"Seeing comes before words," the British art critic and novelist John Berger has said. "We explained (the) world with words," but "the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled."

In the very conjunction then of a picture book's illustrations and text something of a mystery unfolds for the curious reader. Even wordless books, a number of which have appeared on library and store shelves in recent months, involve us in the mystery as we improvise a text for ourselves to account for the images before us. We read landscapes, faces, colors, as well as poems and stories. Words and pictures are both texts of a kind to be brought into play between the picture book's covers.

Donald Crews is an engaging colorist whose poster-clear graphic style and evident delight in bodies-in-motion seem exactly suited to certain interests and needs of very young readers. In Harbor, a book about the ships and boats commonly seen in the port of New York, Crews builds his images from solid blocks of color venturing broadly from bright primaries to delicate pastels, with the sparing addition of simple black outline. It is a type of illustration that, by simplifying the objects depicted almost to the level of graphic symbols, closely corresponds to the basic language-function of naming. Children learning to talk make a game of repeating the names of any object that crosses their path; Harbor itself draws the reader into the game. The artist's modest text--more than identifying captions, less than a poem or story-- does the tugboat-work of pointing and guiding from one illustration to another.

New York harbor as illustrated by Crews is a festive, robust, unfailingly active place from which all signs of dank water and garish urban desolation have providentially disappeared. It is an artist's dream. One would in any case like to see this artist put in charge of projects to repaint industrial land- and harborscapes everywhere.

Curiously, no human figures appear in these paintings, an absence that any inquisitive child is apt to question; some readers will seize the opportunity to place themselves on board the artist's passenger liners, fire boats, motor cruisers and tankers. Harbor can, one imagines, be enjoyed by readers of widely differing outlooks and temperaments. Little realists may picture for themselves future careers as merchant marines, barge operators or shipping magnates; they may learn to identify several types of seagoing vessel and to spell such useful words as "sanitation," "manufacturing," and "cement." It would be hard to find a book more likely to heighten a young child's awareness of the pure possibilities of color. For latterday Huck Finns, the artful means of escape are everywhere on these pages.

Ashore with Douglas Florian, readers of The City are taken on a cheerfully diverting journey through certain quarters of Manhattan Island. A wordless narrative, The City consists of a sequence of subtly colored and textured watercolor-and-line drawings of quirky elegance and genial wit. The changing scene is continuous from one double-page drawing to the next; readers invent a story for themselves from the characters, settings and other narrative details that the artist, like a mystery writer scattering clues, has provided. "Reading" a work of pictorial storytelling of this kind involves one in a process that is perhaps no different from, and certainly no less fun than daydreaming. If only the artist's initial reverie has been vividly enough rendered, an imaginative dialogue between artist and reader--a double dream--can begin.

Viewed from this standpoint, certain of Florian's drawings seem a bit thinly plotted, oversimplified for "easy reading" as though with a "juvenile" audience too self-consciously in mind. A double-page portrait of a fire engine (in motion?) is an instance of this that is also static in design. But other illustrations, such as an aerial view of traffic heading into and out of town over one of the city's old warhorse suspension bridges, seem on the verge of animation. Lyrical, elegant drawings of the Central Park boating pond and of the Guggenheim Museum (mischievously "redesigned" by Florian to suit his characteristic, slightly sinking sense of proportion) are enchanting evocations of mood and style as well as place. Throughout these pages, not only color but visual texture stands for, and makes one actually feel, something of the sheer energy and variousness of the urban street scene at its best.

It is clear this artist views New York as a superior kind of playground. But the local inhabitants, eccentric as can be, as observed by Florian, also have real and unadorned individuality and presence. They tread the boards with a sense of the importance of mere living firmly fixed upon their tersely scribbled cartoon faces. What stories they might tell of themselves, if only they could speak. . . . It is thus that the artist's daydream of The City becomes our own.

In Let's Make Rabbits, Leo Lionni, a modernist with a light touch, has taken the page itself as the field of his story's action and made characters of artist's tools and materials. A pair of scissors and a pencil meet and decide to "make rabbits." Pencil's rabbit doodle appears on the following page beside Scissors' work, a rabbit cutout fashioned from scraps of decorative paper brightly rendered in color by the artist.

Now the rabbits come to life and, distinctly different from each other as they are--in graphic terms--get acquainted and set out on a journey of self-discovery that ends all too soon and on a "philosophic" note that, if not overly abstract to engage the imaginative sympathies of 3-, 4-, or 5-year-olds, is in any case ponderous.

Long an innovator in children's book illustrations (as in virtually every aspect of commercial art and design), Lionni has in Let's Make Rabbits taken the picture book form firmly in hand and with as much graphic inventiveness and joy-in-making as he showed, for instance, in Inch by Inch, which is a touchstone of the genre. The more unfortunate, then, that he has not supplied his characters with a more involving text. Lionni's rabbits leap expectantly from the page only to escape the storyteller's grasp.

Arranged like snapshots in a family album, the anecdotal watercolor-and-line illustrations of Peter Spier's Rain require no written accompaniment. Each painting relates a nostalgic vignette of childhood, a different aspect of the artist's theme: the simple pleasures of playing outdoors in rainy weather.

