JIM HENSON has probably done more for children's television than anyone since Walt Disney. "Fraggle Rock" -- Henson's 3-year-old, award-winning television program for Home Box Office -- has inspired the same passionate devotion in young viewers as his earlier Muppet series, "Sesame Street." And like "Sesame Street," "Fraggle Rock" has spawned a series of books (all published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston).
The inhabitants of Fraggle Rock are Fraggles, carefree, furry creatures who love to sing and play and who work a maximum of 30 minutes a week. They share their world with Doozers, workaholic little construction workers who are knee high to a Fraggle. Doozers spend all their time building elaborate constructions that add a fascinating dimension to the background sets on the show.
The appeal of Fraggle Rock lies in the imaginative puppetry and the endearing personalities of the main characters, as well as the original music, which can range from gospel to rock.
But the program's essence lies mainly in the interaction of the five leading characters, Fraggles named Gobo, Wembley, Mokey, Red and Boober, all very different from one another. Gobo, the main character, is a brave explorer, Wembley totally indecisive, Mokey poetic. Red may be an athletic extrovert but she has her insecurities, and pessimistic Boober is a very atypical Fraggle who thinks fun is dangerous.
While the personality traits of the characters are firmly drawn, each episode usually weaves a moral into the plot, and very often it involves one of the five learning a life's lesson with his friends. It is easy for the viewer to identify a little of himself in the foibles of the various Fraggles.
The Fraggle books are targeted for two age groups. Those designed for older children, ages 6-9, constitute the bulk of the quality reading here. The picture books, recommended for ages 4-7, but suitable for toddlers as well, are generally mediocre with three exceptions.
Among the books for older children, the best is Marooned in Fraggle Rock, by David McClintock, with illustrations by Barbara McClintock ($6.95), a delightful adventure story where Boober and Red are trapped in a cave-in. The two victims, in forced seclusion while waiting to be rescued, discover strengths and weaknesses that give each a new appreciation of the other. McClintock, who wrote the episode of the TV show on which the book is based, does an excellent job of translating it into suspenseful reading.
Wembley Fraggle Gets the Story, by Deborah Perlberg, with illustrations by Steven Schindler ($6.95) and The Doozer Disaster, by Michaela Muntean, with illustrations by Diane Dawson Hearn ($7.95) have Wembley as the central character. In the latter, feeling depressed because nothing exciting ever happens to him, Wembley finds more than his share of thrills when he creates a cave-in at one of the Doozers' factories. The background information is handled particularly imaginatively. For instance, in describing the effect Wembley's fall had on the Doozers' plant, she writes: "It was rather like having a moose fall through the roof of your house into your bedroom. What would you do? You couldn't push him back up through the roof, and a moose is too big to fit through the door and out of your room."
They Call Me Boober Fraggle also by Muntean, with illustrations by Lisa McCue ($6.95) is based on a tried-and-true theme -- don't try to be anyone but yourself. Pessimistic Boober overhears a conversation that makes him believe his friends don't like him the way he is, and sets out on a self-improvement campaign to become more like them, only to find that they like him as he is.
Among the picture books for younger children, Best Friends by Jocelyn Stevenson, with illustrations by Sue Venning ($5.95) takes the prize. It is the only one of the picture books that is not done in rhyme. It does what the show excels at, laughing a little bit at the characters. Red offers to accompany her best friend Mokey on a hazardous trip to a faraway cave, in order to protect her from the Gagtoothed Groan. Ethereal Mokey breezes along through assorted perils, while Red falls prey to each hazard, until finally Mokey ends up rescuing Red from the feared creature. Mokey never pulls her friend's cover, though. After rescuing her she tells Red, "Oh, Red, thank you so much for protecting me." Later, Mokey carries a sleeping Red all the way home from their long adventure.
SUE VENNING'S illustrations further enchant the reader, by sprinkling the background with lots of fascinating creatures and plants, as Henson does in the program.
The Legend of the Doozer Who Didn't by Louise Gikow, with illustrations by Barbara McClintock ($5.95), is an amusing tale, with a nice cadence to the rhyme. ("Nobody knows where the trouble first started/ This story is not for the weak or fainthearted.") Its humor lies in a tale that Doozer parents use to keep their children in line. Naughty Doozer children who don't apply themselves will meet a dreadful fate for a Doozer -- namely, turn into a Fraggle.
If I Were King of the Universe by Danny Abelson, illustrated by Lawrence DiFiori ($5.95), introduces the Gorgs, giant hairy creatures who own the garden outside Fraggle Rock, where the Fraggles go to pilfer their vegetables. The last three of a dying race of Gorg nobility, Ma and Pa Gorg, and their bumbling son Junior, await the return of their loyal subjects. Junior Gorg fantasizes what it would be like if he could replace his father as King, and concludes that he would be bored and that being Prince is good enough for him. The book illustrates how simplicity can work well. The rhymes are nothing fancy, but the text has enough substance and rhythm to carry it off.
DiFiori's illustrations, full of action tasks, are sure to grab the attention of any youngster.
The other five offerings in the picture books are several steps down in quality. The rhyme is forced and the text so simplistic it could bore even a 2-year-old, not to mention an adult reading it aloud to a child. There are good ideas though -- in No One Knows Where Gobo Goes, the theme that we all need a private place to be alone is appealing -- but the execution is so awkward it overshadows that fact.
The initial books in the series, while not all winners then, may provide the publishers with the key to improve them in the future. Fraggle Rock books don't need gimmicks; they just need to let the Fraggles and Doozers speak for themselves. Readers can't help but fall for these charismatic creatures.