The Three Robbers , by Tomi Ungerer (Atheneum, $14.95; ages 3-up). They peer out from beneath peaked black hats, their bodies shrouded in Dracula-like cloaks. One holds a doubled-bladed axe, the color of half-dried blood. At night the three robbers haunt the darkened roadways, blowing pepper into horses' eyes to blind them, smashing carriage wheels, and holding passengers at bay with a huge blunderbuss. Their loot they keep in a mountain fastness: gold, jewels, watches, treasure of every sort. They are feared far and wide. And then one day they hold up a coach carrying an orphan girl off to her wicked aunt. . .
Readers expecting another "Ransom of Red Chief" will be quickly disappointed, though the little girl inevitably effects the moral regeneration of this chilling trio. In fact, the gothic villains end up -- in a rather rushed conclusion -- as the proprietors of a foundling home. Too bad. I think most kids will like the first half of this picture book best, when these proto-Darth Vaders strike cozy fear into any and all who behold them.
The Voyage of the Ludgate Hill: Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson , by Nancy Willard; illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $14.95). Talk about a triple threat! The Provensens took the Caldecott with their last book, The Glorious Flight; Nancy Willard bagged the Newbery with her previous title, A Visit to William Blake's Inn (with illustrations by the Provensens); and Robert Louis Stevenson has been delighting people, especially young people, ever since Jim Hawkins first glimpsed Blind Pew and heard Captain Flint squawk "Pieces of eight, pieces of eight!"
In this outing Willard has chosen to recount -- in Edward Learish rhyme -- the misadventures befalling Stevenson and his wife after they booked passage to the United States on a tramp freighter. On board are a hold full of horses, baboons and monkeys; among the passengers are Mrs. Early of Rood and Mr. Collins of Greer. Midway cross the Atlantic a storm throws everything topsy-turvy: "When the tempest had cleared, the captain appeared/ and discovered his compass and wheel/ were safe with the ape in the gabardine cape/ and an ancient, excitable eel."
The Provensen pictures give this rollicking nonsense a nice period feel -- the pages have a warm, old post card tonality, the look of folk painting, and some scenes are wonderfully histrionic: Stevenson, for instance, holds his swooning wife as if they had just brought down the curtain on act one of a Victorian melodrama. The animals are just as individual as the people; in fact, I think I noticed a few familiar muzzles from the Provensens' books about Maple Hill Farm.
The Rain Door,
by Russell Hoban; illustrations by Quentin Blake (Crowell, $11.95; ages 4-8);
The Marzipan Pig , by Russell Hoban; illustrations by Quentin Blake (Farrar Straus Giroux, $10.95; ages 6-up). Whether telling sad stories or tall tales, Russell Hoban always writes sentences as cool and perfect as raindrops. Think of such acknowledged classics as The Mouse and His Child, Riddley Walker, the Ponders series, or that picture book masterpiece, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen.
In The Rain Door a boy of 12 or 13 -- drawn with Quentin Blake's ambling angularity -- discovers that a rag-and-bone man controls the weather. London has been suffering the kind of heat we know in Washington and the reason is a lion that's been threatening the old geezer, preventing him from connecting all the pipes needed for a downpour. Naturally Harry goes to the rescue, builds a mechanical dinosaur to frighten off the beast, and then races with the rain master in his water wagon, drawn by a horse called Lighting, as the lion roars like thunder. All of them burst through the rain door together, bringing relief to the sweltering city.
A nice story, but not anything special compared to Hoban's other new book, The Marzipan Pig, a somberly beautiful set of variations on the disappointments of life.
A marzipan pig falls behind a couch. "Perhaps they missed him and perhaps they looked for him but he was never found. . . . 'There is,' he said, 'such sweetness in me!' No one heard him. He heard the rain beyond the window and the hiss of tires on the street but no one came for him. Day after day he waited as the months went by. 'I am growing hard,' he said, 'and bitter. What a waste of me!' "
Time passes for the marzipan pig and then one day he hears a gnawing sound.
" 'Sweetness,' said a voice behind him.
" 'Who's that?' said the pig.
"It was a mouse. She was nibbling at him. 'You're sweet,' she said.
" 'There was a time when I was sweet,' said the pig, 'but I have known such . . . '
" 'Sweetness, sweetness, sweetness,' murmured the mouse, and she ate him up entirely."
As if this weren't enough, the mouse in turn falls in love with a grandfather clock, visits him every night "and waited for the clock to say it loved her. But the clock would tell her nothing but the time." Finally, one night the mouse doesn't come back. "The little warm place where she used to sit was cold and empty. By day the clock could feel himself coiled tight inside and waiting for the night. By night he felt the empty place inside him as he waited for the day to come. The next time he was wound his spring broke and his ticking stopped and time went on without him."
