All on Board

ONE OF THE interesting developments in the children's book field in recent years has been a surge in the publication and sale of so-called "board books." These are small books -- generally about five inches square -- printed on sheets of laminated cardboard with rounded edges and meant to be peered at by children from 6 months to about 3 years old. The principle is that if the kid won't look at the book, he or she can teethe on it with no harm done.

As you might imagine, these books don't score too high on the Flesch Readability Scale. There's no attempt to tell a story. Generally, there's only a single simple word or short phrase on a page, and pictures are equally uncomplicated. Most commentators agree that the board book phenomenon has its basis in the desire of parents to introduce children to reading at an early age. One mother -- a proponent of starting real early -- was quoted in a newspaper article as saying she began reading to her child when it was still in the womb.

At any rate, Grace Clark, vice president and editorial director of Simon and Schuster's juvenile imprints, recalls that Golden Books had been doing volumes for toddlers since about the late 1940s, featuring cloth books and books on how to tell time, with turnable clock hands that stood out from the page. Later, she says, well-known author-illustrators such as John Miller, Richard Scarry and Dorothy Kunhardt began to produce books for the diaper trade for Golden Books. Kunhardt's Pat the Bunny is still a favorite.

"The thing that held board books for years," says Clark, "is that they were considered mass-market. Librarians wouldn't touch them, nor would upscale bookstores. That's changed now."

The big-name trade publishing houses began to see a market for board books in the mid-'70s and to employ illustrators who had established names for themselves in mainstream juvenile publishing.

One such artist is Helen Oxenbury, an English illustrator, who lives in the borough of Hampstead in London. She has published board books here with Simon and Schuster and Dial, and she has recently drawn rave reviews in the trade press for a four-book series -- I Touch, I Can, I Hear and I See. Casting modesty to the winds, Random House has dubbed her "the reigning queen of books for babies."

When told by phone of her coronation, Oxenbury laughed heartily. "I have been doing children's books for about 20 years," she said, "and I only got started on board books when my third child was born in the late '70s, and I found a dearth of suitable books for her."

Oxenbury is married to John Burningham, who also writes and illustrates children's books. They have a tall house in Hampstead. He works at the bottom, looking out on a garden. She prefers a tiny room at the top, piled high with old books and pieces of artwork. "In no time at all, I can heat it up to temperatures which no human is supposed to endure but in which I thrive. This also deters anyone who might want to sit around for a chat. Some have tried, but after a short time they stumble out, gasping for air."

Her one distraction from work and family is tennis. "I play at least three times a week and would play more if I weren't wracked with guilt. I go to great lengths to disguise the fact that I'm going to play. I put my tennis gear in the car the night before and leave the house with shopping bags and a hopeful dog. He doesn't realize he's going to sit in the car for an hour."

The Burninghams' two oldest children are already art students, and says Oxenbury, "I don't hold out much hope that our third will do anything different." Ode to a Minor Appliance

AMONG THE MANY recent titles of children's books, one caught my eye: The Brave Little Toaster. Cute. Then I recognized the name of the author -- Thomas M. Disch, known as a writer of science fiction for such books as On Wings of Song. Then I got the book. The plot concerns five appliances who live in a summer cottage on the edge of an immense forest: a Hoover vacuum cleaner, an electric blanket, a clock-radio, a tensor lamp and a two-slice Sunbeam toaster. They decide to leave the summer home and travel to the big city in search of their long-lost master, encountering various adventures along the way.

As the book jacket describes the appliance gang: "Quite ordinary in every way, they nevertheless possessed those qualities of innocence, dependability and loyalty so often lacking in, say, a dishwasher or refrigerator."

All this seemed to demand a telephone call to Disch at his apartment on Manhattan's Union Square. And did he have a tale to tell. Disch wrote The Brave Little Toaster specifically as a children's book and submitted it to various editors. Everybody said they liked it, but no one wanted to publish it, so he sold it as a science fiction story. Then the folks at the Disney studios saw the story and bought it for a full-length cartoon movie, which is being made by a Disney subsidiary, Hyperion.

Finally, The Brave Little Toaster was published by Doubleday as part of a five-book deal with Disch that also includes a book of poetry, a fantasy to be called The MD: A Horror Story and two science fiction novels.

Disch minces no words in identifying the hero of the book as the real-life toaster in his Manhattan apartment. "I have a very happy relationship with my toaster," he says. "Every morning it's there, bright as a button, ready to please me and work for me. What more can you ask?" What indeed? Paying the Piper

LOTHROP, LEE & Shepard, a grand old name in children's books that is now part of Morrow, is excited about its new illustrated version of Robert Browning's poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Browning was not available for an interview, but I talked to the book's illustrator, Anatoly Ivanov, who is worth a poem himself.

Ivanov was born in Moscow during World War II. His father was killed in the war, and he was raised from the age of 11 in a state orphanage. He studied at the Art Institute in Moscow but left to join a group of musicians touring the country, singing his own songs. Later he worked for a state publishing house as a children's book illustrator and came to the United States in 1979 with his Jewish wife. "When I left the Soviet Union," he says, "my latest book, which had been nominated for an award, was published without my name."

The idea for The Pied Piper came when his editor was visiting his house in Bridge Water, New Jersey, 30 miles west of New York and another guest suggested it would make a good children's book. Ivanov had known of the story in Russia, where it is called "The Rat-Catcher," but says it lacks the detail and color of the Browning poem. "These stories travel around," he says, "until they land in the hands of a poet who makes the best version."

Ivanov says that a central problem in illustrating the story was that no art can capture the Pied Piper's music. "So I had to make the pictures very dramatic." His art has stylistic echoes of Breughel in the often distorted faces of the characters, and of Rembrandt in the play of light and shadow. "I think I was born too late," says Ivanov. "The pictures that thrill me are by Da Vinci and Caravaggio and painters like that who look into the soul. You take them, then add Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and you get some idea of what is inside me." Prizes

AND NOW BACK to the big people's world. The 1986 Western States Book Awards have been announced. The fiction award went to Clarence Major, for My Amputations (Fiction Collective, University of Colorado). The poetry winner was Mary Barnard for Time and the White Tigress (Breitenbush Books, Portland, Oregon). Anita Sullivan's The Seventh Dragon: The Riddle of Equal Temperament (Metamorphous Press, Lake Oswego, Oregon), a philosophical essay that begins with a consideration of piano tuning, won the award in creative nonfiction. Having Everything Right, a series of personal essays on the Pacific Northwest by Kim Stafford (Confluence Press, Lewiston, Idaho), won the citation for excellence. Winners get $2,500 each, their publishers $5,000.