THERE IS, TUCKED AWAY in the minds of many grown-ups, an inventory of stories and art work from the books of childhood whose special moments dot our memories. And yet the books themselves need not have been "special." There is no reason to suppose that the particular book a person remembers most fondly was ever singled out for an award by a committee of librarians. Picture books especiaaly, those earliest companions, can be both pedestrian and adored. A child cannot be coaxed into liking this or that highly recommended selection; choices seem to be more a matter of chemistry or serendipity.
For example, a sophisticated package such as The Fisherman and His Wife , a familiar tale from Grimm newly illustrated by Margot Zemach (herself a much-honored author and artist); has many apapealing elements, but may frustrate the child who prefers a less slippery reality. Is there anyone who doesn't know that this is the tale (known in many variants) of a magic fish who, thrown back by a kind-hearted fisherman, grants too many wishes to this benefactor and his wife? The fisherman, a simple soul, is content with the satisfactio of their first request, for a new cottage; his wife, here a woman of of stupendous venality, wants more and more and more, until she goes too far, then gets her come-downance.
Zemach's colorful pictures, with their Chagall-life figures and buildings askew, beseech us to look at them; they carry a sense of their own drama and help convey the doom-laden magic of the story. But it is the poet Randall Jarrell's translation which finally does the work of pulling the reader in, a helpless witness to the increasingly claustrophobic transformations. However, since Jarrell died 15 years ago, I wish that the publisher had troubled to explain how this fine "collaborative" work came to be issued now.
A more obviously "popular" choice (The Fisherman and His Wife may have to settle for merely being "distinguished") might by Lydia Pender's Barnaby and the Horses , with its greeting-card-pretty paintings and its unadorned story of a small boy who loses three horses, then finds them again on a river bank. Yet to dismiss this book as having too easy a beauty or too plain a plot would be to do it a disservice. Inga Moore's warmly hued illustrations practically jump off the page depicting the joy-filled movement of Barnaby and his equine charges, while Pender's onomatopoetic story-poem demands to be read aloud. Fans of the recent, splendid film, The Black Stallion , will learn again from this lyrical book what the director and cinematographer of that movie knew so well (and what so many other creative artists have known over the centuries) -- that horses and water (see them splash!) are an unbeatable combination.
Wordless books, of which A Day in the Life of Petronella Pig is one, ask for some effort on the part of the "reader." There are those children who rigidly stubbornly, like for a book to be exactly the same every time it's opened; but not all parents can remember how they interpreted the incidents of such a book the last time around. There are a few things going on here that seem certain, though: Petronella, our heroine, is a single parent (is she a widow? divorced? or liberated?). Her offspring is a mischievous male piglet, fond of such activies as dispatching the raisins out of a tea cake through a peashooter at is mother's guests. Moreover, Tatjana Hauptmann and her publisher have given us a fairly extravagant production in Petronella; it's oversized, with heavy-paper pages, each one cut out with designs that overlap and fit together. The illustrations offer elaborate, amusing details of the Pig household, and quite a pleasingly bourgeois menage it is. Not all children (or adults) are susceptible to this sort of whimsy, but those who are will blush with pleasure at the sight of the unclothed Petronella's dainty pork butt, as she -- no swine -- steps in the bath.
Bijou LeTord's Picking and Weaving is a didactic picture book, its style reminiscent of M. B. Goffstein, with confident line figures that seem to reflect a miniaturist's sensibility. Elegant color accenting completes the visual presentation, while the explanatory text is clipped and clear. Many children enjoy finding out how something works -- in this case, how a cotton plant is transformed into the fabrics that drape ourselves and our world. Unfortunately, there is no mention of any of the depredations experienced by the pickers and weavers themselves, the sordidness fo which fact, if included, would quickly play against LeTord's agreeable, unforced tone. This aveat about a sin of omission is necessary: Picking and Weaving is indeed a charming-looking book, but it is wrong to provide half-information.
There are basically two types of small children: Those who have pets and those who want one. Using her own black cat, Pearl, as inspiration, Dona Turner has created a slight but highly affectionate tribute to feline domestic habits. In My cat pearl , young readers will find a full measure of reciprocal pet-owner love with which to identify. As I myself am the possessor of a practically perfect (black) cat, I can attest to the unfailing cuteness of cat hiding-places, cat smuggling techniques, and so forth. And I envy Turner her skill at portraying just how a yellow-eyed black cat is always making such an emphatic statement simply but its presence on the landscape. Still, there's a better book covering the identical black-cat territory: Jane Feder's Beany , illustrated by Karen Gundersheimer (Pantheon; reviewed in Book World , 4/8/79).
Cozy family activity, of the sort which made the children's stories by Louisa May Alcott so cherished is the cornerstone of The Bears' Bazaar , a "story/craft book" in which Michelle Cartlidge describes a successful school bazaar. Lucy and Eric Bear are beside themselves with excitement over the coming festivity, and their parents encourage them to channel this high energy into making painted stone paperweights, paper dolls, mobiles and gingerbread bears, all of which are to be sold at the fair. Each of Cartlidge's watercolors of the busy Bear family is practically a bazaar itself. She excels at presenting detail, whether of the Bear garden or of Eric and Lucy's roomful of toys. Sadly, the directions for making the book's projects are not as detailed: For example one creation calls for filling eggshells with soil; however, Cartlidge doesn't make clear how the top of the egg should be sliced off to remove the egg and make it hollow for the dirt. Besides, suggesting what to do with the eggs would not be amiss in these inflationary times.