Fables from Aesop and Exploits of Don Quixote, both retold by James Reeves (Peter Bedrick Books, $12.95 each; paperback, $5.95 each; ages 7-up). The didactic has seldom come in so pretty a wrapper as in the fables of Aesop and the adventures of Don Quixote. In the first, children -- those archetypes of greed and heedlessness -- learn about measure and forethought; in the second, they acquire even greater lessons: that things are not always what they seem and that sometimes 'tis folly to be wise. James Reeves versions of these classics share a straightforward efficiency, marked by the occasional telling phrase. Both books are illustrated, the Aesop by Maurice Wilson in watercolors, the Cervantes by Edward Ardizzone in his characteristically scratch-like pen-and-ink style.
Tunnels, by Sam and Beryl Epstein (Little, Brown, $14.95; ages 9-up). Nearly every 10- year-old, at one time or another, constructs a tunnel into a hillside, or digs a cave, or plans a secret underground fort. For such burrowers this is an ideal book for days off on account of rain. The Epsteins detail the problems and solutions to some of the world's great engineering feats: Greek and Roman aqueducts, the Mont Fr,ejus tunnel through the Alps, Brunel's "shield" for digging in silt and sand, the Hoosac tunnel, and more. Period pictures enliven an already imaginative text, and the result makes this a particularly fine book for any would-be engineer.
A Child's Book of Prayers, illustrated by Michael Hague (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $11.95; ages 6-10). Every religion has at least one prayer book intended for young communicants, but Michael Hague's collection aims to be ecumenical -- the Bible passages, stanzas from hymns, and old classics ("Now I lay me") provide texts for slightly muted color art work that suggest a God who is a loving father rather than a stern taskmaster. This is probably the right approach to take with children, who appear in these pictures asleep, playing on the sand, surrounded by autumn leaves, with clasped hands. Some readers may find Hague a little saccharine -- a kind of up-dated Joan Anglund -- but his album is still lovely to look at. And no book could fail that gives a child the verses to "All Things Bright and Beautiful" or the delightful "I pray that ordinary bread,/ Was just as nice as cake;/ I pray that I could fall asleep,/ As easy as I wake."
Gentleman Bear, by William P (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14.95; ages 9-up). When Billy Browne-Browne was four years old, his father -- the noted authority on Pug dogs -- presented him with a Teddy bear named Bayard. Little did the world suspect how momentous that event would turn out to be. For Bayard and Billy soon proved inseparable, and a good thing too. Iwas Bayard who inspired Billy to gain the bronze in pole vaulting at the 1936 Olympics in Germany; it was Bayard who, dressed as an RAF officer, drew the fire of the Messerschmitts in one of the war's most dangerous aerial operations; and it was Bayard, whose popularity helped support the Browne-Brownes during the financial squeezes of the post-war era.
Older readers of Gentleman Bear will find echoes of Brideshead Revisited, Chariots of Fire, and serials about the Battle of Britain, as well as some affectionate satire of the modern British memoir. Pgestive of a more kindly Evelyn Waugh, naturally partakes of the elegance of his book's human and ursine heroes. Even minor characters, such as Billy's taciturn grandfather Sir Malcolm -- perhaps the finest batsman of the half-century -- stand out. Viewers of light beer and shaving cream commercials need not be reminded of what Sir Malcolm confided to his son: "I've never read, seen, or heard anything intelligent said by a sportsman. Please remember that, my boy."
The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald; Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit (Dell Yearling paperbacks, $4.95 each; ages 10-up). If a reader had to to pick a pair of books to represent the English fantasy tradition in children's literature, he could hardly do better than this pair. C.S. Lewis counted his discovery of George MacDonald a turning point in his life; and this Victorian prelate's fairy tales -- such as "The Light Princess" -- have become classics, as have his allegorical visions Lilith and Phantastes. This novel, the first of two books about the princess and Curdie, recounts the children's adventures in the underground realm of the frightening Goblin Queen.
It's hard to pick the best of E. Nesbit. Critics argue over the merits of The Treasure Seekers, The Railway Children and Five Children and It with the zeal of scholars trying to choose the best Shakespeare play. The only sensible thing is to read them all. In this classic five children discover a Psammead, a kind of sand- fairy, who will grant their wishes, but with unexpectedly disastrous and hilarious results. Fortunately, the wishes wear off at nightfall. One of the most delightful Edwardian writers, Nesbit inspired a host of imitators, including Edward Eager in whose novels the children all read -- who else? -- E. Nesbit. By Michael Dirda; Michael Dirda is children's book editor of Book World.