Silly or Serious, but Always Stylish

<i> Bottner's forthcoming picture books are "Aunt Margaret and Me" and "Bootsie Barker Bites."</i>

Children’s books are changing more than childhood itself. Picture books are becoming more and more lavish on the one hand, re-telling old tales with often overdone virtuosity; on the other hand, they’re breaking out with strange, adventurous fare designed to put us all on “tilt,” as if graffiti artists were smashed between hardcovers. Kids’ books are no longer publishing’s great afterthought; artists and authors are trying hard; perhaps, occasionally, too hard.

If simple delight is what you are looking for, try The Cow Is Mooing Anyhow by Laura Geringer, illustrated with zany and unique flavor by Dirk Zimmer (HarperCollins: $14.95; ages 4-9). The cover says that this is a scrambled-alphabet book to be read at breakfast. The text, in couplets, takes us through the first meal of the day, when Mom leaves and a little girl is continuously interrupted in the following manner:

The big baboon, the big baboon,

doesn’t use a grapefruit spoon.

The yucca moth, the yucca moth,


chews right through the tablecloth.

Rhyming in children’s books is generally out of fashion, and for a long time so were alphabet books. But this one, penned by an editor, is rather hilarious and decidedly unpretentious.

Peter Hannan, author-illustrator of the Sillyville tales, must have been one of those kids who got sent to the principal’s office five times a day. He treats us to appalling honesty and the juiciest observations about adults. In Sillyville or Bust (one of four Sillyville books being released this spring by Alfred A. Knopf: $3.95 each; ages 4-7), the hero and his sister must ride home with Aunt Ida and Uncle Gus: “We were miserable. To call these people dull would be an insult to dull people.” Eventually the car crashes into a town called Sillyville, and everyone must do something silly or spend the rest of their lives in jail. “I’ve often thought of being silly as foolish and unproductive,” says Aunt Ida. The judge proclaims that the silliest thing he’s ever heard. Case dismissed.

Hannan has a Charlie Chaplinesque sensibility that one wishes would spread through the publishing world, like a virus.

On a more serious note is The Sailor Who Captured the Sea (HarperCollins: $15.95; ages 7-10) by Deborah Nourse Lattimore, an author-artist celebrated for vivifying tales from the Aztecs, the Minoans, the Mayans and other ancient cultures. In the prologue, we learn that this particular tale is taken from “The Book of Kells,” a text written by monks over a period of 100 years in the Irish city of Kells during the Viking invasions.

Exquisite, finely wrought borders decorate Lattimore’s parchmentlike pages, which tell the story of three brothers from Dublin in the year AD 804, each of whom works at the monastery and eventually contributes to the “Great Book of Gospels.” It is Broghan, the family sailor and the least artistic, who, through an act of heroism, is spared capture and allowed to discover his own gifts and finish the book.

The scholarship and the desire to share an unknown piece of Irish history is admirable here, and the story of perseverance a good one to read in these times.

Daisy’s Taxi by Ruth Young, illustrated by Marcia Sewall (Orchard Books: $13.95; ages 3-6), creates a strong mood in painterly illustrations. With sparse prose, the book tells the story of Daisy, who operates a water taxi from the mainland to a small island. What gives pleasure here is the sense of the passing days in this cozy water community. The rhythms of life, the harmony with nature and fellow humans, are nicely achieved, making the book almost a travelogue for the young. And we have Daisy, an independent female heroine doing hard work and liking her job so much that at the day’s end, when her husband asks what she wants to do, Daisy answers unexpectedly, “Take me for a row, dear.”

At first, Tomie dePaola’s Bonjour, Mr. Satie (G. P. Putnam’s Sons: $15.95; all ages) eluded me. Mr. Satie is the uncle of Rosalie and Conrad, Midwestern children--actually, they are cats, but what does that matter? Uncle Satie comes for a visit directly from Paris with his friend Ffortusque Ffollet Esq., a mouse.

Uncle Satie talks of nothing but art, and continuously drops names such as Gertrude, Alice, Pablo, Henri. He tells of cafes and salons, and of Nice. “Was Nice nice?” asks Gertrude. “Nice was nice,” replies Henri. Stop! I thought. Although Nice is nice, would children know what this book was about, and would they care?

The richly painted illustrations mimic many of the great Cubist paintings, and re-create the sense of excitement about art that captured Paris in the early 20th Century. Aha! I was catching on. What dePaola is up to here is a picture-book dip into art history, and a visit back in time when art was the most discussed and most important event of the day, when people were passionate--they even argued over a painting!

Another aha! In “Bonjour, Mr. Satie,” we not only visit an extraordinary historical period, but we experience a completely different value system, a system where an artistic contribution has tremendous impact.

This short book makes one wish for some creative arguments about the current state of children’s literature.