A COMMON JOY OF CHILDHOOD is the finding of a beautifully illustrated nursery book beneath the Christmas tree. "Thin books, at first, but many of them," Charles Dickens rapturously recalled his own boyhood discoveries, "and with delecately smoothcovers of bright red and green . . . Good for Christmas time is the ruddy color of the cloak, in which . . . Little Red Riding Hood comes . . . She was my first love . . . Oh, now all common things become uncommon and enchanted to me!" Surely the impressions left by picture books can last a lifetime, and so one must take special care in choosing those seductive volumes.
The old heros and heroines beloved by Dickens in his youth have returned this season in a perfect throng. Apparently the recent hunger for Fairies, Dwarfs, and Hobbits has inspired the extraordinary number of new editions of old books. The quality among them varies considerably; not only as to the reproduction of the originals, but also as to the authenticity of the texts. But what is most unsettling about this recent exploitation of the "classics" is that as money gets tighter, work by fewer young and untested authors and artists will be published. Frankly, what new writer can compete with Andersen or the Grimm Brothers, what new illustrator with Arthur Rackham or Kay Nielsen?
Several enterprising book promoters have been scouring the flea markets and rare-book shops for well-illustrated, out-of-copyright children's books. For a relatively little investment, the purchaser has a completed project for which he does not have to pay royalties. Certainly it is admirable to have the glorious Pre-Raphaelite illustrations of Walter Crane's Book of Fairy Tales and Byam Shaw's charming Old King Cole's Book of Nursery Rhymes (Castle Books/Book Sales, $4.95 each) back in print; but the unattractive covers and the overall cheapness of the production of the new printings does not do justice to the originals. The general quality of the recent editions of Arthur Rackham's Book of Pictures (Avenel/Crown, $3.98), Sixty Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, also illustrated by Rackham (Weathervane/Crown, $6.98), and The Andrew Lang Fairy Tale Treasury, (Avenel/crown, $4.98) is exceptionally good; however, if a plate used for photographing is damaged, this firm carelessly reproduces it as is rather than trying to find a better copy.
The finest of the new reissues comprise "The Facismile Classics Series," distributed by Mayflower Books. The current offerings vary from Lewis Carroll's rather priggish retelling of Alice in Wonderland, The Nursery Alice ($6.95), to Dinah Maria Mulock's The Fairy Book and Grace James' Japanese Fairy Tales ($8.95 each), both with full-color plates by Warwick Goble, a contemporary of Rackham. Another of Rackham's disciples, Charles Folkard, illustrated the two Alice books in 1921, and now his original art enlivens the newly issued Songs from Alice (Holiday House, $8.95), set to music by Don Harper (a $9.95 stereo cassette of the score is available to accompany it).
Intervisual Communication of Los Angeles has been particularly active in reissuing 19th-century novelty picture books. They have already sponsored two by Lothar Meggendorfer, the German master of the Victorian mechanical toy book: The Doll's House, a three-dimensional "pot-out" playhouse, and International Circus (Viking, $7.95 each) with clowns and scantily clad equestrians and Japanese jugglers to pull out and stand up. Equally clever are Franz Bonn's The Children's Theatre (Viking, $7.95) with its series of "peep-show" views of fairy tales, and Ernest Nister's Revolving Pictures (Collins, $5.95) in which one design is transformed into another by the rotation of a magic tab. Corners have been cut in these books' productions, and consequently they are a bit crudely redrawn and sometimes badly trimmed. Nevertheless, children will be enchanted by the mechanical ingenuity of these antique toy books.
Just because a book is old does not necessarily make it a classic. For example, Ernest Nister's Little Tales from Long Ago (Delacorte, $5.95) were not particularly good when they were first issued back in the 1890s; their only value now is as nostalgia. Surprisingly, two new editions of In Fairyland (Viking, $12.95; and Derrydale/Crown, $3.98) have just been published. The book is memorable for its extraordinary full-color wood engravings designed by Richard Doyle, the great Punch cartoonist; unfortunately, the original text was dreary doggerel by Richard Allingham, and in a later reissue it contained a dreadful fairy tale by Andrew Lang. Irrationally, the Viking edition reprints both dismal texts, resulting in a clumsily constructed picture book. A more pleasing format with superior color reproduction is the Derrydale version, but this printing too retains the Lang story. Better to have reproduced just the stunning plates with a short critical study of Doyle, the book's true auteur.
Although issued in a sumptuous format imitative of Nancy Eckholm Burkert's Snow White, the lavish production of Susan Jeffers' newly illustrated edition of Thumbelina (Dial, $8.95) only magnifies the faulty drawing and weak coloring of Jeffers' uninspiring pen-and-ink designs. But what is most alarming is that Hans Christian Andersen's famous fairy tale has been "retold." It is certainly presumptuous to attempt to improve on the work of one of the greatest storytellers of world literature; and Amy Ehrlich's rendering only emasculates the Dane's witty, tender original. However, the conceit of this new Thumbelina is nothing in comparison to the damage done in the latest edition of The Snow Queen (Viking, $10). Gerda's touching search for her beloved Kay, spirited away by the heartless Snow Queen, is perhaps the subtlest of Andersen's tales, and to strip this Romantic classic of much of its unique character as has Naomi Lewis in her predigested narration can only cheat a child of the pleasure in reading the original novella. The Lewis text is merely an excuse for the brilliantly colored art, but, here, Errol Le Cain's stylized paintings appear more than ever like stage sets and costume sketches.
