Far-Flung Fables

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Children are the original revolutionaries.

This, in the words of my 9-year-old, is a big deal to any grown-up whose home has been taken over by them.

But it's true in a larger sense too: Children grow up and inevitably wrest power from us grown-ups, and if we want to share our notion of civilization with the little insurgents, our best shot is to do it while they're smaller than we are. One way, of course, is to tell them what we can through stories . . . and to hope for the best.

"The Best Children's Books in the World," a handsomely illustrated new collection from Harry N. Abrams Inc., invites us to consider the values that grown-ups in other countries have tried to communicate through kids stories, and to admire their artistry in doing so.

Edited by Byron Preiss, this coffee-table size book reproduces text and pictures from 15 international, award-winning children's books, all published since 1984.

Anyone compiling such a selection faces some obvious challenges, the first being the sweeping presumption of the title. But there are also technical constraints in presenting books of different sizes in a single volume--especially when, in some cases, English translations are necessary. The immediate effect is to distance you from the art, the same way a museum catalog does. As a result, my appreciation for these 15 tales was more cerebral than emotional. Then again, these stories aren't meant for me. What would children think of them?

I curled up on a couch with my three kids and tried out a few of the stories. Several retell traditional tales, including "Jichang Learns to Shoot Arrows" (retold by Zhao Zhenwan), a Chinese fable that preaches the virtues of tenacity. The story features gorgeous ink and watercolor illustrations on yellow silk (by Li Xueming), but it was quickly panned by 6-year-old Rosa.

"Didn't you get what it was trying to say?" I asked.

"Yeah. Try hard. Boring."

On the other hand, "Five Wacky Witches," a no less uplifting story written by Ronat Chacham and illustrated by Ora Ayal, was a hit with 9-year-old Sylvie. Drawn in a style I'll call Neon Potatohead, it tells the story of the witches' day on the town. After four are claimed by calamities including cream pies and escalators, the lonely survivor tries to rescue her friends. The tale ends with the five witches pulling up the covers and lying "head next to head." Ayal's story about community comes from Israel--but the witches' wild antics will be familiar to any parent who has ever taken a child to a department store.

Childhood exuberance is celebrated less artfully in "The Flower City" (from Switzerland, written by Eveline Hasler, illustrated by Stepan Zavrel), where Karin and Peter smash the gate of the "dream cemetery," liberating flowers and butterflies that stodgy grown-ups have locked up. It was too cute for this stodgy grown-up, and Rosa was also unimpressed.

"No one was ever in danger," she complained.

Well, sweetie, if it's danger you're after, consider the shattered world Andrey Martynov illustrates in "Bad Advice." Russian writer Grigory Oster demands comparison with Shel Silverstein but is even more anarchistic; his story reflects with grim humor the turbulence of Russian life. In one poem, the writer suggests keeping it a secret if you break a window because: "A war may start . . . windows cracking left and right: No one will punish you."

Mercifully, for our children at least, that excuse won't wash. Indeed, one of the intentions of "The Best Children's Books in the World," as described in the introduction by Jeffrey Garrett, a children's writer and librarian, is to get us thinking about the values and lessons of our own culture.

For example, while sad things happen in American children's books, you'd be hard pressed to find one with a hopeless ending. It's just not done. But I had to stretch my imagination to find any hopeful interpretation for "Street Scene" (from Brazil) by Angela Lago.

This affecting story, told in bright but ominous pictures, concerns a little boy trying to sell fruit to drivers stuck in traffic. The cars are cozy cocoons, their occupants sharp-toothed and threatening. Dashing vulnerably among them, the boy looks eternally bewildered. He sells nothing and finally, in desperation, he steals a gift-wrapped package. It contains--fruit. I suppose you could be cheered by the hero's unquenched spirit, but the more reasonable reaction is despair at the specter of a child trapped in an endless loop.

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Two other stories are unconventional by American standards because they are (gasp!) politically incorrect. The first is "Cat in Search of a Friend," written in English by a Ghanaian and published in Austria. The stark pictures of African animals charmed Ethan, my 2-year-old, and I liked the fable about a self-actualizing feline (written and illustrated by Meshack Asare). But the story also contains a picture of a wife going after her husband with a wooden spoon and, worse, a woman jumping on a chair in fear of a mouse. Just try to get those past an American kids book editor in 1996.

Meanwhile, "The Braggart Lion" (by Carl Norac, illustrated by Frederic de Bus) from Belgium is, simply, tasteless. Children in any culture must be precocious to appreciate the humor in a husband, even a cartoon-lion husband, kicking his philandering mate over a cliff. Still, for a reality check, I tried this one out on Rosa too. With much maternal foot-noting, she got the gist--that adults are hypocrites--yet she didn't think the story was funny.

As we read through the book, I found myself, perhaps inevitably, slipping down the slope of speculation about national character. Israelis, in their entry, come across as communitarian. But are the Chinese--with their insufferably virtuous archer--really so sanctimonious? Does a story with no danger mean the Swiss are risk-averse? Are Brazilians fatalistic? Ghanaians anti-feminist? And what about those Belgians--are they murderous and unfaithful all at once?

In his introduction, Garrett seems to encourage such speculation when he admonishes us to remember that these stories were written for "real children with a real and very specific cultural sensorium."

And in that case, it's no surprise that my all-American kids didn't appreciate every story. Their favorites--and mine--were the ones I can imagine finding in an American bookstore: "The Hidden House" (from England, written by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Angela Barrett), "The Umbrella Thief' (from Sri Lanka, written and illustrated by Sybil Wettasinghe) and, best of all, "Dragon Feathers."

This last is an Austrian fairy tale (retold by a German, Amica Esterl) about a woodcutter's son who lives happily-ever-after through kindness and pluck. The illustrations (by Russians Andrej Dugin and Olga Dugina) create a complete surreal world in which roosters are as weird as trolls. Rosa and I loved the sense of adventure, and perusing the illustrations beat "Where's Waldo" hands down.

Indeed, some of the best stories in this book are international hybrids. "The Umbrella Thief," for example, is a Sri Lankan tale published in Japan. "Dragon Feathers," with its multicultural creative team, was produced in 11 languages.

A warning: I'm not one of those starry-eyed tourists who has been everywhere only to discover that "people are people" or "children are children." I'm sure the Ghanaians and the Swiss have different world views, but what this anthology demonstrates is that the best children's books in the world, like the best adult books, transcend cultural boundaries.

Which is fine training, indeed, for those little revolutionaries in our midst.

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