OLD PETER'S RUSSIAN TALES, by Arthur Ransome; illustrated by Faith Jacques (Jonathan Cape/Merrimack, $13.95; all ages). First published in 1916, Ransome's book introduced Russian folk and fairy tales to English readers -- and remains a delightful collection to this day; who would expect otherwise from the author of Swallows and Amazons? During cold winter nights, after a supper of soup and black bread, Old Peter the forester tells stories to his little grandchildren Vanya and Maroosia (who resemble two Matryosha dolls in Jacques' illustrations). As in all the best fairy tales, the stories involve questions of life and death, sometimes include resurrection ("The Tale of the Silver Saucer and the Transparent Apple"), and emphasize the rewards of kindness, especially toward animals. Generosity, for example, saves a little girl from Baba Yaga, the witch with iron teeth who lives in a hut that walks about on chicken legs.
In "Prince Ivan, the Witch Baby, and the Little Sister of the Sun" we even find an early example of a favorite theme of later horror writers: the monstrous child. Ivan's little sister is, according to an old groom, a witch "and she will grow like a seed of corn. In six weeks she'll be a grown witch, and with her iron teeth she will eat up your father, and eat up your mother, and eat you up too, if she gets a chance." And indeed, as Ivan's father notes, in a nice touch, the new baby "has teeth already. It's a pity they are black." Ivan tries to save his parents but fails, and barely escapes with his own life, through the aid of strange creatures he has befriended.Anyone who likes Grimm, Andersen, or fairy tales in general should add Ransome's collection to his shelf or Christmas list. Those who want even more Ransome should then look for his autobiography (available from Jonathan Cape/Merrimack), which chronicles his friendship with Bolshevik leaders, the libel suit brought against him by Alfred Douglas, and his career as the author of so many beloved children's books.
STORIES FOR CHILDREN, by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $13.95; all ages); ZLATEH THE GOAT AND OTHER STORIES, by Isaac Bashevis Singer; illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, paperback, $4.95; all ages). These two volumes contain virtually all of Singer's stories for children, and very good ones they are, as fans of his fiction would expect. Suprisingly, the two contain no overlap, except for the title story of the second collection, a paperback reissue of a Newbery Honor Book. "Zlateh the Goat" is, of course, a little masterpiece: A boy is snet by his father to sell their goat to the butcher. On the way a mysterious snowstorm forces the pair to seek shelter in a haystack, where the boy survives for three days by drinking the goat's milk. Throughout the tale the animal only says "Maaaa" but that bleating comes to embody a love, devotion and understanding beyond mere words.
Many of these tales take place in Chelm, Singer's village of fools. In "Dalfunka, Where the Rich Live Forever" the wealthiest man in Chelm decides he doesn't want to die and will give 2,000 pieces of gold to the Elders if they come up with a way for him to achieve immortality. Schlemihl consults the tax records of Chelm and discovers that in the suburb of Dalfunka, where all the paupers and beggars live, no rich man has ever died. Which means, of course, that the rich in Dalfunka must live forever. Zalman Typpish moves there, carouses for five years, and then dies. Does this disprove the Elders' theory? By no means. Thile living in Dalfunka, Zalman "spent a fortune on such luxuries as sour cream, coffee, tobacco, chickory. He most probably became poor and so he died like all the other poor people."
CDC? , by William Steig (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $6.95; ages 6-up). Picture a drawing with a flying saucer in the background. Striding away from it is a pointy-headed, clearly malevolent creature, carrying what looks like a toilet plunger but which must be a death ray of some sort. Here if the bizarre caption: N-M-E L-E-N. Gobbledygook? By no means. Just say the letters aloud. This delightful sequel to Steig's CDB is composed entirely of the artist's drawings and ingenious captions consisting entirely of letters and numbers. Here's another: An angry man shouts at an equally upset woman. The caption reads: U R O-D-S! N U R S-N-9! (For an example complete with drawing, see left.)
HANSEL AND GRETEL, retold by Rika Lesser; illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (Dodd, Mead, $12.95). Some fairy tales are brightly sunlit throughout, but most begin in darkness and build toward the light. Among the bleakest is Hansel and Gretel -- a tale of poverty, unhappy family life, hunger, and near-cannibalism -- and it is this somberness that Zelinsky has brought out in his illustrations. His paintings recall early Dutch naturalism, peasants seen by Brueghel or Van de Velde; the scenes themselves are night watches, illuminated by setting sun, the moon, a doorway's light. Then, as a page is turned, the darkness fades away before the vision of the gingerbread house, bathed in soft, golden tones, with pancake shingles, candy-cane door frame, jelly baby stained glass windows, whipped cream stucco. The bent old witch appears quite benign, which serves to make her actions all the more terrifying. In the end, the children triumphant, bright daylight shines forth upon them. Thus do Zelinsky's powerful illustrations illuminate Lesser's retelling of this long night's journey into day.