AMONG THIS FALL's offerings of unusual new picture books, Lore Segal's The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless her Cat with Paul O. Zelinsky's illustrations (Knopf, $12.95; ages 7-up) is especially unique and wonderfully idiosyncratic. Mrs. Lovewright, "a chilly person," realizes one night that "there was something and she didn't have it." Her life simply isn't "cozy." She asks Dylan, who delivers her groceries, to find her a cat. "You get around," she says to Dylan, whose hulking, sympathetic frame fills the door of her apartment. Indeed he does, and the next time Dylan brings the cornflakes, he also includes a kitten.
But the cat is much more than Mrs. Loveright planned on, and, as he grows up he is too independent to simply sit on her lap and purr. He nips her argyle-socked toe and sleeps in the center of her bed; he turns over a broom that then hits her on the head, and he bites her nose when she tries to cuddle him. She names the cat Purrless and finally, out of desperation and self-preservation (by now her arm is in a sling and she has a black eye, a sore toe, and a bandaged nose), she throws him out. How they finally sort out their life together makes for the satisfying conclusion of this story about the relationships between pets and their "owners."
The style of Zelinsky's illustrations, with their slightly discordant patterns and colors and their often truncated perspectives and distorted proportions, turns out to be just right for the story, which is comic and awkward and poignant. In the end, Zelinsky finds the harmony between these clashing parts -- the peculiar purple footstool and those silly green socks; the enormous, floral wing- backed chair and the pale planes of Mrs. Lovewright's face; and in the midst of it all, the warm amber curves of the finally sleeping, perhaps purring cat.
William Joyce's George Shrinks (Harper & Row, $10.50; ages 5-up) takes us inside the fantasy of shrinking from the child's point of view. In a dream (which we don't know is a dream until the book's end) George becomes the lilliputian inhabitant of his otherwise unchanged world. He is a good little lad (most of the time), and does what his parents tell him to do in the note that they leave him while they're out. He brushes his teeth, takes a bath, eats his breakfast and does his chores -- but each of these simple events takes on a grand, (and at times quite scary) adventurous scale for a two-inch tall little boy.
Joyce sets his story in what seems to be the 1940s, which makes all those everyday objects of George's life -- from the toothbrush to the telephone, the dishes to the doorknobs -- familiar and yet foreign, distant, dreamlike. Joyce gives this well-worn fantasy situation new wrinkles through illustrations that are generous in their sense of humor, character and clever pace. Together, they hold the reader in the spell of young George's adventures. Joyce does not overwork his plot by laboriously constructing detailed narrative bridges to link the moments in this episodic story. He leaves room for a little mystery and for the reader's own imagination to join George in his often hilarious and hair-raising exploits.
The Ghost-Eye Tree by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault, with illustrations by Ted Rand (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $11.95; ages 5-up) is also set in a time and place which may seem quite distant for many contemporary children -- a rural America before quickstops, when your mother might send you (and your sister or brother) down to the milkman's farm to get a pail of milk on a dark, windy night. That's the situation here. To make matters worse, the children have to pass the Ghost-Eye Tree both coming and going, "hiding what we feared the most . . . pretending there would be no ghost." They pass by the tree safely on their way to the dairy, but on the way back. . . . The intensity of the story is built through Ted Rand's dark watercolors that dramatically divide the page, reflecting the emotional of these nonsensical verses must originally have been meant to be taken before Mother Goose became an inspiration for the beaux-arts. De Paola includes, for instance, a longer version of "Simple Simon" than we normally grow up hearing, one in which Simon's absurd adventures go far beyond the pieman. Elsewhere de Paola clusters poems by subject or theme: counting verses, valentines, activity rhymes, lullabies. Often he introduces dittes that normally don't get anthologized by modern Mother Geese: there's the one about St. Dunstan pulling the devil's nose, or Little King Pippin's baking his pie-crust hall, or "Terence McDiddler,/ The three-stringed fiddler." Thoughout, de Paola's highly stylized, totally unthreatening pictures soften or ameliorate the violence, sexism, and other such themes in the verses. The illustrations are so cheerful, so bright that they drive away the shadows that linger around the edges of poems like
The dogs do bark,
The beggars are coming to town;
Some in rags,
And some in jags,
And one in a velvet gown. De Paola cleverly turns them into a group of kids dressed in costumes. Perhaps this visual bowdlerizing, this sweetening is a weakness of the book; but perhaps, if we are going to want to continue to remember and pass along these poems, it is something of a necessity.
