The Muffin Fiend, by Daniel Pinkwater (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $10.25; ages 6-up). What no muffins! A spectre is haunting Europe, not communism but a fiend whose hunger for muffins knows no limits, not even those of human decency. One morning Mozart discovers that his beloved Vienna, like Paris, is muffinless. Along with Inspector LeChat of the French Surete, the sometime detective and fulltime composer pursues the clues, clues that the plodding Austrain police have failed to understand. To quote the dust jacket copy, which errs for once on the side of understatement, the reader -- having experienced the breakneck chase to the Wienerwalk and seen the odd peasant -- will "be amazed at the impossible resolution of this, Mozart's greatest case."
That resolution -- only to hint at its charcter, lest I spoil any whodunit fan's pleasure -- involves certain speculations about a mysterious Don Pastrami, the secret identity of an opera singer named Apollo Grosso-Fortissimo, and playful pastiche of the final moments of Don Giovanni. And more. Throughout Pinkwater is as manic as ever, guying the central image of Amadeus in his very first illustration. Indeed, an ardent readership can only await accounts of Mozart's other cases, perhaps "The Sound of the Baskervilles" or the untold story of Maria-Theresa. For Mozart, she was always the woman.
Beatrix Potter: The V&A Collection, catalogue compiled by Anne Stevenson Hobbs, Joyce Irene Whalley, et al. (Victoria and Albert Museum/Frederick Warner, $50; all ages). C.S. Lewis has recorded the disturbing fascination he felt as a child for The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin; a story like The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck carries the force of fable; and generations of children know virtually by heart the adventures of Peter Rabbit, the rapscallion brother of Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. For this most jaded heart, the mere words, The Tale of a Fierce Bad Rabbit, never fail to elicit a smile. Indeed, there is a purity, a classic forcefulness -- support by a soupcon of irony -- to the prose of Beatrix Potter that recalls Jane Austen. Young writers, or at least writers for the young, might well give over their days and nights to Potter.
This hefty catalogue organizes the vast range of material -- more than 2,000 items -- in the Leslie Lindner collection of Potteriana. Abundantly illustrated with sketches, watercolors, and preliminary studies, the catalogue offers pleasure and instruction on every page. For example, the early watercolor of Benjamin Bunny is as good a rabbit as any by Durer. Besides the detailed descriptions of the artwork, this Potter vade mecum also includes manuscript pages, book lists, miniature letters, and much else.
The Brave Little Toaster, by Thomas M. Disch; illustrated by Karen Lee Schmidt (Doubleday, $10.95; ages 6-up). In ths fairy tale-subtitled "A Bedtime story for Small Appliances" -- a vacuum cleaner, electric blanket, clock radio, tensor lamp, and Subeam toaster undertake an epic journey in search of the beloved master who has, shudder, forgotten them. Together they fashion a means of transport (a chair with wheels, power from a car battery), pass through a dark forest, are befriended by simple woodland creatures, cross over water, suffer capture by a kind of ogre, and more; indeed Disch touches on nearly every element of the classic fairy story. One can readily understand why Disney studios pounced on this book for an animated feature.
But adults will note that Disch gently mocks the tradition he employs. Throughout there are authorial interventions drawingg tongue-in-cheek lessons, making didactic points; the narrative tone possesses an ironic edge that keeps the reader aware that this is both a scary adventure story and a playful science-fictional conceit.
Readers of sf -- and Disch is best known as an sf novelist (Camp Concentration and 334, among others) -- will remember many instances of talking, or intelligent machines. Robots, of course, bu tmore apposite the intelligent taxis of Philip K. Dick and the automated house of Ray Bradbury's "And There Will Come Soft Rains." Though kids will get a real charge out of the story as such, the adult reader's joy will be more literary: admiration for the sustained tone, for the imaginative leaps into the very quiddity of what a toaster must feel, why an electric blanket would hate an air conditioner, how a tensor lamp might envy fixtures with 100-watt bulbs. Like Randall Jarrell's similar (but much more sentimental) The Animal Family, Disch's The Brave Little Toaster may prove a modern classic.
Through the Kitchen Window, by Susan Hill; illustrated by Angela Barrett (Stemmer House, $10.95; ages 10-up). Convival and cozy, the kitchen of Susan Hill's prose and Angela Barrett's pictures is that of some ideal cottage in a dream-England where people read Trollope, sip toddies by the fire, and make marmalade, It is, in short, just the sort of kitchen we would all like to have. Hill -- a fine novelist married to a distinguished Shakespeare scholar -- writes so deliciously of cooking that parents and children will want to run right off and bake something. A cake, perhaps.
"Cakes. Round cakes, plain and heavy, or airy spongs, dusted with sugar, scattered with nuts, inch-deep in fondant icing. A seed cake, a dark, dark Dundee, its surface stuck around and around with toasted almonds. Victoria sandwich, light as air, Devil's food, wickedly rich. A lemon cake, warm, pricked all over with a skewer and the holes filled with fresh lemon syrup that soaks in and runs over on to the plate." Such prose poetry shows up on any page of this book, along with recipes, dinner menus, and the homey paintings of Barrett.
The Book of Dragons, by E. Nesbit (Dell paperback $4.95; ages 8-up). A good case could be made for E. Nesbit as the best writer for children ever. I won't go so far as to make it, but will simply note that it is always a pleasure to find her name on the title page of a reissue. The above collection of tales -- all involving dragons of one kind or another -- shows the familiar wit, narrative energy, and invention of the auditor of Five Children and It.
In "The Book of Beasts" young Lionel finds himself unexpectedly made king, learns that his great-great-great-great grandfather was a wizard, and discovers that when you open the dread "Book of Beasts" the animal pictures on that page comes to life. Unfortunately, Lionel turns to the dragon double-spread of that jewel-encrusted volume, with dire results that can only be undone by extreme cleverness.
In another tale, "The Deliverers of their Country," Nesbit suggests alleggory without quite making a fuss over it. Soon after little Effie finds something in her eye -- a something that turns out to be a miniature dragon -- her town is plagued by an epidemic of dragon, of all sizes, as small as insects, as large as houses. The smaller ones are killed readily,. but are a terrible nuisance, what with getting into the bathtubs and under the blankets. The bigger monsters, however, scoop up the unwary with ravenous appetite. Effie and her brother figure they need expert help, so they call on St. George. He is awakened form his tomb, proffers some gnomic counsel, and quickly goes back to sleep. Fortunately, his advice is good and the two children eventually save their country from this rather Garcia-Marquez-like plague.
To Build a Fire and Other Stories, by jack London (Bantam paperback, $3.95; ages 10-up). Soon after a boy (rarely a girl) teaches 11 or 12 he will one day come home with a collection of stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle or Jack London. (If he doesn't, the wise parent will put such a book directly into his hands.) Poe's gushy horror, Conan Doyle's flapless ratiocinator who lives the perfect boy's life (messy bachelor flat, adoring friend, constant adventure), and Jack London's dispassionate portrait of the world's cruelty, along with animal heroes who endure all with model stoicism -- all these work their magic best in early adolescence. There are several collections of London, but this one shines because of its range (25 stories), its textual excellence (Donald Pizer selects from his edition for the Library of America), and its cost (cheap).
Besides the title story -- one of American literature's great tours-de-force -- Pizer includes its counterpart "Love of Life" where a man left for dead survives near-starvation but afterwards cannot stop himself from hoardingg food, and "Bastard" with its terrific last sentence, "But his teeth still held fast locked." Add an edition of The Call of the Wild and White Fang to make a nice gift set for that northern vacation.