LIKE THE AUTUMN FOLIAGE, this fall's crop of illustrated children's books is a riot of color. Bright, bright colors that seem almost to lift off the page, for example, distinguish Margot Zemach's Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven and A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams. Softer hues are to be found in Jackson Makes His Move by Andrew Glass and David McPhail's Great Cat--yet they're no less vigorous for being pastel. This abundance of color is significant, as some years there has seemed to be a trend toward less of it, both because of prevailing aesthetic and financial reasons. For a time the colored picture book even looked like an endangered species, but it's obvious that there are many who recognize that this is an art form we can ill afford to lose. True, the prices are often high, but, if you choose carefully amidst the new offerings, the value is good.
For adults or for children, Margot Zemach's Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven (Farrar Straus Giroux, $13.95. Ages 4-8) is a visual feast. The delicious colors are almost tropical in their radiance, with the hues of morning glories bursting open against the dawn. Sort of an instant folk tale, it's set in a black community in America in the early part of this century. Jake and his independent-minded mule, Honeybunch, are in the town of Hard Times, half a mile from their tumbledown shack, one day when a freight train doesn't wait for Honeybunch to get across the tracks. The next thing Jake knows he's at the Pearly Gates, and then inside them. But God--a large black man with a closely trimmed salt-and-pepper beard above his bow-tie--isn't so sure that Jake should have sneaked in like that, without St. Peter's okay. So out he goes, until Honeybunch herself sneaks in, causing an uproar "with her kicking and carrying on, scattering angels in every direction." Since no one but Jake can handle her, God is obliged to call him back and then decides to let him stay.
Zemach's familiar, Chagall-like floating figures lend themselves readily to this celestial milieu, and her all- black heaven is rendered in the faux-naif style she's perfected. It's a cheery, beautiful book, yet it might trade in too many clich,es of black life, Ma la Porgy and Bess, to be accepted by everyone. Heaven, or at least this particular one, is a kind of happy-Harlem-in-the-clouds with a jazz band and ladies in flowered hats serving pies.
Almost every page in Vera B. Williams' A Chair for My Mother (Greenwillow, $9. Ages 4-8)) vibrates with primary colors so intense and warm you can almost feel them physically. They're so strong that they come near to overpowering the slight story, narrated by a little girl whose waitress-mother is saving her tips to buy a "fat, soft armchair." Cleverly designed borders around each pair of facing pages are keyed to the text, and there are many charming spot drawings, as well. The only pictures with diminished color are those showing the apartment fire that burned up the comfortable furniture; before that, Williams utilized a hazy gray shading to foreshadow the tragedy. Getting over such an experience with the loving help of family and friends is one of the author-artist's themes, as is also the simple pleasure of working toward an obtainable goal.
The furry hero of Andrew Glass' Jackson Makes His Move (Warne, $9.95. Ages 4-8) is not called Jackson for nothing. Rather as if some little creature out of Thornton Burgess or Beatrix Potter moved from a tree to a loft in New York's Soho, Jackson the raccoon, a popular woodland artist who's dissatisfied with the way his work is going, packs his palette for the big city. There, befriended by a street rat, he learns to "climb inside the picture . . . paint inside out" and, eventually, as he becomes rapt with the sensation of painting his own feelings, he loses "himself in the swirling and dripping, the splashing and rubbing." In other words, like an earlier Jackson, this one discovers Abstract Expressionism. The way Andrew Glass explains Jackson's creative evolution makes for almost a capsule history of modern art, and the book, with its wonderfully odd-looking animal characters, is a twofer: fun, plus education.
Another animal with a career is William Steig's Doctor De Soto (Farrar Straus Giroux, $11.95. Ages 4-8), a mouse dentist. It's a kind of oral-hygiene Aesop, as a fox with a toothache avails himself of the kindly little doctor's services while hoping to make a snack of him once his mouth is restored to normal. But Dr. De Soto, abetted by Mrs. De Soto, fulfills his Hippocratic oath, at the same time sending his patient away outfoxed. This is droll, but hardly major Steig, whose marvelous, very early children's books, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Roland the Minstrel Pig, adored by many, oddly are no longer included on this jacket's list of titles. Doctor De Soto is, well, cute, and that's about it; good, though, for a remembered chuckle next time your mouth is full of instruments.
Cats, from the Cheshire Cat to the Cowardly Lion, are widely met in children's literature, as they are everywhere else these days. Great Cat, by David McPhail (Unicorn/Dutton, $9.75. Ages 3-6), is part Harvey, part Robinson Crusoe. A huge white kitten, already "as big as a full-grown lion," appears on Toby's doorstep one night, waking him up. Soon he has to go fishing continually to feed his new pet and must buy a cow to keep her in milk. The solution, when Great Cat's size starts to alarm the neighborhood: an island for the three of them, where there's an ocean full of fish and "plenty of grass for the cow." At one point, the heroic Great Cat swims out to sea to rescue a boatload of children. That's all. But Great Cat is a well-imagined beast, the pictures invite re-looking, and it's a splendid fantasy for cat lovers, especially those with secret yearnings for a St. Bernard.
In Martin Leman's Ten Cats and Their Tales (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $9.95. All ages), the pussies are pretty big too. But then there are no humans to measure them against, just the stray mouse or marble, rose or seashell. Five rhyming couplets ("Three is the cat that lives by the sea/ Four is the cat that pounced on a bee") get you from one to 10, accompanied by handsome, deeply colored paintings that occasionally call to mind the jungle canvases of Henri Rousseau. Elegant endpapers add to the pleasure of Ten Cats; too bad Leman didn't count to 12, as this would translate quite well into a calendar.
Eugene Field's Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, illustrated by Susan Jeffers (Dutton, $9.95. Ages 3-6) is a magical poem that seems to have always been there, way before the late 19th century when it was actually written. Every time I hear it, I wish I had a cool pillow and a soft blanket to nestle in; Susan Jeffers, who's illustrated many classic children's stories and poems, with varying results, understands that the escape to sleep is at the heart of this dreamy verse. Thus, the colors she chooses are nighttime (but not dark) shades, and the entire book is permeated with the blue tinge of a room illuminated by moonlight. Here, Wynken, Blynken and Nod are two brothers and a sister, with Jeffers having abandoned her pretty-pretty style for a more hard-edged, cartoonish approach. However, some of the double-page spreads succeed better than others at integrating the words and images. First the kids are pictured rigging up a make-believe boat in their toy box, next they are being wafted out the window in the "wooden shoe" of the rhyme, and finally their parents are tucking them into their star- quilted beds. Jeffers' tight, matte illustrations aren't particularly evocative; the poem, though, can't help but be.
There are no colors at all in The Tiny Vistor by Oscar de Mejo (Pantheon, $9.95. All ages), which is a surreal, quirky book that seems just a tad too sophisticated for children. The words -- minimal, deadpan, allusive -- remind one of Edward Gorey; take this: "Outside the church a little bird was waiting. It looked strangely familiar" or "They became good friends after she saved him from the perils of quicksand." And the drawings resemble those of Saul Steinberg: childlike yet subtle, they seem to be parts of an ongoing psychoanalysis, as in fact does the whole book. Still, like all good nonsense, this tale of courtship, big birds and little people, has a center which seems to hold; the flat statements probably won't trouble young readers, who can be both literal-minded but lenient, if they sense that a wacky world has unity.