THE NEW FALL picture books, several by young, emerging artists from here and abroad, show the vitality of distinctive individual styles at work and of an eagerness to experiment -- especially on the illustration side. Film animation, cartoon strip art, graphic design and a variety of fine arts traditions are among their sources -- not new developments in themselves. But even in the books that are not completely satisfying, one finds the possibilities of the picture book medium being freshly thought about, perhaps even extended.
Translators have not always been delicate enough with the writings of Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish storyteller-poet who in his more effusive moments walked the hazardous line between true pathos and the merely pathetic. But in The Wild Swan (Peter Bedrick, $11.95; ages 6-up), a beautiful new picture book with illustrations by Angela Barrett, the writer Naomi Lewis has found a suitable voice, one that is neither overly wonderstruck nor too restrained, for Andersen's compelling story of domestic strife, magical transformation and a sister's devotion to her brothers.
Barrett's illustrations work by means of a number of evocative distortions. Landscapes are hyper-detailed, perspective is foreshortened. Characters strike stylized poses as though caught not just in the moment but in their essential role and predicament.
The story's heroine is ardent, ethereal, Pre-Raphaelite. Another illustrator might have brought her close-up, possibly with a teardrop forming in her eye as the going gets rough. But this artist instead observes all characters from afar leaving the readers the leeway to form their own identifications. Only one or two characterizations seem emotionally shrill. An element of constant surprise in the way pages are varied -- through the sizing and placement of illustrations, the shifting of vantage points and inventiveness of detail -- renders this, her second published book, what Barrett has called a convincing "other place" where fantasy and reality can merge.
In The Nightingale (Picture Book Studio, $11.95; ages 6-up), ably translated from the Danish by Anthea Bell, with illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger, one sees another side of Andersen, that of the bittersweet, self- amused, gently scornful satirist. Andersen was a Romantic even in satire. In this story, set in ancient China, a child is shown to be wiser than the Emperor, and a poor gray songbird to be of greater value than the Emperor's treasures.
The work of the prolific young Austrian- born artist Lisbeth Zwerger has become well known in the last half dozen years. In her refined and skillful illustrations, characters and significant props emerge, as though conjured, in a dreamscape of white space and shadowy washes. Zwerger's knack for fixing a character in mid-action -- just as fingers are being lifted, eyebrows raised -- breathes life into a world left otherwise largely undefined, a mysterious blank to be filled in by each reader. Only the format of this book -- a page of text opposite each full-page illustration -- leaves little to chance or imagination.
First published in England and Australia, Robert Roennfeldt's wordless book, A Day on the Avenue (Kestrel/Viking, $9.95; all ages), is an experiment in what might be called picture book animation. In contrast to the pop-up novelties that have recently become such familiar features at book stores, none of Roennfeldt's images move mechanically. Instead, like an animator's storyboard, the book's double pages simply present a sequence of identical face-on views of a small town street, with each image a stopping of the action -- repairmen working, joggers jogging, dogs trotting by -- at a different time of day. Above or below each main drawing is a cartoon-style panel of smaller ones, all close- ups of the same scene, but taken moments before or after it. Reading a page thus becomes a matter of mentally piecing together its individual images into one continuous timeflow of schoolboys leaping over garbage cans, taxis driving past, hands raised in greeting. The reader becomes Roennfeldt's collaborator in animation.
More abstract in design, The look again . . . and again, and again, and again book (Lothrop, $11; ages 3-6), by Beau Gardner, is an educational puzzle game in book form. It purpose is to encourage more flexible ways of thinking and seeing.
On each page an image made of brightly colored, solid shapes is framed within a square. A caption printed below the image suggests a representational reading: two yellow triangle-shapes, converging upward at their apexes, for instance, are identified as ''sails." But captions appear not just in the bottom margins but on all four sides of each square, with a different reading offered for each 90-degree change of viewpoint. Turned on its side, Gardner's sails become a parrot's beak. Inverted, the numeral 4 becomes a chair. A few captions seem far-fetched or too abstract but most work well as part of these stretching exercises in figurative thinking.
