What these publications have in common is that they portray various aspects of Britain, and that they are aimed at children. They are pretty to look at, with lots of pictures, nice layouts and good typography and binding. Consequently they are also rather expensive.
Rating them in order of value for money, I put Shakespeare and His Theatre first. The author is a prominent Shakespearean scholar and director. His text, compact and meaty, has a clearly defined theme: the buildings of Elizabethan and Jacobean London, including the famous "Globe," in which plays were performed; and the interaction of writers, actors, stagehands, and audiences. The colored drawings by David Gentleman are both charming and informative; they are admirably related to the text, and relieve its occasional flatness. Author and illustrator are expert, and honestly so. Each is at pains to explain what we know for sure about Shakespeare's milieu, and what is partly conjecture.
We hear, for example, about the actors' company known as the Chamberlain's Men, of which William Shakespeare was a member; about the famous Richard Burbage, who was the first actor to play Hamlet and then King Lear; and about the boys and young men who filled the female roles. We discover that there were no directors or producers as such; and that, while scenery and props were very simple, costumes could be expensively elaborate. Detail of this kind satisfies the youthful reader's appetite for instruction. It also awakens curiosity to learn more.
Second I would rate Anno's Britain, a set of bird's-eye views of an imaginary journey from the south coast of England up into Scotland. Mitsumasa Anno is a Japanese artist. His scenes are detailed, affectionate and whimsical. The "journey" is that of a little man on horseback, who appears in every drawing, in medieval garb. He rides through fields, villages and towns peopled with an assortment of actual and of literary charcters (the Canterbury Pilgrims, the Beatles, Robin Hood, Winnie the Pooh), along with such certified attractions as Trafalgar Square, Windsor Castle, Hyde Park Corner, and Loch Ness--though I don't see the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, which is among the listed features. It's a sweetly mythical realm, clean and quaint and traffic-free; nd likely therefore, I would guess, to appeal to bookish anglophile families as well as to the British Tourist Board--especially since Anno brings the Union Jack into several of his townscapes.
The book I expected most from is the most disappointing. What could be better, in theory, than a selection of poems by D.H. Lawrence, introduced by Donald Hall (a competent American poet) and illustrated by the reputable team of Alice and Martin Provensen? Yet the enterprise is botched, and perhaps basically misconceived. Hall's too-short introduction says little more than that Lawrence (1885-1930) was the son of a coalminer in the midlands county of Nottingham; that he became a prolific author; that his output included a good many poems; and that the Provensens picked out from the oeuvre verses "suited for younger readers." According to the blurb, the Provensens took the trouble to visit Lawrence's home town, and "chose the backdrop of Lawrence's childhood--the pitheads and seashores of Eastwood--to unify the varied sensations and scenery of the poetry."
Nottingham has of course no seacoast, being a landlocked shire. The book itself seems almost to encourage such blurring of fact. Thus, the Provensens' version of a rainbow is inaccurate without being imaginative; so is their school wall-map of the British Isles. Their "Eastwood" is set in the 1890s, with costumes of the period. We are apparently meant to think of Lawrence as addressing the children of Eastwood's classrooms and streets, and indeed of being one of them. But not much of his poetry, and none of the samples in this selection, deals with everyday Eastwood. The local color provided by the Provensens is therefore oddly irrelevant or unexplained. A queer example is a schoolroom scene in which little boys in Eton collars and little girls in pinafores are supposed to be grappling with "relativity and quantum theories," 20 years before even grown-ups were familiar with the name of Albert Einstein.
The 23 poems in the book must have commended themselves as "easy" and short--several of only three or four lines. A few do reveal the Lawrentian virtues (vigor, immediacy, simplicity): Sea-weed sways and sways and swirls as if swaying were its form of stillness. But he usually needed room to spread himself. Most of these little pieces are insignificant, and some--such as "Little Fish"--are childish as distinct from childlike: The tiny fish enjoy themselves in the sea. Quick little splinters of life, their little lives are fun to them in the sea. Moreover, a great deal of Lawrence's poetry is concerned with death, and with sexual and other forms of conflict. The effect of the Provensen tidbits is to tidy him up and to diminish him. Donald Hall claims this batch of verses will acquaint young people with "a great writer they can enjoy for the rest of their lives." I on the contrary believe it will turn people off Lawrence, perhaps for life.
There is a market, we are told, for juvenile literature. Publishers cannot be blamed for catering to it. How much, though, do they themselves create the market, obeying rules they have themselves devised? At any rate, "12 and up" is apt to mean "designed for 12-year-olds." "For all ages" similarly leads to books aimed at the youngest possible readership. The outcome is a mass of stylish, cute, inoffensively forgettable books. No bogeys, no brutality, no bad language--and no magic.
The basic test is whether a particular work will be read and re-read, or merely flipped through: whether it is a genuine book or an artful package. Professor Brown easily passes the test. Mitsumasa Anno gets by on winsome ingenuity rather than rich wonderment. The Lawrence volume is, however, as denatured as an artificial flower. CAPTION: Illustration 1, no caption, by David Gentleman from "Shakespeare and His Theatre"; Illustration 2, no caption, from "Anno's Britain"SHAKESPEARE AND HIS THEATRE. By John Russell Brown; illustrated by David Gentleman. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard. 64 pp. $12.50. Ages 12-up:; ANNO'S BRITAIN. By Mitsumasa Anno. Philomel. Unpaginated. $10.95. All ages; BIRDS, BEASTS AND THE THIRD THING: Poems by D.H. Lawrence. Introduction by Donald Hall; selected and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. Viking. Unpaginated. $12.95. All ages