BEARS, MONKEYS, ALLIGATORS, squirrels, the inevitable pigs and cats: what does it mean, this menagerie that each year slithers and squeals its way toward the book-buying public? No matter that these creatures come in hues that Nature never mixed and talk with cocktail-party brightness; a children's picture book, you see, is a meeting of minds between adults -- author, illustrator, editor, production department -- who for the sake of argument always knows best. Thus it has ever been.
The outpourings of recent seasons haven't been very inspiring, and, sadly, this current crop of illustrated books doesn't seem any different. Hardly anything can be called a standout, although there is one -- Peter Spier's People -- which seems a distillation of the author's finest qualities, and another -- Fables, by Arnold Lobel -- which is a bold, if not entirely successful, attempt by a talented practitioner to move into new territory. William Steig, M. B. Goffstein, Brian Wildsmith, Barbara Cooney, Ezra Jack Keats, the Provensens, Rachel Isadora and Margot Thomes have also all written and/or illustrated new titles, which run the gamut from pleasant to stale. Meanwhile, Kearen Whiteside, a newcomer to the field, deserves notice for a polished and promising first effort, Brother Mouky and the Falling Sun.
People (Doubleday. $10. Ages 3-8) seems to me, who "read" picture books during the late '40s and early '50s, an homage by Peter Spier to the Golden Books of that era. How well do I remember a similar depiction of the world's human diversity! It had cutaway drawings of factories and office buildings showing the division of labor: busy workers inside while thronging the streets were other folk, including an organ-grinder and a man with a jackhammer. Then on to rice paddies, gondolas, etc.
Spier, whose previous highly acclaimed and highly popular works have always conveyed (for me) a sense of busyness without purpose, here claims global heterogeneity for his theme and executes it with aplomb. That is to say, he seems not at all concerned with what he might have left out or that his arbitrary choices (a cheese porter? a snake charmer and a fortune-teller?) at times might seem annoyingly idiosyncratic. Of course, one can sense immediately what fun Spier had organizing his material and yet how difficult it must have been with so many choices to make. Clothes, food, shelter, games, religion, languages, appearance, fame and riches, poverty and obscurity -- with immense affection Spier investigates all those things which make each of us different and special. Finally here's a truly meaty and involving subject for a man who respectfully gives children the detail they crave.
Arnold Lobel has consistently created with wit and style, and Fables (Harper & Row. $8.95. Ages 5-10) is to some extent no exception. It looks as handsome as can be; to turn the pages and gaze at Lobel's masterful, beautifully colored animal portraits is to feel pleasure. But the 20 fables themselves (more text than he has previously written) are another matter altogether. Something like brief shaggy-dog stories, something like Sufi tales, these are not fables that Aesop would recognize, as the morals are deliberately underwhelming, and there seems a lack of conviction in the telling. Deadpan humor that plays against itself for effect is a subtle form; Lobel has managed it before without seeming as lame as he does this time out.
A young, middle-class male frog is the hero of the new William Steig, Gorky Rises (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $10.95. Ages 4-8), and rise he does, through the offices of a strange potion, up, up, up in the air until he is "suspended in the heavens like a coat on a hanger." Steig, when he published Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, back at the end of the '60s, appeared as a breath of fresh air in the juvenile market, bringing new sophistication to old whimsical conceits. Magic and metamorphosis are his favorite elements and they have, until now, served him well. Gorky Rises is a nice book and Steig's illustrations are as enchanting as ever but it's too much of the same old thing and, despite its plot device, it just isn't all that buoyant.
In the new M. B. Goffstein, An Artist, (Harper & Row. $7.95. All ages) she looks at a painter in much the same way she interpreted a musician's relation with his art in A Little Schubert. Critically praised and fairly prolific, Goffstein, with her spare, miniaturist's sensibility, once seemed offbeat and appealing. Now, it's not easy to work up any enthusiasm for the familiar flatness of her work; she almost seems to be producing without thinking. Yet, paradoxically, her presentations are too cerebral: correctly humanist, they lack emotion. One can admire Goffstein and still feel unmoved by such carefully controlled tidiness. Anyway, for this one her publishers hedge their bets with the often maddening label, all ages. (That means it's a cute gift for a college student.)