And so things go, like a round, as an owl becomes enamored of a taxi's For Hire light, a bee talks with an hibiscus, another mouse discovers another piece of marzipan. All life seems laced with a ceaseless longing for love and happiness, nearly always disappointed, with only a few kernels of joy stolen by the lucky.
This is a beautiful, haunting book. Just what you'd expect from Russell Hoban.
The Little People's Pageant of Cornish Legends , by Eric Quayle; illustrated by Michael Foreman (Little Simon, $14.95; ages 7-up). Don't think the title of this book is a coy and cutesy way of referring to your own sweet baby tookums and his big sister-wister: we're talking the real little people here -- elves, brownies, piskies, the whole realm of faerie. Quayle retells in plain prose -- no archaicisms, please -- some wonderful supernatural stories, first gathered in Cornwall during the mid 19th century. An old woman steals some magic salve that grants both invisibility and the ability to see the little people. A mermaid laboriously makes her way up a creek when she hears a beautiful baritone voice; before you can say Splash she has won the singer's heart and lured him into her watery realm. These are terrific tales -- none so grim as Grimm -- and they are made absolutely magical by Michael Foreman's watercolors.
Mortimer Says Nothing,
by Joan Aiken; illustrated by Quentin Blake (Harper & Row, $12.95; ages 8-up). From the very first sentence of "Mortimer Says Nothing," titanic forces are set on a collision course. "It was on the day when Mrs. Jones heard that the ladies of Rumbury Town were coming to visit her kitchen that the mice of Cantilever Green began their march north across London." Before long, Aiken is busily balancing a half dozen plot strands: Mrs. Jones' fretful and desperate cooking to prepare for the Rumbury Ladies Kitchen Club; the mass migration of the mice, led by scout F Stroke B7, to the sugary paradise of Mrs. Jones' kitchen; the appearance of a German bird specialist who longs to record the full-throated "Kaaark" of Mortimer, the family's pet raven; the destruction caused by the cat Archibald, brought in to hunt down the mice; and the return of Mr. Jones from a caber-hurling contest. This new collection also includes three other stories about Mortimer and the Jones family -- "Arabel's Birthday," "Mr. Jones' Rest Cure," "A Call at the Joneses' " -- and each is a first-rate example of Aiken's crisp, efficient imagination.
Signs, Letters, Words: Archaeology Discovers Writing , by W. John Hackwell (Scribners, $13.95; ages 8-up). Not a history of writing, this book deals solely with the birth of various systems of written communication: cuneiform, hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, etc. The perspective -- as one might expect from the author, a professional archeologist -- is on the artifacts that survive various Middle Eastern civilizations and have allowed modern scholars to understand the birth of writing. Consequently, the real distinction of the book lies in its illustrations of stone and pottery fragments from Sumer, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. There are naturally fascinating tidbits: the Sumerians, for instance, appear to have invented, along with much else, the envelope; and the very different alphabets of modern Hebrew and modern Arabic descend from the same Aramaic source. Still, most readers will hunger for a little more detail and flavor: Hackwell's presentation is rather schematic, as though he were writing cuneiform and had to chisel every word.
The Devil's Other Storybook,
by Natalie Babbitt (Farrar Straus Giroux, $10.95; ages 7-up). To give Natalie Babbitt's devil his due, he can be a pretty clever fellow, even rather winning. This Lord of Darkness is definitely a gentleman, albeit one with a taste for practical jokes. In this latest collection of his misadventures -- a sequel to The Devil's Storybook -- he merely takes advantage of human weakness, sometimes succeeding but just as often finding himself unexpectedly frustrated.
In one story a second-rate gypsy named Madame Organza always gives the same three predictions: You will find a pot of gold, or go on a long journey, or meet a dark stranger. The devil decides to make all these come true, with certain twists of course. For instance, the tall dark strangers "hung about, getting in the way, and looking altogether so alarming . . . that the villagers remaining were afraid to stay and hurried to move in with relatives in other villages, which caused no end of bad feeling." In another tale the Evil One switches a pair of road signs so that two quarreling lovers fail to meet and make up, with the result that they marry other people and end up living happily ever after. In "Simple Sentences" the devil applies the Sartrean view that hell is other people by locking up together a pickpocket, who speaks only in Cockney slang, and a fussy professor, who talks as though he were reading from a paper on phenomenology. All these stories are engagingly told, though some are little more than vignettes; they recall a marriage of Thurber fable with Isaac Singer folk tale and should make for ideal bedtime reading.
Michael Dirda is children's book editor of Book World.