The Crane Wife, retold by Sumiko Yagawa; translated from the Japanese by Katherine Paterson; illustrated by Suekichi Akaba (Morrow, $8.95. All ages). Be content with what you have, for wanting more will lead to loss--of what you possess and what you love. Such is the moral of the classic Japanese folktale "The Crane Wife," presented here with great sensitivity and beauty.
Shortly after the simple peasant Yohei finds and helps a wounded crane, he is visited by a beautiful young woman who asks to become his wife. They eke out an existence together that winter until they are in need of money. Yohei's new wife bids him to fetch her a loom; then with strict instructions that he is not to watch her, she retires to weave a bolt of material which Yohei then sells for a handsome price. She does so once more, producing cloth even more beautiful than the first. By now Yohei has become greedy, and he asks her once more to weave some fabric, which he plans to sell at great profit in the city. But he has also become curious --why is she so drained after each weaving session, and why has she ordered him not to watch her? And so he disobeys and peeks in, to discover a crane at his wife's loom, weaving cloth from feathers plucked from its very own breast. The spell is broken, and the wife is gone, leaving behind only a bolt of radiant cloth, and a snow- white crane rising in the distant sky.
In her skillful translation of the story Katherine Paterson has retained several of the particularly onomatopoeic Japanese words, which not only appeal to the ear but help retain some of the story's exotic flavor for American readers.
Artist Suekichi Akaba, a Hans Christian Andersen medalist last year, uses a traditional Japanese technique of applying water-thinned ink to paper for the illustrations in The Crane Wife. The soft dreamlike effect is particularly well suited to the story.
Bo Rabbit Smart For True: Folktales from the Gullah, retold by Priscilla Jaquith; drawings by Ed Young (Philomel/Putnam, $9.95. All ages). Like "Uncle Remus" stories, these tales, which developed in the black culture of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, have as their hero a character who can outwit the bigger and the more powerful. That hero is Bo (not Brer) Rabbit, a wiley fellow who in the course of these four stories, outsmarts a whale, an elephant, a rattlesnake and a family of crocodiles and is in turn shown a thing or two himself by a commonsensical and matronly partridge.
Ostensibly, the book is designed to give the reader a flavor of Gullah, that peculiar patois of English and African words handed down through generations of blacks descended from slaves originally from either Angola or the Gola tribe of Liberia--no one is altogether sure. But aside from throwing in a few phrases like "sun-hot" for midday, or words like "arguefy" and "jubilate," there's scarcely a syllable of dialect in this book. In fact the author and editors seem assiduously to have avoided it, perhaps on the assumption that it is hard to read. For anyone who has heard the music of Gullah as it is actually spoken, the text of Bo Rabbit Smart for True will be a disappointment. For those who have not, the book will not be enlightening. Still, the tales themselves have charm, and Ed Young's illustrations add to the book's appeal.
The King's Trousers, by Robert Kraus; illustrated by Fred Gwynne (Windmill, $9.95, Ages 6-9). This is a story about class. And for those who don't like those who believe in their own superiority, it will not be a satisfying book.
King Ivor is a bad-tempered man who gloats over his groveling subjects until one day he is spied putting on his trousers. His method, of course, is just like everyone else's. The news travels fast, and his subjects, led by the "Pretender to the Throne," Slammo (depicted as a gap- toothed loutish sort of bloke), begin to get mutinous. Just as they storm the castle gates and enter the throne room ready to install the pretender, King Ivor outsmarts them with a stroke of genius which clearly justifies his position. So much for the unruly masses!
The story and illustrations have their high points, particularly the King's attempts to devise a new way of putting on his pants. But mostly the figures are doughy, their outlines marked with a heavy black line and garish colors, which do not serve the story well.
What's for Lunch: Animal Feeding at the Zoo, by Sally Tongren (GMG Publishing 25 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036, $12.95; paperback, $8.95. Ages 8-up). Did you know that each giant panda at the National Zoo eats 25 pounds of bamboo every day? That each marmoset eats a cricket twice a week and two baby mice on Tuesdays? Trivia, maybe, but interesting--and it's all part of an illuminating book on who eats what at Washington's zoo. Once animals are held in captivity, their diet becomes crucial to their well-being, and particularly to their capacity to breed, which is necessary if the enormous gene pool preserved in zoos is to be perpetuated.
Seeing that each animal gets not only the protein it needs, but the vitamins and trace elements, demands precision and care. Sally Tongren's account of how diets are made is full and authoritative. The book's only disappointment is its black-and-white photographs, which lack depth and contrast and, to an eye accustomed to animal pictures in color, seem very uninviting.
Ned Kelly & the City of the Bees, by Thomas Keneally; illustrated by Stephen Ryan (Godine, $10.95. Ages 9-14). Thomas Keneally is an Australian writer best known to Americans for his highly acclaimed novel Confederates (1980) in which he wrote convincingly of the American Civil War. Here, in this children's novel-- first published 13 years ago in Australia and now reprinted here in a beautiful edition--Keneally writes just as convincingly about the life of bees.
For his entr,e, as it were, into the hive Keneally has invented an appealing little boy named Ned Kelly. Ned, lying in a hospital bed after an attack of appendicitis, is approached by a friendly bee who deposits a drop of nectar on his lips. Presto, Ned, in Alice-in-Wonderland fashion, shrinks, climbs on the bee's back and goes off to spend a summer in the hive. He finds he has another human companion, a similarly-shrunk child named Nancy Clancy.
Throughout the story Keneally successfully melds the surreal with the real. Ned and Nancy lead a dreamlike life--eating only honey, flying astride the bees on their food-gathering visits to flowers, and enjoying the bees' favorite recreation, perching on the windowsill of Mrs. Abey's house and listening to radio soap operas. But the details of hive-life all seem authentic, anthropomorphized though they are, and Ned, with some dismay, confronts the harsh realities of life lived in the wild as he witnesses an attack on the hive by wasps, learns about the ruthlessness of queens, and finally watches in horror as the workers first refuse to feed his drone friends, Basil and Romeo, and then push them out of the hive as autumn approaches.
Yet Keneally sustains a marvelously light and appealing tone from beginning to end. Miss Nancy Clancy's conversation is a series of ridiculous rhymes. Romeo woos Queen Selma with a steady stream of riddles which most 10-year-olds should find both funny and memorable. And Ned's position as an observer, both of bee and human life, gives him the opportunity to deliver some wry commentary. The novel's conclusion is sufficiently ambiguous that young readers will be left wondering if Ned dreamed it all or if he didn't just somehow manage to spend a summer with the bees.
Frontier Wolf, by Rosemary Sutcliff (Dutton, $11.50. Ages 12 and up). The setting of this novel is 4th- century Roman Britain, in the wilds north of Hadrian's wall. The hero, a young centurion, Alexios Flavius Aquila, must prove himself and erase a black mark on his previous military record by commanding a regiment of native troops, called the Frontier Wolves, at a lonely outpost near what is today Edinburgh.
Alexios' success as a commander depends upon the respect he earns not only from his native troops but from the region's indigenous tribesmen, a clan of hunters and horsebreeders. But like most troops occupying alien territory far from supply sources, the Romans find their position north of the wall ultimately untenable. In the face of brutal attacks from several highland tribes Alexios must finally lead his beleaguered band south.
Sutcliff is an accomplished historical novelist, paying close attention to period details as well as plot. Her portrait of garrison life in Roman Britain is meticulously drawn, as is life in the "rath" or settlement, of the local people. She pauses patiently over the details, pulling her reader into the setting, but always building suspense and anticipation that something is going to happen. When it does, the drama moves swiftly toward a stirring climax.