GREAT PAINTERS, by Piero Ventura (Putnam, $15.95; all ages); INVESTIGATING ART: A Practical Guide for Young People, by Moy Keightley (Facts on File, $12.95; ages 12-up).

There was a time -- if only in some imaginary 18th century -- when every child was taught to play a harpsichord or flute and to sketch landscapes. Nowadays, kids write music programs on their Compaq portable or swirl colors on a CRT with a Macintosh mouse. The impact of such social and technological forces, often neglected, makes Piero Ventura's Great Painters a distinctive and lively introduction to art history.

Ventura opens his account with Giotto and chronicles this master's childhood, the apprenticeship to Cimabue, the unheard-of realism of his frescos on the life of St. Francis. As the reader follows Giotto's career, Ventura provides winsome illustrations of village life, of craftsmen at work, of the empty church that must be decorated. He ingeniously amalgamates the finished masterpieces into his own art, showing a cartoon- like Giotto on a scaffold next to a photographic reproduction of "The Saint Preaches to the Birds." On the same page he provides five panels illustrating the technique of fresco, from chipping the plaster to layering and smoothing, to making the cartoon, to "connecting the dots."

Other chapters in Great Painters discuss the importance of light and shadow, the impact of printing, the use of allegory, the rise of all the Isms (Realism, Impressionism, etc.), and such painters as Rembrandt, Goya and Picasso. The integration of real paintings into Ventura's own airy illustrations keeps his book as visually exciting as it is informative. An appendix provides the source of illustrations and compact biographies of the major artists.

Investigating Art might be more properly subtitled "A Practical Guide for the Teachers and Parents of Young People." A collection of art projects, it resembles a textbook rather than a book. The ideas contained are good, ranging beyond poster painting to include the construction of balsa wood sculpture, stained glass windows, prints made from cardboard, and found-art assemblages. This would be a good addition to the bookshelf of an art school or library. THE PRINCE OF THE RABBITS, by Felix Meroux; illustrated by Cooper Edens (Green Tiger Press, $8.95; ages 7-up).

Look out Peter Cottontail, here's the Prince of the Rabbits, rich, decadent, and foppish, a kind of long-eared Oscar Wilde. His story is a new- wave fairy tale; it begins thus: "The Prince of the Rabbits was tired of this world. The grass was always green, the water always blue."

The prince's ennui gets so bad that he dreams of traveling to other planets, in fact he even begins to suspect that he may be from another planet. But, despite his best efforts, none of the schemes to beam himself skyward work out. Then one night, he hears sounds in his bedroom, the voices of his furniture, clothing, and other familiar objects abuzz with life. A cast-off glove grows large and, looming above him, says, "This world is much more mysterious than you thought, little rabbit." Surprisingly, this Hamlet-to- Horatio-like advice leads the Prince to peals of laughter, which eventually turn to tears.

Cooper Edens' powerful illustrations sometimes disturb slightly with their pictures of this animal sybarite. But in bed, the Prince looks like a grown-up version of the bunny in Goodnight Moon; and in one delightful use of perspective, the reader looks down on to the top of the rabbit's head as he stands on his bed quilt yearning for "someone to fly him away." Like all fairy tales (new-wave or not), this mysterious story lingers and tantalizes with a meaning it never quite defines. THE BLUE BOOK OF HOB STORIES; THE YELLOW BOOK OF HOB STORIES, by William Mayne; illustrated by Patrick Benson (Philomel, $7.95 each; ages 6-12).

Hob is a household spirit, a dumpy little man in yellow long-johns who protects his human family against the elves and goblins and sprites that linger in the shadows, under the steps, down the dark basement. In these two collections -- five stories in each -- Hob must confront various mischievous imps such as Eggy Palmer who makes "spaghetti stick together" and "jelly lumpy." Younger children will enjoy the light humor of Mayne's text, while Benson's watercolors charm with their blend of naturalist detail (Hob sports a crew cut) and fairy tale gossamer. LIKE JAKE AND ME, by Mavis Jukes; pictures by Lloyd Bloom (Knopf, $11.95; ages 10-up).

A Newbery Honor book for 1984, Jukes' text displays an intricate blend of simplicity and richness. Alex wants to be like his stepfather Jake, who is tough, capable, and brave. But Jake is unwilling to let the somewhat bumbling youngster help him chop and carry wood. So Alex helps his mother Virginia, pregnant with twins, and then shows her how he can spin in the air, an exercise he learned at ballet class. Of course, an ex-cowboy like Jake wouldn't care for ballet -- though enigmatic Virginia isn't so sure of that. But Jake turns out to be afraid of spiders, and Alex helps him find one that has gotten lost in his clothes. At the story's end, the cowboy dances for joy with his stepson.

Within this simple tale Jukes manages to insert several artfully manipulated themes. Take that of fecundity. Having placed a small-mouthed bottle over a pear tree's branch, Virginia now has two ripened pears pushing hard against the glass. She herself is heavy with twins. And the fat wolf-spider that Alex spies on Jake's shirt carries its young underneath her. The idea of helping another person, the image of dancing, the contrast between a stepfather who hates spiders and a father who is an entomologist -- all these are skillfully intertwined.

Lloyd Bloom's pictures crackle with a swirling energy; the wind seems to be blowing all the time. Jake resembles a lean Paul Bunyan, Virginia an Appalachian Meryl Streep, and Alex a more grown-up Dondi. The pastels are not picture-book pretty, but they capture the wild beauty and richness of Jukes' story. TOWN AND COUNTRY, by Alice and Martin Provensen (Crown, $9.95; all ages).

After the triumphs of A Visit to William Blake's Inn and The Glorious Flight -- the first the winner of a Newbery Medal, the second of a Caldecott -- the Provensens turn to a traditional and timeless subject: the contrasting charms of city and country life. Living in rural New York yet commuting regularly to Manhattan, they know both the hurry and blare of urban sidewalks and the hard work of the farmyard.

In their short, litany-like observations, they list the opportunities of city life: "You can get any kind of food you want in a city and nothing is ever out of season. . . You can buy a bagel from the bagel lady or a bag of chestnuts from the chestnut man on the streets of a big city in December. . . . There is nothing that tastes as good as a sizzling hot sausage with greasy green peppers cooked at a street fair food stand." And when you look across the page there is the Festival of San Gennario, bright and lively against the dull buildings and tall smokestacks of New York.

As the imagined reader falls asleep the Provensens swiftly transport him into the country, where all seems peaceful, quiet, open. Their painting shows a classic white clapboard house, the horse weathervane on the barn, the red tractor, the old pickup. But then the illustrators slowly add in the noise of animals, the changing weather, the rhythm of the seasons, the charms of the small-town nearby, and the early bedtimes of good country people. With careful symmetry the Provensens end their rural vision, like their cityscape, as the reader falls asleep: "Once you are in bed, you can scarcely stay awake long enough to say good night. The lights are out early in the country."

This is a beautiful album, and one with something for everyone -- from the most dazzling urbanite to the most steadfast countryman.

Michael Dirda is children's book editor of Book World.