Picks and Pans Review: The Sign of the Seahorse

updated 01/18/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/18/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Graeme Base

Best known in our house as "the guy who did the drawings for the FAO Schwarz catalog," Australian author and illustrator Base is also a publishing phenomenon. His last two children's books, Animalia (1987) and The Eleventh Hour (1989), proved their immense crossover appeal by selling between 750,000 and a million copies each. The Sign of the Seahorse should more than match their success.

A wild West story set in a coral reef, Base's latest is also an ecological fable, focusing on "the day the sea went dark" from an oil spill. But there's nothing heavy-handed here: Like his idol, Lewis Carroll, Base can cleverly conceal history and politics within the most delicate children's fantasy.

Kids will go for his marvelous sea creatures, including saloon-emptying villain Gropmund G. Grouper. Everyone will go for Base's illustrations, so detailed they appear nearly three-dimensional. Then there's the lure of his rhymes, as whimsical as Seuss' or Carroll's and as wonderful to read aloud: "The captive Catfish clapped and cheered, and danced in leaps and bounds/ Which seeing they were bound and gagged was harder than it sounds." (Abrams, $19.95)

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