Though new, Arnold Lobel's poems and illustrations for Whiskers & Rhymes (Greenwillow, $13; all ages) have the feeling of being old, old rhymes that somehow got left out of the standard collections of Mother Goose.
Take, for instance, the "messy gentleman"
Who lived a sloppy life.
He ate with dirty forks and spoons,
And never washed a knife.
The pattern on his tablecloth
Was proof of his disorder,
For ketchup made the polka dots,
And mustard made the border. And then there's Friendly Fredrick Fuddlestone who can "fiddle on his funny bone" and "sleeping Charlie" whose chair sprouts wings and transports him "to everywhere"; there's "Clara, little curlylocks" who is frightened by a lion and has her hair suddenly straightened and George who, "although he didn't like the taste . . . brushed his teeth with pickle paste." Whiskers & Rhymes is Lobel's homage to Mother Goose, to nonsense and finally to the rhythms of life, with all its ups and downs, its joys and disappointments, its tender feelings and its tenderness. Proud, beleagured, silly, or rapturously happy, Lobel's animal characters (all cats except for the lion and an occasional bird) are a joy to watch as they carry the poems over Lobel's London Bridge helping us to cross "from shore to shore" -- from our own world to the shore of his imagination.
Robert Louis Stevenson's classic 1885 volume of 67 poems, A Child's Garden of Verses (Delacorte, $14.95; all ages), has been decked out in a new centenary edition with lovely illustrations by Michael Foreman. Many of these poems, like "My Shadow," "The Swing," "The Land of Counterpane," "Where Go the Boats?" or "Time to Rise," are part of the nursery canon. Stevenson touched, in a way that few writers had before him (or since), that reservoir of fantasy, that capacity for visionary flight that the young child discovers and that ultimately saves him (and his imagination) from the "hard" facts of living with adults -- like their sending him "to bed by day." Perhaps because he was a sickly child and spent many days indoors, Stevenson cultivated a strong sense for how one can ''escape" through the imagination. Instead of going to bed, in "Escape at Bedtime" the child looks up at the sky, absorbing the wonder of the "thousands and millions of stars" he sees there, only to be discovered by his parents.
"They saw me at last, and they
chased me with cries,
And they soon had me packed into
But the glory kept shining and
bright in my eyes,
And the stars going round in my
head. Though there are a few Victorian clinkers in the collection (like "Foreign Children"), the poems are remarkably free of the doggerel preachiness that marked so much of the verse that was served up to children in the latter part of the 19th century. But these poems are different; they are about the things of a child's life -- digging holes at the seashore, playing, listening to the sounds, sights and smells of things, singing, exploring, and above all, observing. Whatever its few dated shortcomings may be, this remains one of the most important books of poetry for children that we have. Stevenson has swung the imagination into play for generations, and Foreman's soft, liquid watercolors wash them again into the lives and visual vocabularies of contemporary children.
Of all the fall's new-old books, one of the nicest of all is the revival of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales (Holiday House, $14.95; all ages) with illustrations by last year's Caldecott winner Trina Schart Hyman. Proust had his madeleines, but for Thomas "All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find." What emerges is an eccentric, engrossing, and thoroughly delightful portrait of Thomas' holiday world, peopled with snoring uncles and slightly tipsy, singing aunts, and postmen "with sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses"; it is filled with sensations and, of course, presents, especially "Useful Presents" like "engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, and mittens made for giant sloths; zebra scarfs of a substance like silky gum . . . blinding tam- o-shanters like patchwork tea cozies and bunny-suited busbies and balaclavas for victims of head-shrinking tribes."
Trina Schart Hyman's illustrations personalize and particularize Thomas' story, attaching his words to specific characters and settings; yet her detailed sense of place and person does not limit Thomas' vision. Rather, her illustrations make this world more accessible to contemporary American children by creating a literal context in which Thomas' language retains its evocative richness and power. In every respect, this is a gem of a book, and it reminds us once again that Memory is indeed, the mother of the Muses, especially the ones that lingered for Thomas by his town and played in its "harp-shaped hills." And when "old words" are redressed this way, we're all the richer for it.