AS A MORE or less professional father who entertains the (probably vain) hope of surviving the experience with at least a few marbles intact, I have just discovered that I possess a keen interest in the subject of children's picture books. This realization was borne home by two seemingly unrelated but closely allied events: the arrival on my desk of 23 such volumes which instantly inspired the happy thought, rather like a cold hand around the heart, that no sooner would my younger daughter graduate to high heels and leg warmers than my older would in all probability present me with a grandchild. In other words, I am shortly to be doomed to another go-round with Mrs. Cockleburr and her Magical Plumber's Friend and other volumes of similar ilk, and it is high time that some rules of play are established.
First, all children's books should be not only rectangular but roughly square -- as are, I am delighted to report, all but one of the present sampling. The essence of the picture-book experience consists of parent and child seated side-by-side not unlike a pair of television anchorpersons (except that anchorpersons do not do their sitting on a bed), a position that makes tall, thin books hard to hold.
Second, and this is vital, the publishers should bear in mind that the child is only being read to; the reader is the parent. It is therefore essential, lest the child be startled, that the text be constructed in such a way as to prevent the parent from crying out at the inanity, cuteness, or sheer, mind-numbing horror of what he happens to be reading. To this end, all nonsense words such as "fuzzworgle," "moffzibbety," and "blugelgrump" should be strictly avoided, as should all proper names suggestive of terrain, clothing or confectioner's sugar. Really,I'm not asking for much. For example, I've always found Home for a Bunny, with its restrained and minimal narrative, to be quite an enchanting volume.
Third, text and illustrations should meld into a seamless whole, like port and walnuts, Pratt & Whitney, and Onassis and Niarchos. The Babar series has always struck me as the last word in this regard.
Fourth (and last), if the book is equipped with such mechanical contrivances as cunning little doors that open and clever figures that move about, they should work.
ON, THEN, to discover how our current sample meets these demanding tests. As previously noted, all but one are the correct shape, and the exception -- Meredith Hooper and Terry McKenna's Seven Eggs (Harper & Row, $3.95; ages 3-6), a charming little tome about just that -- is short and thin, not tall and thin. In the general matter of text and pictures, however, we begin to encounter some small problems. For one thing, all but a handful of the people here depicted are Caucasianand by far the majority of the exceptions are Japanese, in Taro Gomi's Hi, Butterfly (Morrow, $10; ages 2-6), a circumstance that may be accounted for in part by the fact that six of the books originated in England, one each comes from France and Australia, and four are either written or illustrated by cartoonists from The New Yorker magazine, a notoriously suburban bunch. Still, if one or more of your children happen to be non-white, as two of mine are, it smacks ever so faintly of hard cheese, rather as if your evening reading matter were to consist of tales written in a language closely related to English but which was not, in fact, English itself. Furthermore only one of the characters in any of these books -- a middle- aged lady in Petra Mathers' Maria Theresa (Harper & Row, $13.95; ages 4-8), the tale of a chicken that joins the circus and one of the best in the lot -- resides in an identifiable city, which brings us to a point bet illustrated by a census of the picture book population. Exactly 400 recognizable humans stalk through these pages, accompanied by 45 grumpets, 47 trumpets, 45 chickens, 33 geese, 23 dogs, 22 pigs, 18 bears, 15 undifferentiated birds, 18 cats, 14 mice, 20 fish, 10 lions, six parrots, five sheep, nine elephants, 14 head of cattle, three horses, six frogs, three butterflies, four moles, two turtles, six pigeons, three ducks, one moose, three octopi, five owls, three witches, two talking dolls, three goats, five foxes, and one each of crocodiles, penguins, ostriches, lizards, and specters. Call me a sourpuss if you will (and I am perfectly well aware of the conventions governing these things), but I say enough is enough. Remarkably few of us live on farms anymore, and the milkman no longer drives a horse.
These caveats aside, I got a big kick out of Sven Nordqvist's Pancake Pie (Morrow, $10; ages 4-8), the tale of a farmer's attempt to give his cat a birthday party; Quentin Blake's The Story of the Dancing Frog (Knopf, $9.95; ages 5-up), about a young widow and her terpsichorean pet, with whom she eventually retires to the south of France; Libby, Oscar & Me (Peter Bedrick/Blackie, $10.95; ages 3-8) by Bob Graham, which explores the pleasures of disguise and, again, pet ownership; Lee Lorenz's A Weekend in the Country (Prentice-Hall, $11.95; ages 4-8), in which the duck and the pig decide not to visit the moose after all; and especially Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond's If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (Harper & Row, $9.95; ages 3-7), which explores the nature of consequence. The last subject is further scouted in The Mouse and Mrs. Proudfoot (Prentice-Hall, $10.95; ages 3-6), by Albert Rusling, although certain adults might find the tale a trifle twice-told as the mouse is succeeded by cats, the cats by dogs, etc. David Lyon's The Runaway Duck (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $11.25; ages 3-6), the adventures of a pull toy that mercifully never comes to life, is everything such a book should be: spare, witty and gripping. (I especially liked that part where the castaway poet from the desert island marries the daughter of the president of France.) And my enthusiasm for Trumpets in Grumpetland (Random House, $8.95; ages 5-up) by Peter Cross and Peter Dallas-Smith -- a stirring epic of a minstrel's guest and a grumpet's villainy, beautifully illustrated and with maps -- would be unbounded if only I'd been alerted to the fact that it is part of a series, thus enabling me to catch up on the action.
Traditional nursery rhymes fared less well, I fear; both Leonard B. Lubin's This Little Pig (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $11.25; ages 2-6) and Ashley Wolff's The Bells of London (Dodd, Mead, $12.95; ages 4-8) are harshly illustrated, and the pictures in the former are distractingly busy. Colin and Jacqui Hawkins' Old Mother Hubbard (Putnam, $8.95; ages 2-5) could have been a lot of fun if its mechanisms had been better thought out; the spectacle of Dad scrabbling frantically to open the little doors will do little to burnish the parental image. And as Paul Coltman and Gillian McClure's Tog the Ribber, or Granny's Tale (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $11.95; ages 5-up), about a small girl being frightened out of her syntax by a ghost, about the only person I would seriously consider as a potential reading audience is Boy George, Adolf Hitler being dead.