C.S. Lewis: Letters to Children, edited by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead (Macmillan, $9.95; ages 10-up). It might seem that the world has had enough of C.S. Lewis, what with dozens of volumes of literary scholarship (The Allegory of Love), science fiction (Perelandra), social satire (The Screwtape Letters), religious meditation (The Problem of Pain), autobiography (Surprised by Joy), and children's fantasy (the Narnia chronicles). What's more there have been biographies, collections of tributes, various memoirs. With the possible exception of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, "Jack" Lewis must be the most widely read and written about Oxford teacher of our age.
On the surface, a selection from Lewis' correspondence with children might seem, well, just a bit exploitive. Still, even though I came to mock, I stayed to praise: the letters, though repetitive, are delightful. Most deal with the Narnia books, and Lewis patiently explains more than once the meaning of his Christian allegory. He also offers lots of good advice about writing and literature. "Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn't mean anything else. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don't implement promises, but keep them. . . . "
Elsewhere, he tells his readers in what order to read the Narnia books (not that in which they were published!). He confesses that his own favorites among his novels are Till We Have Faces and Perelandra. He even offers advice to would-be literary critics: "Remember this if you ever become a critic: say what the work is like, but if you start explaining how it came to be like that (in other words, inventing the history of the composition) you will nearly always be wrong."
Anyone who has loved The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will certainly enjoy these letters.
Stories from the Bible, by Walter de la Mare; illustrated by Edward Ardizzone (Faber and Faber, $6.95; ages 9-up). On this one point at least, I tend to hold with fundamentalists: the Bible should be read in the King James version. But then I fear that I am also one of those, damned by Auden, who read the Bible for its poetry. The great attractiveness of Walter de la Mare's "version" of the Old Testament lies in its faithfulness to the English Bible. This is no collection of Famous Bible Stories for Young People, told in watered-down, insipid prose, with cartoon drawings of Joseph wearing his coat of many-colors as he tends his father's sheep or King David mooning at the heavens while he composes the psalms to the accompaniment of a lute. Instead de la Mare provides plain yet beautiful narratives, making his book an act of reverence instead of sacrilege. One would expect no less from such a fine prose stylist (the neglected Memoirs of a Midget) and children's author (many stories and the classic poetry anthology Come Hither!). Most important, children are sure to enjoy these tales -- of Noah, Moses, Samson, and featuring a cast of thousands -- and be led to the Bible itself.
Babies Need Books, by Dorothy Butler (Atheneum, $5.95). Newly available in paperback, this classic text persuasively advocates books in the nursery. Butler's chapters -- arranged by the year of a baby's life from birth to age 5 -- describes the appeal of various picture albums, the use of rhymes, nursery tales, and counting games, and the importance of reading aloud. Any new parent will certainly be inspired by this common- sensical guide -- none of the stridency of the Better Baby zealots appears here -- and will only regret that many of the titles recommended are only available in Great Britain.
Reading; Sleeping; Messy Baby; Dad's Back, all by Jan Ormerod (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $4.95 each; ages 6 months-24 months). In this quartet of wordless albums a tousle-haired little boy frustrates his bearded dad who is trying, respectively, to read, sleep, clean up, and unload groceries. It would be tempting to see these little books as portrayals of Yuppie fatherhood -- Dad after all is clearly much involved in caring for his child -- but the toddler steals the show (as in real life). In Ormerod's colored sketches he is like any healthy little animal -- curious, rambunctious, messy, and absolutely winning. I'm not sure if babies like these books, but they will melt the heart of any new father.
Rabbit's Morning, by Nancy Tafuri (Greenwillow, $11.75; ages 2-6); Peter Cottontail's Surprise, story by Bonnie Worth; illustrated by Greg Hildebrandt (Unicorn Publishing, 1148 Parsippany Blvd., Parsippany, N.J. 07054, $11.95; ages 2-6). Easter may have come and gone, but young children are still likely to have bunnies on their minds. They may even have a live rabbit -- named Flopsy -- to care for in the backyard. Tafuri (whose Have You Seen My Duckling? was named a Caldecott Honor book last year) once again plays ingeniously with perspective, color and text. A single sentence encloses the action of her book: "The sun was hot" on the first page introduces a small brown rabbit surrounded by a vast greeny-yellow meadow; the following pages zero in on the rabbit, presenting his view of mice, swans, porcupines, skunks and other animals as he hops along toward his mother's nest; on the last page Tufuri completes the opening sentence with "and rabbit came home." A simple book, yet revealing sure-handed mastery, and one that should delight small children.
