Picks and Pans Main: Jr. Pages

updated 12/16/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Senior Editor Ross Drake compiled this report on some of the year's top children's books with the assistance of his daughter, Shana, 13, and son, Ross, 8.

One quiet afternoon at St. Anne's Home for Girls, a 10-year-old orphan named Amy discovers that her lifelong companion, a doll known as the Captain, has been transformed into an authentic, if somewhat undersized, mariner. Clearly out of place in the orphanage, he soon flees in search of his destiny, and Amy, devastated when he fails to return, is herself transformed into a doll. Strange happenings indeed, but with stranger to come; reunited with Amy at last, the Captain sets out on an Ahab-like quest for pirate treasure, aboard a ship manned by a crew of stuffed animals. Richard Kennedy's Amy's Eyes (Harper & Row, $13.50) is a brave and ambitious undertaking, an original epic fantasy mingling surrealistic comedy and Gothic adventure with intimations of doom and high purpose. Unfortunately, expectations are raised that cannot be satisfied; in the end, following an apocalyptic battle at sea, Kennedy's inspiration is lost in the wreckage, and the book concludes on a note of jarring banality. Still, this is a large novel, of greater compensations than most, and adventurous readers will not want to miss it.

Picture Books: Never has Chris Van Allsburg lent his haunting illustrations to a story of such warmth as The Polar Express (Houghton Mifflin Co., $15.95), his tale of a small boy who, one Christmas Eve, is borne miraculously away to Santa's North Pole, a teeming, elf-thronged city where the streets are flooded with light and softened by slow-falling snow. Magic of a different sort is practiced by William Steig in Solomon the Rusty Nail (Farrar Straus Giroux, $12.95), the story of a young rabbit with the singular ability to reincarnate himself as a nail. Things get hot for Solomon, in his ferrous state, when a voracious one-eyed cat, hoping the nail will become, once again, something edible, takes it home to his skeptical wife. Anno's Hat Tricks (Philomel Books, $11.95), with text by the mathematician Akihiro Nozaki and pictures by Mitsumasa Anno, consists of a series of progressively more nettlesome logic puzzles involving two children wearing red or white hats and a third, unseen, wearing hats whose color must be deduced by the reader. Illustrator Petra Mathers' Maria Theresa (Harper & Row, $13.95) is the tale of an adventurous pullet who escapes from her rooftop coop in Manhattan and eventually winds up in the circus. The folk art pictures are witty and colorful; the text, Mathers' first, is engaging. Nosey Mrs. Rat (Viking Kestrel, $11.95) is the cautionary history of Shirley Rat, an incorrigible snoop who can't keep her nose—and a prominent nose it is—out of the affairs of her irritated neighbors. The text is by Jeffrey Allen, the pictures by James Marshall.

The Bully of Barkham Street, written 22 years ago by the distinguished children's author Mary Stolz, admitted readers to the unhappy world of Martin Hastings, a troublesome 11 year old caught in the frustrating passage toward adolescence from childhood. The Explorer of Barkham Street (Harper & Row, $9.95) finds Martin nearing the far side of that painful divide, a little sadder in some ways, a little wiser in others and starting to believe that things might get better. Nothing comes easy for Martin; marooned at home with a discontented father and a preoccupied mother, he struggles to come to terms with them and himself and to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of his neighbors,

Poetry: "The diet of the owl is not/For delicate digestions./He goes out on a limb to hoot/Unanswerable questions." Such pithy observations are the heart and piquant soul of X.J. Kennedy's The Forgetful Wishing Well (McElderry/Atheneum, $9.95), his collection of 70 original poems for children. Kennedy does with language what quick-fingered magicians do with balloons, shaping it in unexpected and marvelous ways. Another entertaining book of verse, for younger children, is Whiskers & Rhymes (Greenwillow Books, $13), 35 short poems written and whimsically illustrated by Arnold Lobel, creator of the popular Frog and Toad stories. The latest edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses (Delacorte Press, $14.95) is also one of the finest. The glowing watercolors, by Michael Foreman, are a lovely complement to Stevenson's verse. Hand Rhymes (E.R Dutton, $11.95) is an appealing anthology, collected and illustrated by Marc Brown, of all those little verses that kids love to act out with their hands—i.e. "This is the church/This is the steeple./Open the doors/And see all the people!" Each is accompanied by useful how-to drawings.

Mavis Jukes, the winner of a Newbery Honor award last year for Like Jake and Me, is a onetime teacher, later a lawyer, who elected to become a writer instead. The choice, it turns out, was felicitous. Her third short book for children, Blackberries in the Dark (Knopf, $10.95), is the affecting, artfully told story of a 9-year-old boy on a visit to his grandmother's farm—a place that, for him, is filled with memories of a beloved grandfather no longer alive. After a tentative beginning, he and his grandmother find their own kind of closeness, and the book's ending, beautifully understated, seals their bargain of understanding and love. The pencil drawings, by Thomas B. Allen, show a sensitive appreciation of mood and place.

Fairy Tales: The year's most opulently illustrated fairy tale is surely Anna Bier's adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Nightingale (Harcourt. Brace Jovanovich, $13.95), with exquisite Chinese-style paintings by the American artist Demi. But can it be that the paint was applied, as the artist maintains, with brushes made partly of mouse whiskers and wolf hairs picked in autumn? Beauty and the Beast (McElderry/Atheneum, $11.95), retold and illustrated by Warwick Hutton, and featuring his distinctive watercolors, is an attractive reprise of the age-old legend of monstrousness transformed by a woman's devotion. Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lad) (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, $13), the Arthurian tale recounted in measured and well-rounded prose by Selina Hastings, is illustrated with handsome formality by Juan Wijngaard, though his loathly lady is perhaps too graphically hideous. Meghan Collins' The Willow Maiden (Dial Books for Young Readers, $11.95) is a winning, original fairy tale, the story of a young farmer who is warned never to venture into the Whispering Woods and, of course, does so, with interesting consequences. The earth-tone paintings are by Laszlo Gal. Two superior anthologies, by virtue of both the freshness of the material and the thoughtfulness of its presentation, are The People Could Fly (Knopf, $12.95), American black folktales told by the Newbery medalist Virginia Hamilton, and Seasons of Splendour (Atheneum, $15.95), Madhur Jaffrey's collection of Indian tales, myths and legends.

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