right. The rural New England of Betty Levin's A Binding Spell (Lodestar Books, $12.95) has as much to do with calendar art and foliage tours as Faulkner had to do with magnolias. Wren's address is Poor Farm Road. Her nearest neighbors are stoical young Larry Pederson, his alcoholic, pin-curlered mother, still mourning the loss of the daughter she has buried in her yard with a birdbath as marker, and his crazily reclusive Uncle Axel, whose disabling sorrow Wren is fated to learn. This is a smart, unsentimental book with a true eye for character and a strong sense of place.

David R. Godine is a small, selective Boston publishing house that is willing to take chances on picture books that range far from the well-trodden path. A case in point is The Man Who Lived Alone ($11.95). It is the engagingly homely story, from childhood to old age, of a man who, though not really a hermit by temperament, has become accustomed to the pleasures of solitude, including his collection of rusty nails and his deer pelts, his mule and his own serene sense of freedom. Author Donald Hall and Mary Azarian, the talented woodcut artist who is the book's illustrator, are, like The Man, New Englanders by habit and preference.

If There Were Dreams to Sell (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, $12) could have been just another in a long line of alphabet books, a routine addition to a genre that needs none, were it not for the intelligent selection of quotations and phrases by editor Barbara Lalicki and, particularly, the inspired, quirky paintings of Margot Tomes. Her humorous gray-and-brown-toned pictures have a nice antique look, and her wonderfully skewed eye for loony owls, sly dream peddlers and sere wintry landscapes gives this book a touch of real character.

Living as she does with her distracted mother, an infirm, domineering grandmother and two older brothers with concerns of their own, there is a loneliness in Kate Tranter's life that is barely relieved by her only friend, Anna, and the comforting presence of her orange cat, Syrup. Kate's father has drowned 10 years before—on the day of her birth, she is told—and a stone in the village churchyard lends proof. But one day the stone is removed, and with it Kate's fragile sense of her past. Former BBC producer and scriptwriter Philippa Pearce, author of The Way to Sattin Shore (Greenwillow Books, $10.50), is a penetrating, economical writer, as knowing in her observation of an anxious little girl's inner world as of the implacable Syrup's cool independence. Ultimately the plot of this otherwise superior novel turns on adult behavior that seems highly implausible, but children at least may not be surprised, being privy as puzzled observers to the abiding strangeness of the grown-ups who govern them.

Fairy tales are the heirlooms of everyone's childhood, deserving of custodians who know how to respect them. Saint George and the Dragon (Little, Brown and Company, $14.95), adapted from Spenser's Faerie Queene, is effectively retold by Margaret Hodges and handsomely illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Hodges' prose is appropriately orotund; Hyman's dragon is a lizard to reckon with. The Sleeping Beauty (Macmillan, $14.95) is a satisfying version of the Charles Perrault evergreen, adapted and illustrated by Mercer Mayer. The Wizard's Daughter (Little, Brown, $12.95), the Viking legend of an evil wizard with a predilection for lopping off heads, is nicely retold by Chris Conover, and her watercolor illustrations are both stunningly limpid and full of inspired Gothic fancies. Monkey and the White Bone Demon (Kestrel Books, The Viking Press, $10.95), published in association with the Liaoning Fine Arts Publishing House of Peking, is a riot of action and color, representing the labor of four Chinese artists and based on the 16th-century legend of Monkey, protector of the good monk Hsuan Tsang.

Other picture books in brief: This year's prime entry in author-artist William Steig's garden of oddball delights is Yellow & Pink (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $8.95), the tale of two puppets, one plump and one not, who find themselves set down on a hillside and proceed to debate the question of genesis. Evolution, in this funny, bright little parable, proves not to be a plausible answer...Barbara Berger's lovely, luminous acrylic paintings endow Grandfather Twilight (Philomel Books, $11.95) with a kind of enchantment. The story couldn't be quieter: A kindly old man, who lives in the forest, removes a single pearl from a strand in a locked wooden chest, then walks through the dusk to the sea. There he releases the pearl, now a moon, in the sky. This is a bedtime story for dreams to be made of...Where the River Begins (Dial Books, $15) draws its resonance from the rich landscape paintings of Connecticut artist Thomas Locker, who also provides the minimal text. Two boys and their grandfather set off on a camping trip to the source of the river that flows past the boys' home. Moving through pastures and woodlands, camping beneath the moon and a sky-splitting thunderstorm, they trace the river to a rising stream, then a pond. But the real story here—not a bad one—is the play of light and the changing moods of the countryside.

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