THE STORY OF CHICKEN LICKEN by Jan Omerod (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard: $13; 26 pp.; ages 2-6).

There's some real fun in this picture book, a play-within-a-play that will charm adults and preschoolers equally. Double pages show the same setting: a school's tiny auditorium with its stage lit and a row of dutiful parents in front. What a child will watch here is the play itself with its bright costumes and antics of Chicken Licken who thinks the sky is falling in because a tennis ball (acorn) has fallen on her head.

Meanwhile, in the audience, a hilarious story of its own unfolds, distracting the adult reader as honestly as if we were actually there. A family has put their sleeping baby on the floor behind them in its basket carrier. As they watch the play with their fidgety toddler, the baby pops his head up, and to his delight finds himself free to explore. We are silent accomplices as he helps himself to the contents of someone's purse, then crawls toward the stage, his mission apparently to retrieve the tennis ball.

All's well that ends well and Jan Omerod succeeds wonderfully with her illustrations, half of which are in vibrant colors, half in silhouette. It's just the book a parent can spread across the lap, child and all, then read umpteen times with pleasure.

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