Peter Cottontail's Surprise showcases the artwork of Greg Hildebrandt, well known for his fantasy paintings. In Bonnie Worth's story Peter Cottontail yearns to leave his family's burrow and go up into the meadow to play. He finally does so, only to discover all the other animals too busy for bunny frolics; so Peter romps alone in the spring sunshine, eventually returning home to find a surprise birthday in his honor. He ends the day a tired and happy little rabbit. Hildebrandt's art depicts fairly realistic animals, who live vaguely like medieval peasants in warmly lit underground chambers. In the sunny meadow Peter sports a bright blue jacket and red tie; a monarch butterfly follows him on his afternoon adventures. All in all, though veering toward the edge of sentimentality (in both art and text), the album seems to me quite endearing and should be a hit with young rabbit-fanciers.
What's Inside? The Alphabet Book, by Satoshi Kitamura (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $11.95; ages 3-7). There are quite a few alphabet books available, but Kitamura's has exceptional charm and wit. In an alley, surrounded by small cartons of berries and nuts, are two boxes, each opened just enough to tantalize without revealing what lies within. When the child turns the page, the boxes disclose their contents: Apples and Bananas. But next to the fruit sit three trash barrels, one of them labeled C and D, and displaying a single paw draped over its edge. When the page is turned a Cat and Dog leap growling and mewing from the can; nearby the large letters E and F lie in an empty street. On the next page a full-page-sized Elephant confronts an equally huge Fire truck; and in the corner is . . . And so it goes, Kitamura's bright cartoons reveling in big bold displays, while the corners of his paintings hint slyly at the alphabet letters to come next. All in all, a book that parents will enjoy as much as toddlers.
Freighters: Cargo Ships and the People Who Work Them, by George Ancona (Crowell, $12.95; ages 7-10); Logging Machines in the Forest, by Janet Chiefari (Dodd, Mead, $10.95; ages 7-10); Trucks You Can Count On, by Doug Magee (Dodd Mead, $11.95; ages 3-7). There is an age -- sometime between 2 and 7 -- when children are caught up in a passion for sandboxes, dump trucks, and various kinds of toy earth- moving equipment. Clever parents will feed this craving for machinery with books like those listed above: each offers clear descriptions and detailed photographs of ships, logging equipment and trucks at work. Young shipping magnates can learn the differences between various tankers, reefers and bulk carriers; the awesome feller buncher, we discover, can cut down several hundred trees an hour -- and looks like something from The Empire Strikes Back; and would-be mechanics can study the various parts of a tractor-trailer. Of related interest is Train Whistles, by Helen Rodney Sattler; pictures by Guilio Maestro (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $13; ages 2-7) which explains the meaning of the various whistles and bells used by locomotive engineers. Toot, toot!
Tales from the Mabinogion, by Gwyn Thomas and Kevin Crossley-Holland; illustrated by Margaret Jones (The Overlook Press, $14.95; ages 10-up). Older children already familiar with the Greek myths and the Arthurian legends will leap to devour this collection of ancient Welsh stories, ably modernized by two medievalists with a special interest in children's books. Shot through with Celtic twilight, the four romances sing of doomed warriors, giants, enchantresses, magic cauldrons, a woman woven with flowers, a magician as powerful as Merlin, a horse who runs like the wind; here are Rhiannon and Pryderi and Gwydion (as well as many other Welsh characters and places possessed with the mystery of unpronounceable names). Who could resist reading further when Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, out hunting encounters the dreaded hounds of the Other World: "Of all the hound he had ever seen, he had seen no hounds the same color as these. Their coats were shining white and their ears were red. And as their white coats shone, so their red ears gleamed." Older children who fall under the spell of the Mabinogion should look for Evangeline Walton's magnificent retelling of these stories (The Island of the Mighty and its three successors), or even for Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones' authoritative but highly readable translation of the original.