Urban and suburban children, temporarily dislodged from their preferred video entertainment, may find the possibilities for old-fashioned "fun" as delineated in Rain something of an eye-opener, if not a revelation. More likely, however, they will quickly detect the tame expressionlessness of the artist's child characters, the pervasive absence of felt emotion that renders Spier's slickered hero and heroine's mildly mischievous adventures a blank exercise. Spier can be an evocative illustrator of landscape and atmosphere, especially where trees, flowers and water are concerned. But few readers will be tempted by Rain to spend the next stormy day outdoors --which may after all be just as well--or to return from interstellar space for any purpose.

By contrast, The Sun's Asleep Behind the Hill, with text adapted from a traditional Armenian lyric by Mirra Ginsburg and with illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky, is a poignantly affecting work, a picture book of exceptional unity and grace.

According to the hauntingly timbred vision of this nightsong, sleep overtakes the natural world in little fits and starts, with word quietly passing from wind to leaf to bird that it is at last time to set aside the day's work for a night of rest.

The illustrator's atmospheric yet tautly observed paintings follow the progress of the sleepers, flashing backward, as the text does, to show them also at the height of day. In several paintings one image has been set within the borders of another, with the inset painting a variation, in time-of-day or of perspective, of the image on the page before. The effect of this unusual arrangement is much like that of the repetition of certain lines in the verse text: a rhythmic binding of image and emotions such as is always the nightsong or lullaby's secret subject, whatever the words set to its music happen to be.

Various strengths, displayed in other recent work by this fine and dexterous artist, coalesce in these paintings: the concentrated portraiture of How I Hunted the Little Fellows; the puzzle-design of The Maid and the Mouse and the Odd-Shaped House, among others. The mother and child of The Sun's Asleep share a wizened, lyrical intelligence; in the one full view we have of them their poses and expressions are a touching evocation of the mysteries of relation. As painted by Zelinsky, a child's kite, a lone figure rowing in a park, a brace of horsetail cirrus clouds overhead become objects of reverie. One is reminded of a remark by the writer and illustrator Robert Lawson. One can never tell, Lawson observed in a Caldecott acceptance speech, "what tiny detail of a drawing or what seemingly trivial phrase in a story will be the spark that sets off a great flash in the mind of some child." In The Sun's Asleep Behind the Hill the possibilities are manifest.

Not all picture books with relatively little text are especially meant for younger children. Readers most receptive to Ben's Dream, by Chris Van Allsburg, for example, are likely to consider themselves too old for the nightsong of The Sun's Asleep Behind the Hill; to have become impatient with the more literal-minded satisfactions of Harbor; to be ready for a half-portion or more of satire, paradox, irony both in story form and in graphic art of a sophisticated kind.

Viewed beside the suavely polished and shadowy black-and-white dream-images of Van Allsburg's two previous picture books, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and Jumanji (the latter has been awarded the Caldecott Medal for 1982), the illustrations of Ben's Dream seem almost to have shed their skin. The artist has drawn this new sequence of images in a shimmering, skeletal black- and-white style clearly intended to yield the impression of steel-plate engraving. A tiny voice in the crowd asks: "Whatever for?"

The French poet and novelist Raymond Queneau spoke of the "memory of the precise uneasiness" produced in him as a child by the sight of such hard and frozen images, the engraved illustrations of his mother's department store catalogs. The surrealist Max Ernst clipped similar engravings in order to subject them to the hair-raising radical surgery of surrealist collage. Ernst's tumultuous collage novel Une Semaine de Bont,e looms somewhere just beyond the borders of Ben's Dream, in which Van Allsburg has however lightened surrealist menace to the point of parody. The reader who is "with" the artist is likely on this occasion not only to be transfixed by the "silent" (wordless) dream sequence that forms the story's ambiguous central episode, but to giggle rapturously over it; to pronounce it "weird."

The dream begins when Ben, an intelligent-looking boy of about 9, grows bored doing his geography lesson. Suddenly the wood frame house he lives in is adrift in a flood. Alone in the house, he floats through the world, past the Statue of Liberty, al the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Sphinx, the onion-domed Kremlin, Mount Rushmore--monuments of the past, all partially submerged in a world at sea. Along the way he catches sight of a friend, her house also adrift but in a different direction. (Later, safely back on solid ground, the friend will claim to have seen Ben in a similar dream; how, the reader is asked, Herman Hesse-style, to ponder, can this be?)

Ben has had a geography lesson, though not the one he planned on. His has been as perilous, lonely and heroic an adventure, perhaps, as growing-up itself. But Ben, in talking with his friend, is stoically indifferent about his dream. He explains he has a baseball game to attend to. Like the child characters in Van Allsburg's coolly enigmatic earlier stories, he seems world-weary, in the artist's illustrations prematurely gray. Ben's Dream is a wonderfully complex, memorable book, but one cannot remember it without the disquieting sense that for Ben himself, dream and all, childhood is much like any particularly demanding profession.