THEY ARE CALLED "picture books" and are aimed specifically at one age group -- roughly from 3 to 8 years. Grown-ups write, illustrate, edit, publish, review and buy them, for the most part using past experience and guesswork rather than consulting the children. The measure of success comes later when, in the library or at bedtime, a child asks for this or that story again and again. As a failed clairvoyant, I can only stick my neck out ahd hope that the unpredictable little readers will agree with me on the following handful out of the dozens of new picture books appearing this season.
In the case of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, it's an easy choice. The story concerns a boy and an errant dog who meet up with a magician, Abdul Gasazi, who tosses a spell on the mutt. In a remarkable display of talent with a carbon pencil, Chris Van Allsburg, in his first book, has created full-page drawings with action and humor that are perfect complements to his amusing text. The perspective seems to pull the reader directly onto the scene, providing a sensation of suspense and participation. You just know that something sinister is afoot as the boy confronts the imposing figure of the magician in his spooky mansion. And all this in ominous grays and blacks. A dark fantasy kids will like.
Peter Spier's The Legend of New Amsterdam is a fine blend of history and entertainment describing the little Dutch village at the tip of Manhattan as it was in 1660, only 35 years after its founding. Although he calls it a legend, his story and sketches are filled with color, activity and detail about what life was actually like then and there -- whether it be in the shipyard or sawmill or at a festival or market day. A simple, true story is woven through, about Crazy Annie, a slightly demented woman who was wont to roam the streets pointing to the sky and crying, "People and stone! People and stone!" A final page depicts the skyline of "New Amsterdam" in 1979 and raises the question of how crazy was Annie, after all?
Children who love to study a page to discover and rediscover surprises are going to have a great time with We Hide, You Seek. Creatures of East Africa are involved in a game of hide-and-seek, sought by a clumsy rhino. On one spread, for instance, animals of the bush hide in their habitat, difficult to spot. The rhino steps on the tail of a kudu, who yelps (or whatever a kudu does), frightening the others into revealing themselves on the following pages. A similar theme is repeated for animals of the desert, swamp, plains, river and forest, until finally it is the rhino's turn to hide, which he does successfully in a delightful ending. When I say "animals" I mean insects, birds and reptiles, too, for the cast includes them all. They can be identified by referring to drawings in the end-papers. Ariane Dewey, who collaborated with Jose Aruego on this excellent book, saw them in Kenya.
Young children who don't ask too many questions will probably be satisfied with Pascale Allamand's The animals Who Changed Their Colors. A whale and a polar bear, upon seeing a rainbow, hanker to be chromatically different. Traveling to the jungle, the whale makes himself red, and the bear turns green. A brilliant macaw points out how silly they will look when they return home, so they wash themselves off.
Will You Count the Stars Without Me? is the peculiar tale of a monkey who leaves an island to scrounge food for its starving animals. Jane Breskin Zalben's watercolors are lovely. My complaint is with her syntax, which I found awkward and not easy to read aloud. For example: "Saba helped Fern patch the thatched roof on her tree house and Ima weave a bridge to the next lagoon just like the one on his and Shana's tree. All week long he pounded, dug, and wove vine ropes." I hope I am not quibbling.
The way Peter Pavey draws them, there is something hilarious about mounted frogs in shining armor, aiming their lances at a helpless dragon standing in a pool of water surrounded by toy sailing vessels, penguins, crab juice bottles, wheelbarrows laden with oddities, and . . . well, that's just an inkling of what's in store for a child who examines the jam-packed pages of One Dragon's Dream. What an adventure the dreamer has! The frogs are only the beginning. It is sheer, ridiculous fantasy and fun.
Dragons aren't always a joke. The villainous one in King Drakus and the Dragon is half a mile long, spouting the obligatory flames and smoke, and threatening to eat up the king, his daughter and his subjects. It is no surprise when a modest shoemaker's apprentice, who may have a crush on the princess, disposes of the monster. Based on Polish folklore, Janina Domanska's story is simple enough, but it is enhanced immeasurably by utterly handsome, frescolike watercolors in the form of illustrations, decorations and initials.
As a New Yorker cartoonist, Frank Modell has been very good at making people laugh. In Seen Any Cats? he brings back his characters Marvin and Milton from last season's Tooley! Tooley! who decide to raise money by organizing a cat circus. A couple of pages of Modell's drawings depicting these two guys trying to train cats is an absolute howl. Children will get a big kick out of this funny yarn.