Another book about an artist is Wendy Kesselman's Emma, (Doubleday. $7.95. Ages 4-8) illustrated by this year's Caldecott-winning Barbara Cooney. It's practically as minimal a concept as the Goffstein, only here the central figure is an elderly woman who becomes a successful naive painter in her seventies. Both of these titles try to convey a sense of the artist's need for expression and of the matchless power of individual vision. Neither Kesslman-Cooney nor Goffstein quite pulls it off; one can feel the weight of earnest intentions in both. What's missing is any sense of joy.
Alice and Martin Provensen provide the pictures for Walter Dean Myers' The Golden Serpent (Viking. $9.95 Ages 5-8), a folkish tale of a king and a wise man. Naturally the discontented ruler will learn something from the guru (the setting is the Indian subcontinent), and maybe little readers will as well. What's the lesson? Myers coyly leaves that up to his audience, a trick that seems less like authentication and more like a cop-out. It may be that kids are not ready for the wisdom of the East, or at least such a bogus rendering. The Provensen's contribution here is solid, but that doesn't differentiate it from all the other books of this ilk which come out each year.
Brian Wildsmith is a well established star in the picturebook firmament. He has done some stunning color work in his numerous offerings; his is a splashy, hit-you-in-the-face style, combining a sort-of realism with a sort-of abstraction. Wildsmith's greatest achievement is his Circus book, and in Professor Noah's Spaceship (Oxford. $9.95. Ages 4-8), as in other of his titles, there are some of those same wonderful tigers, elephants and giraffes that pranced so gaily under the big top. Unfortunately, Wildsmith is not as vibrant a writer as he is a painter, making this story, with its message of ecological doom and salvation, seem far too didactic and contrived. Still, there's a dandy-looking robot in a walk-on role.
"No, Agatha!" by Rachel Isadora (Greenwillow. $7.95. Ages 4-8), is also a splendidly attractive book, with an almost nonexistent dramatic line. A period piece, it shows us Agatha and her oh-so-proper Edwardian parents as they cross the Atlantic on an ocean liner. This seems a waste of Isadora's substantial talent, for it was she who was responsible for the compelling Ben's Trumpet. So evocative are these sepia-toned drawings that it might be worth it to buy the book and make up another story to go with the pictures.
In fact, Mildred Pitts Walker's Ty's One-man Band (Four Winds. $9.95. Ages 4-8), illustrated by Margot Tomes, recalls the spirit of Ben's Trumpet more emphatically than does Isadora's own newest book. The publishers term this "an original American folktale," but some of the artistic ideas seem to owe more to Ben's Trumpet than would merit the adjective "original." It's a completely agreeable portrait of a moment in time -- the era seems uncertain, but a good guess would make it the '20s -- when a black man who plays "a washboard and two wooden spoons, a tin pail and a comb," comes to town and sets everyone to dancing. A folktale, it seems to me, has a fairly specific meaning, and wishing doesn't make it one. Nonetheless, Ty's One-man Band has a high cheerfulness quotient.
Louie's Search (Four Winds. $9.95. Ages 5-8) is for a father, and Ezra Jack Keats, always at home in an urban environment, has Louie looking all over a typical New York City neighborhood. A music box that falls off the back of a truck and which Louie picks up brings him to the initially not-so-amiable attention of Barney, a junk dealer who soon falls for Peg, Louie's mother. Though full of warmth and brought to life with rich colors, Keats' story lacks the resonances which could make it memorable.
Karen Whiteside, in Brother Mouky and the Falling Sun (Harper & Row. $7.95. Ages 4-8) shows that she can write a tight, caring story; what's more, she doesn't neglect the important task of sustaining narrative tension. Even better, Whiteside's two-color block prints are strongly descriptive and interact with the text in a most satisfactory way. Mouky, a black boy, is taking a walk in his city, "along avenues, up alleys and across empty lots." While he walks he wonders how he can keep the sun from setting: his mother has told him, "Don't let the sun go down and you be staying angry at someone." But he can't get over being mad at his brother for hurtful words hurled at him. How Mouky decides in his heart to forgive, just as the sun spreads "its red-and-orange cape across the river's lap," is what Whiteside explores.
Maybe there is a standout, after all.