Amy's Eyes, by Richard Kennedy (Harper & Row, $13.50; all ages). When little orphan Amy is about 10 or so she accidentally jabs her sailor doll's head with a needle and he cries "Ouch." Before long, the now living Captain -- pursued by an evil governess named Miss Quince -- escapes the orphanage and runs off to sea. By the time he returns a few months later, he is a grown man, master of the Ariel, and possessor of a treasure map.
At this point Amy's Eyes switches from an unhappy-girl-at-orphanage story to one of romantic suspense -- Amy becomes a doll, a hooded figure lurks in the shadows, a witch- like crone blackmails the Dudley Do-Right Captain. These Gothic elements reach their climax when the Captain -- desperate during a terrifying storm -- brings a whole menagerie of toy animals to life. Nautical intrigue and piratical hugger-mugger soon follow. In a final twist, Kennedy's romance grows disturbingly serious, dark and bloody.
Beautifully designed by Harper & Row, Amy's Eyes can often entrance by its language alone. "The bird was a pure white albatross, a giant of birds, a sea-wandering cruiser with a twelve-foot wingspan, an ocean-crossing bird who could lock his wings and sleep on the air and fly in a dream, who could soar over thunderheads and fly faster than the fastest sailing ship."
But unlike the albatross, this lengthy, ambitious book moves slowly and its two principals are somewhat lackluster. The best character is Davey Duck, a web-footed Uriah Heep who plots mutiny -- his repeated "Quack, quack" echoes with oily evil. Nearly as fascinating, the second-mate Skivvy -- created from long underwear -- becomes obsessed with Biblical numerology and gradually succumbs to a Melville-like madness, certain that the Captain's quest will bring the Beast of the Apocalypse into the world.
All and all, Amy's Eyes is an impressive book, and may become a classic. But I still wish Amy and the Captain didn't pale next to the novel's haunting villains. How I Saved the World on Purpose, by Susan Shreve; illustrated by Suzanne Richardson (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $10.95; ages 8-10). Miranda Corbett is a precocious 9-year-old with liberal parents (Dad's a lawyer, Mom works for Mothers for Nuclear Freeze), two older brothers, and a rival at school named Freddie Burr, whom she thinks of as Attila the Hun and whose idea of world peace is to have enough cherry bombs to defeat whatever Russian troops might invade Wyndmoor, Connecticut. Naturally, Freddie becomes president of Children Against Nuclear War, to the intense dismay of Miranda. Out of loneliness Miranda then organizes the latchkey kids of Wyndmoor into a social club, one that gains newspaper coverage and local fame -- all to the intense envy of Freddie. War looms between val philanthropic groups when suddenly everything undergoes a whirlwind wind-up before much of anything has begun.
Susan Shreve writes smoothly, and with wit. But her facility is at best an ambiguous gift. She builds up to a denouement so feeble, so mechanical, that at least one reader flung the book across his desk. How I Saved the World on Purpose has several virtues (besides its readability) and other faults (a peculiar distancing from the dramatic, for one), but they pale before a feeling that Shreve simply cranked out the quickest ending she could come up with. A pity, since this is otherwise quite an engaging short novel. Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun, by Rhoda Blumberg (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $13; ages 10-up). Good books of history for young people are not as common as one would hope, so this album is especially welcome. Blumberg traces the impact of Commodore Matthew Perry on Japanese culture, using aptly chosen pictures and documents, and in the process provides a wonderful view of 19th-century Japanese culture. Her writing is clear, crisp and alive with fascinating scraps of information. A samurai, for example, wore two swords: the smaller one "was wielded when cutting off the head of a defeated rival. It was also used for seppuku, ritual suicide. . . . Seppuku was considered to be particularly well done if the samurai composed a poem before or while committing suicide. . . . The longer sword, the sharpest in the world, could cut through iron nails or split an enemy in two from head to foot." An accompanying sketch by Yoshitowshi depicts an angry warrior still intent on swordplay despite the two arrows in his back. Take that, Conan.
Most of Blumberg's book is not so sanguinary as this, but all of it is equally fascinating and informative.