Picture Windows to the World

Michael Cart is director of community services at Beverly Hills Public Library, and writes frequently about children's books.

Let's face it, folks: Little Jack Horner would have to be all thumbs to pull the abundance of plums out of this year's picture- book pie. For, continuing a trend of the 1980s, 1990 has seen the publication of another bumper crop of lavishly illustrated books for the young and (save a corner of the coffee table, collectors!) not-so-young.

Consider, for example, Aida (Gulliver Books/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $16.95; all ages). With text by legendary diva Leontyne Price and lavish illustrations by two-time Caldecott Medalists Leo and Diane Dillon, this is inarguably the gift book of the season. Never mind that Price's voice as a writer is flat and unmusical, the Dillons' acrylic paintings--rich with the most astonishing blues since Maxfield Parrish and the most lavish golds since Gustav Klimt--are right on key and provide a sumptuous visual score. Add the beautifully designed pages with their elegant borders and you have a setting worthy of the grandest of grand operas.

For those who prefer the pizazz of the circus to the pomp of the opera, here is Lisa Campbell Ernst's Ginger Jumps (Bradbury Press: $14.95; ages 5-9). A little circus dog who finally finds a family, Ginger inhabits a poster-art-inspired, large-format world which is suffused by the excitement of the center ring and the warmth of the big top's light.

Round and comfortable-looking, Ginger and the other characters in Ernst's picture-book big top are as irresistibly squeezable as Charmin. Ginger will jump right into the reader's heart.

More affectionate sideshow than midway is William Joyce's A Day With Wilbur Robinson (Harper & Row: $13.95; all ages). Joyce is arguably the most original talent working in the children's-book field today. Who else could have created a family as endearingly wacky as the Robinsons--ranging from Uncle Judlow, who relaxes with his brain augmenter, to cousin Laszlo, who demonstrates his new anti-gravity device to the frogs who steal Grandpa's false teeth. Joyce's style as an artist is as exuberantly zany and distinctive as his writer's imagination. Buy two copies of this book: one for the kids and one for yourself.

Another engaging original is Petra Mathers, who brings her New Wave sensibility to the pictures she has done for Susan Allen Couture's The Block Book (Harper & Row: $12.95; ages 4-8), the whimsical and smartly rhymed story of Betsy and Ben, those two "industrious blocks" who "made their own cocoa and washed their own socks." Mathers has had a wonderful time drawing the Blocks' geometric world, cluttered with the junk they have so lovingly--and, as it develops, fortuitously--collected. Readers will have a swell time sorting through the trash and treasures, too.

Mathers has supplied pictures with equal panache and electrically vibrant colors for Alan Wade's I'm Flying (Knopf: $13.95; ages 6-9), a zany adventure involving an airborne lawn chair, friendly sea gulls and a flying piano (don't ask!).

It is neither opera nor circus but shadow theater which provides the setting for both Shadow Play (Charlotte Zolotow/Harper & Row: $14.95; ages 4-8) and Henry in Shadowland (David Godine: $17.95; ages 5-9). The former reunites Canadian artist Eric Beddows and Newbery Medalist Paul Fleischman in this inventive retelling of "Beauty and the Beast." In a field where full color dominates, it is eye-refreshing and exciting to see how vibrant and multidimensional the world of black, white and shadow can be when created by a talent like Beddows. "Henry in Shadowland" is Austrian artist Laszlo Varvasovszky's more exuberant experiment with mixing silhouette and color as he tells the story of young Henry's adventure in the "shadowbox" that his mother's friend Paul has given him. In style and energy, Varvasovszky is Steven Kellogg with an Austrian accent.

The accent is not Austrian but British in Monsters (Scholastic: $12.95; ages 6-9). Expatriate American Russell Hoban tells the story of John, who liked to draw monsters. Punch cartoonist Quentin Blake supplies the pictures (his own and John's) and demonstrates once again his mastery of the deftly nervous line. You can see the ending of the story coming from its beginning, but getting there is fantastic fun.

Billy Wong's destiny could not be so easily foreseen. Who could have imagined that this son of Cantonese immigrants would become the first Chinese bullfighter? In El Chino (Houghton Mifflin: $14.95; ages 6-10), Japanese-American Allen Say tells this true story in words and pictures as deft and graceful as a matador's movements. In terms of harmony of word and image and suitability of style to subject, this is the most successful picture book of the year.

Billy's life is a courageous quest in search of identity, and a similar "vision" quest is the subject of National Book Award winner Barry Lopez's Native American tale Crow and Weasel (North Point Press: $16.95; ages 10-12). The haunting story of two young braves' journey of self-discovery, this is too text-rich to be a true picture book (it is a novella, instead) but the tale is hugely enhanced by Tom Pohrt's pictures. A self-taught artist, Pohrt has created magic images that authentically and memorably evoke Plains culture.

The land is as much a character in Lopez's story as the animals which inhabit it. The land and its ambient atmosphere are, similarly, the heroes of Just a Dream (Houghton Mifflin: $17.95; ages 6-9), Chris Van Allsburg's cautionary tale about man's abuse of his environment. Some readers may find the text too didactic (and greatly reminiscent of the author-illustrator's earlier "Ben's Dream"), but who can argue that the two-time Caldecott Medalist's pictures are marvels of dramatic light, color and composition?

Leaving the land is the moving and somber theme of Time to Go (GulliverBooks/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $14.95; ages 6-9) by Beverly and David Friday. Thomas B. Allen's charcoal and colored-pencil illustrations show poignant scenes of a small boy's saying goodby to the family farm and recalling happier--and more prosperous--times.

James Stevenson uses impressionistic watercolor images and hot summer hues to recall the July (Greenwillow, $12.95, ages 6-10) of his childhood. He succeeds in making his personal past dramatically accessible to his readers.

Santa Monica artist Ruth Lercher Bernstein uses a similar soft focus (but more subdued colors) to tell the sweet-natured story of a great-grandmother's past in another country (A Beautiful Seashell, Charlotte Zolotow/Harper & Row: $12,95; ages 4-8), a grand book for grandmothers to share with several generations of offspring.

Not a single past but the collective past of our country figures in Eve Bunting's The Wall (Clarion Books: $13.95; 4-8). An extraordinarily versatile talent, the Pasadena author here tells the simple but moving story of a visit to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Ronald Nimler's subdued watercolor washes match the story's somber mood.

An entirely different mood--extravagant good humor--is evoked by Peter Catalanotto in his exuberant Mr. Mumble (A Richard Jackson Book/Orchard Books: $14.95; ages 4-8). One of the most promising newcomers to the picture-book field, Catalanotto is a terrific colorist and a master of amusing images that show Mr. Mumble bumbling through a day or collecting odd and exotic animals.

A more established master of the amusing usage, Rosemary Wells places her unmistakably antic stamp on her very loose adaptation of Dinah Craik's classic The Little Lame Prince (Dial: $12.95; ages 6-9). The Prince is a pig in this version. The watercolor paintings which adorn the text herald a new, more painterly style for the popular Wells, but if her art is more finished, her images are as laugh-out-loud-funny as always and, like Catalanotto, she remains a master of drawing animals with agreeably quirky expressions.

Another established artist, Tomie de Paola, rounds out this list with two plums: The Badger and the Magic Fan (Putnam: $13.95; ages 4-8), the retelling of a Japanese folk tale by San Marino author Tony Johnston, and--like "Aida" a major book for gift consideration--Tomie de Paola's Book of Bible Stories (co-published by Putnam's and Zondervan: $18.95; all ages). In both books, De Paola displays a talent--particularly in his use of vibrant color--to match his prodigious popularity.

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