BOY: Tales of Childhood, by Roald Dahl (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $10.95; ages 9-up). In ninth grade I read my first story by Roald Dahl, "Beware of the Dog," and have never forgotten it: During World War II a pilot, who flies missions into occupied France, has apparently crashed his fighter over England and been lucky to survive. After he regains consciousness in a military hospital, various Air Force officers come in to ask him about his squadron, but he is too disoriented to answer. That afternoon, though, the injured man hears the sounds of planes above him, and these set him thinking. Slowly, painfully, he crawls across the hospital floor, raises himself with great effort to the window sill and looks out on a tidy, neat street. On the grass is a sign: "Gardez au chien." When the Air Force offices return with their seemingly innocent questions, the pilot responds only with his name, rank and serial number.
The understated thrill of that war story can be found in virtually everything Dahl has written, from the classic suspense and horror of "Lamb to the Slaughter," "Royal Jelly," and "Man from the South" through the equally notable children's books James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on to the racy adult novel My Uncle Oswald. Anyone, whether child or grown-up, who has enjoyed these books should rush out to acquire Dahl's superb Boy: Tales of Childhood.
Not quite an autobiography, Boy chronicles anecdotes and highlights of Dahl's first 20 years. The style is simple, straightforward, and the tone is genial, but the incidents remembered are traumatic and painful. The young Dahl plants a dead mouse in a Gobstopper candy jar, and is caned at school; a doctor snips off his adenoids without anesthetic; his nose is severed in an automobile accident (and fortunately sewn back on); he suffers such loneliness at boarding school that he always sleeps facing his home in Wales. Most of the memories of life at Repton make George Orwell's school years sound heavenly.
In his technique Dahl presents his past with a detachment that avoids nostalgia but doesn't preclude immediacy and humor. Dahl may be 70 years old but the events of years ago can still rankle, even as they call for a smile. These "tales of childhood" end with young Dahl about to travel to Africa for the Shell Oil Company: "I was off to the land of palm-trees and coconuts and coral reefs and lions and elephants and deadly snakes, and a white hunter who had lived ten years in Mwanza had told me that if a black mamba bit you, you died within the hour writhing in agony and foaming at the mouth. I couldn't wait." Who could?
PAT THE CAT, by Edith Kunhardt (Golden Books, $4.95; ages 3 months-3 years). What book do you give to a baby? Pat the Bunny, of course, the classic first book for infants, one which teaches them about textures, mirrors, and smells. Now, a generation later, comes a companion volume, Pat the Cat, by Dorothy Kunhardt's daughter. How do mother and daughter compare? A survey, conducted by an independent pollster of Woodside Park in Silver Spring, recently asked this question of a 5-month-old infant named Christopher and his somewhat older friends Mary, Katherine, Elizabeth, Joey, and Kerry. The results? An overwhelming consensus that Cat was fully the equal of Bunny in plot, character development, and gadgetry. Though published in 1984, Pat the Cat looks precisely like its predecessor, down to the dumpy children, but the action ranges from the up-to-date to the timeless: withdrawing money from a cash machine, buying groceries, and squeezing a goodnight teddy bear that squeaks. Clearly, the infant's bookshelf now requires two Kunhardt titles.
HOW EVERYDAY THINGS WORK, by Chris Cooper and Tony Osman; MATHEMATICS, by Irene Fekete and Jasmine Denyer; WEATHER AND ITS WORK, by David Lambert and Ralph Hardy; YOUR BODY, by Irene Fekete and Peter Dorrington Ward; INSECTS AND THEIR RELATIVES, by Maurice Burton; ASTRONOMY, by Peter Lancaster Brown (Facts on File, $9.95 each; ages 10-up). To vary a phrase of Aristotle, all children by nature desire to know: "Why" and "How" must be the two most common words of any boy or girl's vocabulary. This series, called "The World of Science," provides just the resource for any parent troubled by such questions -- good simple text, lots of diagrams, illustrations and photographs, and writers who know what they're talking about. For instance, the authors of the first book are, respectively, a science writer and the science editor of The Times of London. Together they describe the working of gears, pumps, clocks, mirrors, thermometers, cameras, radios, and much else. The young Tom Edison would have loved it.
A WHISPER IN THE NIGHT: Tales of Terror and Suspense, by Joan Aiken (Delacorte, $14.95; ages 12-up); MORTIMER'S CROSS, by Joan Aiken; illustrated by Quentin Blake (Harper & Row, $11.50; ages 8-11). Joan Aiken can turn her hand to almost anything -- mystery, fantasy, suspense, comedy -- and nearly always come up with a winner: The Wolves of Willoughy Chase and Black Hearts in Battersea, for instance, are juvenile classics combining all these elements. Aiken has collected her suspense stories before (in A Touch of Chill etc.), and this latest omnibus shows her quiet strength for the sinister. "Merminster" tells of a blind composer, an invisible cathedral, and the sound of ominous tinkling bells; everything builds toward a ghostly climax. But Aiken chooses to end her tale in a subdued and subtle way that many young readers may find rather inconclusive. Similarly, "The Last Specimen" -- about the encounter of an elderly clergyman and a vistor from another planet -- repeats this rather wistful, quiet tone, and one longs for a bit more shock. The world ends with neither a bang nor a whimper but with a sigh. Still, other stories are more vigorous, and children with a taste for the macabre will enjoy them.
Aiken's zaniness appears in her Mortimer stories, of which Mortimer's Cross is a collection of three longish ones (with ebullient Quentin Blake pictures). Mortimer Jones is a raven whose vocabulary consists of two words: "Kaaark" and "Nevermore." Together with young Arabel Jones, his ostensible mistress, he gets into all sorts of mischief. For instance, in "The Mystery of Mr. Jones' Disappearing Taxi" a supposedly abandoned high-rise turns out to house the notorious Mediterranean criminals known as the Hatmen, their kidnap victim Naughty Madge Owens (the leading punk-rock singer of the day), a cache of 1,000 stolen library books, and a colony of bats. All these elements are drawn together when a river filled with marshmallows floods, Arabel and Mortimer free Naughty Madge, the librarian Miss Acaster staples the Hatmen to the floor, and everyone is fortuitously rescued by three young men with hang-gliders. Along with all this plenty the reader also gets Madge singing her big number two hit:
"Evil, idle Isidore
Every day I love him, more and more.
He's evil -- he's idle
He's my guru and my idol,
My love for him is tidal,
He's the only guy that I adore!"
Any 10 year-old will have a fine time with Mortimer and friends.