Lorinda Bryan Cauley's reverential interpretation of Andersen's The Ugly Duckling (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $8.95) is much better. She renders the farmyard creatures with exceptional character, and she has a particular sympathy for landscape; sadly, she allows her illustrations to regress into Sendakian smugness. Still the best way to introduce a child to Andersen's art is through a fat collection of the complete tales, but not Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales (Schocken, $10), illustrated by Shirley Hughes, for once again they have been "retold" rather than translated, this time unnecessarily by Jean Robertson. Rather, pick up a copy of Fairy Tales and Legends by Hans Andersen (Bodley Head, $13.95) with its elegant, sophisticated decorations by Rex Whistler, first published in 1935.
Currently Oscar Wilde has been generally treated no better than has Andersen. His Christian mysticism has been expurgated from the latest edition of The Selfish Giant (McGraw-Hill, $7.95): No longer does the holy child bear the woulds of Calvary, and so He becomes in Joanna Isles' rather amateurish pictures just another boy in jeans and sneakers. Fiona French's interpretation of Wilde's The Star Child (Four Winds, $9.95) too is disappointing. French has a splendid decorative sense, but a limited knowledge of human anatomy; her transformation of the hunchback into a handsome prince in Jennifer Westwood's abridgement is unconvincing. Only Leonard Lubin is in full sympathy with Wilde's intentions. One may quibble that Lubin's princess in The Birthday of the Infanta (Viking, $7.95) is not particularly attractive, but nevertheless the otherwise exquisite designs display this artist's extraordinary command of intricate architecture and a beguiling mastery of flat black-and-white. His austere manner only heightens the tragedy of the dwarf who dies of a broken heart for love of a heartless girl.
The household tales of the Brothers Grimm also have once again been plundered. The most sumptuous is the reissue of Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (Viking, $12.95) as illustrated by Kay Nielsen. But why did the editors reproduce from the French edition rather than the original English one? The elaborate decorations added in the French printing only fight with Nielsen's majestic compositions. Another anthology, The Best of Grimm's Fairy Tales (Larousse, $9.95), boasts pictures by Svend Otto S., the recent Danish recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award; the collection, however, is neither the best of nor totally by Grimm (it includes Charles Perrault's "Puss-in-Boots"), and its watercolors relatively conventional. One of the finest modern interpretations of the classic German stories is Mervyn Peake's Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm (Schocken, $10), originally issued in Britain during World War II. This eccentric artist is one of only a few illustrators who have successfully captured both the grotesque and haunting elements of the folk legends.
The Grimm colection has also been the source for several new picture books. From England comes The Sleeping Beauty (Atheneum/Margaret K. McElderry, $9.95) with fashionable and generally bloodless watercolors by Warwick Hutton; from Switzerland comes Monika Laimgruber's energetic The Fisherman and His Wife (Greenwillow, $8.95); it offers great splashes of bright color and witty drawing. The most ambitious American picture book taken from the household tales is Chris Conover's brilliant embellishment of The Bear and the Kingbird (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $8.95). True, the story is only minor Grimm -- an account of a pointless war caused by a rude remark made by a bear to a nest of thin-skinned baby birds; however, Conover has enlarged the original with her marvelous, highly detailed panoramas. Perhaps the great blocks of type will intimidate the slow reader, but The Bear and the Kingbird is reminiscent of medieval manuscripts, designed not be read but to be revered.
And who can find anything to criticize in Margot Tomes' enchanting interpretation of The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Coward-McCann, $6.95)? The story is not that by Goethe, the source for the Moussorgsky opera; it is the one collected by the Grimms, translated (but not fully illustrated) by Wanda Gag, the creator of Millions of Cats, just prior to her early death. Embellished with rich pen-and-ink and harmonious full-color pictures, this is a perfect companion to Tomes' earlier, equally pleasing Jorinda and Joringel.
Inquestionably the oddest new "old" picture book just out is V. C. Vickers' The Google Book (Oxford, $9.95), an unnatural history of such curious creatues as "the Shivver-Doodle" and "the Blue Billed Ork." Another amusing reissue is Rex Whistler's AHA (Houghton Mifflin, $5.95), originally published in 1946 as !OHO! Only a few artists (such as Peter Newell and Hilary Knight) have attempted a full book of "topsy-turvy" illustrations, and no collection is more fascinating than Whistler's. By turning the book upside-down, Henry VIII is transformed into Anne of Cleves, the Fairy Godmother into Cinderella, etc. All this fun is accompanied by equally witty verses by the artist's brother, Laurence Whistler.
Alice Lindley and Angela Sykes were amateurs -- like Vickers, who was a banker -- and one of their private manuscripts, The Story of the Little Round Man (Warne, $6.95), has just appeared. A simple, unpretentious tale of the reformation of a miser, it is decorated with rather crude, but earnest, color pictures.
Although Alice Goyder failed in 1893 to get a publisher for her "Catland" manuscripts, happily A Party in Catland, A Holiday in Catland, and Christmas in Catland (Crowell, $2.95 each) have finally been issued. How could so exceptional an illustrator have been overlooked in her own day? Her pictures have the delicacy of coloring and quaint costumes of Kate Greenaway's art; her animals are worthy of comparison with Beatrix Potter's famous characters.One can only hope that more forgotten manuscripts by Alice Goyder will be found hidden away in old trunks and drawers.
Christmas is a time for remaking old acquaintances, and no better way than through some classic storybooks. However, one must be cautious in selecting a child's holiday reading. Within the great abundance of new "classic," too many liberties have been taken with the old material. Too often there is less there than meets the eye.