The Trouble with Gran , by Babette Cole (Putnam, $12.95; ages 6-up). In The Trouble with Mom, the trouble was that she was a witch; in its companion volume The Trouble with Dad, the eponymous hero turned out to be a half-mad inventor of robots; both books were whimsical, not to say zany. Or even madcap. In this new offering Gran, to all appearances a chubby-cheeked, umbrella-wielding, tea cozy of an old gal, turns out to be a tentacled but friendly alien. Sort of like ALF disguised as Margaret Rutherford. When her senior citizens club decides to go on a holiday to Wettisburg (as dull as its name), Gran cuts loose with a little fun: she makes carousel horses run wild, turns herself into a young beauty to win the most-glamorous-grandma contest, and eventually flies everyone in a bus shelter off to her home planet -- where all the inhabitants look exactly like gray-haired, smiling Miss Marple. Cole's anarchic humor should appeal especially to young readers, while her moral -- grandmothers may seem strange to the young but can be a lot of fun when you get to know them -- remains nicely understated.
The Ark in the Attic: An Alphabet Adventure , by Starr Ockenga and Eileen Doolittle (Godine, $18.95; ages 3-up). Alphabet primers are hardly in short supply, but this lavish album is something special. Remember the "treasure" collections of childhood, usually a battered King Edward cigar box chock-a-block with buttons, dead cicadas, rusty bolts, pennies, dime-store rings, broken cuff links, post cards, rubber bands? Ockenga and writer Doolittle have created collages of such objects, grouped according to the letters of the alphabet and photographed so that they recall those mixed-media "boxes" of artist Joseph Cornell. For instance, the letter A is represented by a crowded page displaying an acorn, acrobat, airplane, afghan, animal crackers, armor, abacus, accordion etc., etc. And etc. We are talking overflow, superabundance. Doolittle provides a text that encourages children to see all these objects as items to store away on an ark against some future calamity. The authors also suggest that parents can play various teaching games with their alphabet: each letter-scene can provide the basis of a story, focused on a prominent figure -- a doll or animal -- who can be viewed as a protagonist; or the child and parent can try to identify all the objects (a more demanding task than you might think); or a youngster might choose one object from each letter for a personalized ark. A striking book.
Collected Nonsense and Light Verse , by G.K. Chesterton (Dodd, Mead, $14.95; all ages). Like his friends E.C. Bentley (who invented the clerihew) and Hilaire Belloc (who gave the world The Bad Child's Book of Beasts), G.K. Chesterton wrote superb light verse, much of it ideal for children. Consider this triolet:
I wish I were a jelly fish
That cannot fall downstairs:
Of all the things I wish to wish
I wish I were a jelly fish
That hasn't any cares,
And doesn't even have to wish
'I wish I were a jelly fish
That cannot fall downstairs.'
Clearly such a poem deserves immortality, not only for its intricate rhymes but also for its deep understanding of man's thirst for immanence in a world of contingency. It's funny, too. Along with such masterpieces, this volume also includes parodies, drinking songs, the famous ballades (among them the celebrated "I think I will not hang myself today"), and other delightful discoveries. By the way, any older children around should be immediately introduced to Chesterton's Father Brown detective stories, those beautifully composed tales of marvels and madmen and mystery.
Dr. Seuss from Then to Now , by Mary Stofflet (Random House, $12.95; ages 10-up). This album -- originally the catalogue to a retrospective exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art -- covers the life and career of the most widely known and beloved children's author of our time. What is striking in looking through the illustrations is how consistent Dr. Seuss has been in his work: Some cover art for Judge, a humor magazine of the 1930s, clearly shows an elephant that can only be Horton. Though he will be known to history as a revolutionary children's author, Seuss also worked as an advertising illustrator and political cartoonist; all these aspects of his career are touched upon by Stofflet in her informative and enthusiastic account of the doctor's career. There are sample pages, pencil drawings, photographs, a chronology, even a checklist of the work, all of it invaluable for collectors and a treat for readers. For diehard Seuss fans -- though not precisely appropriate for children -- Random House has reissued a facsimile of his second book, The Seven Lady Godivas ($9.95), wherein various nude ladies of varying shapes and sizes go out to discover some new Horse Truths for the world.