Another artist who has experimented with visual ambiguity is Ann Jonas. In her last picture book, Round Trip, she presented a sequence of cleverly worked out black-and- white drawings that, whether viewed right- side-up or upside-down, could always be read as scenes of one continuous journey. In The Quilt (Greenwillow, $10.25; ages 3-6), a visual illusion has become the symbolic ground on which a child's complicated feelings can be explored.
A small girl, gazing at the new quilt her parents have made for her bed, suddenly sees it as a miniature patchwork world, a world that she will enter in a dream. The quilt, Jonas suggests, affords not just physical warmth but inner security. While still awake, the girl recognizes certain patches as bits of outgrown clothes, old curtains -- pieces of her past. When other patches are magnified as the landscapes of her dream, the quilt also becomes a source of new adventures, future growth.
Jonas' girl is conventionally painted, but her dream pictures, intensely colored images edged in shadow, are subtle achievements. Deep child-knowledge underlies this simple book's emotional core.
Judy Blume is as well known as anyone in the children's book field, though more so as the author of humorous chapter books and sometimes steamy adolescent novels than as a picture book writer. In The Pain and the Great One (Bradbury, $10.95; ages 4-8), a picture book with illustrations by Irene Trivas, a 6-year-old ("The Pain" to his sister) and his 8-year-old sister (facetiously, "The Great One" to him), each speaks an extended monologue, which together form the whole of the text -- an unusual picture book format.
Lodging nearly identicial complaints of boredom, unhappiness and minor neglect, the children show themselves to be jealous and resentful of each other, but also to need each other in ways neither is quite prepared to admit. The pairing of the monologues would seem intended to let readers step back from their own concerns so as to learn a timely lesson in the appreciation of others' feelings. And so readers may. But since in this instance one person's feelings merely mirror another's, and since life as described here is a fairly arid proposition -- the author's comic touches notwithstanding -- little is offered by way of an inducement to real inner growth.
Irene Trivas' best illustrations, one for instance of baby brother coming undone in the bath, are freshly comic and give childhood chaos its due; mainly, though, stock characters are shown in stock situations.
Another tale of self-knowledge gained is Patrica Welch's The Day of the Muskie (Faber and Faber, $11.95; ages 6-up), a wry story about fisherman's luck. After years of trying, Norm, a fishing guide with a leaky boat and no customers, lands the rarest of catches, a muskie, only to find on coming face to face with his quarry that he and the fish look uncomfortably alike. Welch, in this, her first picture book, relates the circumstances that lead up to this wonderfully odd recognition scene with droll affection and what seems like first-hand knowledge of a fishing guide's solitary, touch-and-go existence. Most of all, what makes this story engaging is the character we come to know in Norm, an eccentric whose particular life, for all its canned-goods drabness, has room in it for generosity, fellowfeeling and a sense of the mysterious.
Welch paints in watercolor with verve and delight in the pure possibilites of color. Her pictures of Norm and friends are reminiscent of David Hockney drawings in their camp sophistication and convincing, tight portraiture. The latter quality is as rare as a muskie in recent picture book art.
David Cox's illustrations are contrastingly sprawling, sketchy, a stylistic counterpart to a story about a farflung race. Set in the artist's native Australia in the 1930s, Tin Lizzie and Little Nell (Bodley Head/Merrimack, $9.95; ages 4-up) concerns a friendly rivalry between two families, the one equipped with a crank-engine motor car, the other with a horse and cart. For the love of motion and with time to burn, they spend their Saturdays hurtling across the countryside toward town. We meet them on one such outing.
Their story might end as the race ends, but it doesn't. Instead, the scene flashes forward to the 1980s. No one, Cox says, remembers anyone who won the race on that day long ago. In the final illustration, the town's main street, once a place of draught animals and primitive engines, is completely taken up by "modern" cars and trucks. There is even a disco. A half-century has passed -- with the turn of a page. Life, in this last picture, seems to go on as if it will never change, but we know differently. The author, without having to say a word, has said as much: this too shall pass. And for a moment it is we who are barrelling over the countryside by horsecart, car or some other means of transportation -- in another time, past or future, real or imagined.