Raccoons and Ripe Corn , by Jim Arnosky (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, $13; ages 2-5). To draw wildlife an artist really has to know his craft. You can fudge a high-tech robot or Sleeping Beauty's castle, and because no one has seen either, no one will be the wiser. But everyone knows what a raccoon looks like, leaving no margin for error. Over the years Jim Arnosky has established himself as Nature's unofficial portrait painter. Most recently, his books Drawing from Nature and Drawing Life in Motion (both recently reissued in paperback from Lothrop, Lee & Shepard at $8.95 each) have provided the basis for a public television series; in them he teaches young people how to sketch the flora and fauna of the outdoors.
In this new book, Arnosky tells the story of a midnight visit by a mother raccoon and her two young to a cornfield, where the trio feast until morning when they disappear back into the woods. That's it. A few simple sentences geared to very young readers. The art, of course, makes for the serene beauty of the book. Because the season is fall, the watercolor looks faded, muted -- oranges, browns, pale greens predominate; as night comes on the background grows gray and the tonalities darken slightly. And the restful fades imperceptibly into the timeless. The corn is ripe, a beetle explores a husk, an owl observes from a branch. The raccoons pull over the stalks and gorge themselves, while a spider web glistens in the moonlight and a mouse nibbles a discarded ear. At dawn yellow finches appear, a deer stands alert on the edge of the forest, leaves fall slowly to the ground. Stillness. Here is the world of autumn as we remember it from childhood, and as we hope our children will remember it. A lovely book ideal for sharing with preschoolers.
The World's Great Stories: 55 Legends that Live Forever
The Firebringer and Other Great Stories: 55 Legends that Live Forever , both retold by Louis Untermeyer (M. Evans, $9.95 each; ages 6-up). If through some utterly improbable sequence of events I were to be appointed Secretary of Education -- not a long-held ambition of mine -- I would move that three books be taught to all children in elementary school: a one-volume selection of Bible stories, a good hefty gathering of fairy tales, and a standard handbook of mythology. Armed with such knowledge, no child or adult will ever find himself culturally adrift: Such stories are the basis of half our literature and much of our civilization.
If there were room for another couple of books, I might well choose Untermeyer's two volumes of mythological and historical anecdote. Organized by the name of the hero or heroine, the book includes the stories of Damocles and his sword, the adventures of Theseus, Lancelot and the Cid, the romance of Aucassin and Nicolette, the seductions of the Loreley, the gunpowder plot of Guy Fawkes, Hannibal's exploits against Rome, the triumphs of Boadicea the warrior queen, the misadventures of Till Eulenspiegel, the death of Sir Philip Sidney. And many others. In Untermeyer's crisp, straightforward versions these tales would make for terrific bedtime reading, a nice change from the adventures of Richard Scarry's Lowly Worm or Dr. Seuss' obsessive rhymes.
New House , by Joyce Maynard; illustrated by Steve Bethel (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95; ages 4-8). One morning Andy -- a somewhat lonesome boy of around 12 -- notices that workmen have sectioned off part of the woods next door. A few days later he awakens to the sound of chain saws and heavy equipment. A new house is going up! What follows is the agreeable story of how Andy grows friendly with bushy-bearded Red who instructs him in the rudiments of the building trade and allows him to load up on scrap lumber. As the book progresses, the new house also progresses -- giving Maynard a chance to describe pouring a foundation, framing, sheetrocking, and finishing -- while Andy simultaneously constructs a superb treehouse. Not just a book about building, New House also tells the story of a boy's yearning for a friend, a wish fulfilled when a family moves into the new house on the final page.
Michael Dirda is children's book editor of Book World.