The Bug Book , by Dr. Hugh Danks (Workman, $7.95). I don't generally much care for gimmicks -- though most young kids adore Fast-Rolling Trucks and similar half-toy, half-book items -- but this one appealed to what I think of as the naturalist side of parenting. You know what I mean: Little Mary appears on the porch blithely holding what looks like a dead cicada or possibly a drugged cockroach and asks "Mommy, what is this?" Assuming an air of nonchalance, Mom says, "Why I think it's, uh, some kind of bug. Why don't you just put it down outside and then ask Daddy." Dad appears, looks aghast at the now-legless creature and vainly searches his memory: Could it be an earwig? Some obscure form of beetle? A mutant grub?
The Bug Book provides an ideal solution to the two problems inherent in the above scenario. First, Workman provides a "Bug Bottle" made of plastic in which to lodge the critter, thus releasing him from Mary's pitiless fingers and preventing a household-wide invasion should the monster prove a mommy. Second, The Bug Book proper offers advice on the capturing of spiders, beetles, etc., illustrations to help evaluate your catch, and even guidance for proper care and feeding. Armed with book and bottle, any boy or girl will feel like a latter-day Linnaeus. A nice idea.
A Child's Garden of Delights: Pictures, Poems, and Stories for Children, compiled by Bernard McTigue (Abrams, $29.95; all ages). McTigue, curator of the Arents collection of the New York Public Library, explains in a preface that this album should be regarded as an anthology to read rather than as an art book to admire. Still, I doubt that many parents will be handing over this sumptuous treasure-house -- and it is certainly that -- to any child who owns a box of crayons or a pair of scissors.
What McTigue has done is to take famous children's classics and present them in their original or most celebrated forms, drawing on the resources of the New York Public Library; hence, one finds nursery rhymes illustrated by Wilhelm Busch, Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway; stories like "Hop-o'my Thumb" with pictures by George Cruikshank; and scenes from novels such as Treasure Island or poems like Pushkin's The Golden Cockerel dramatically realized in an N.C. Wyeth or Ivan Bilibin painting. One has no argument that such a book showcases the great illustrators of the past: Turning its pages is like walking through a gallery. But it is an irritant to find only one- or two-page snippets from longer works. This is always the problem of such anthologies -- Clifton Fadiman ran into it in his otherwise fine three-volume set from Little, Brown -- and there really is no help for it. The usual excuse is that the fragments should serve as samples, as appetizers to encourage the reading of the full text. It's a reasonable argument, though I still think smart parents should simply buy attractive paperbacks of the best books and let the kids live, read and sleep them to shreds.
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 10 -- 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.
Very Truly Yours, Charles L. Dodgson, Alias Lewis Carroll: A Biography, by Lisa Bassett (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $15.95; ages 10-up). Lisa Bassett has had the good idea of writing a biography of C.L. Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, that emphasizes his relationship to his "child friends." Her book provides no new material for scholars, but young admirers of Alice in Wonderland will find it a winning introduction to its author. Bassett organizes her text largely around letters written to and by the little girls whom Carroll enchanted; she handles delicately but without flinching the nude photograph sessions; and devotes chapters to the major themes of Carroll's life: Oxford, letter-writing, storytelling, puzzles.
Bassett's style is unobtrusive, but everything else about this biography is striking. The book is nicely oversized, with wide margins and plenty of white space, attractively laid out, interlaced with illustrations. Through it all shines the loving and lovable spirit of Wonderland's creator; nearly every page here will bring a smile. For one brief example, consider this letter, quoted in its entirety: "My Dear Winnie, But you will be getting tired of this long letter: so I will bring it to an end, and sign myself, Yours affectionately, C.L. Dodgson." A model brief life.
Bathtime Pals (Bantam, $3.95; ages 6 months-2 years). This vinyl bath book is part of Bantam's 16-book program for preschoolers based on the Learning Curves soft toy system. I don't know the toys or the other 15 books, and, on the evidence of this sample, I'm not sure I want to. Didn't anyone at Bantam test the finished product?
Like other vinyl books, this one is filled with foam, displays bright pictures (here of a duck, sailboat, and whale), and is accompanied by short texts. Nothing wrong there. Indeed I took Bathtime Pals home to try on my 6-month old son Mike. But when I opened the book's packaging I thought I'd stepped into a chemical factory: With the possible exception of the pickling vats in my hometown's steel mill, I have never encountered so powerful and nauseating an odor. I put the book down and the chemical plastic smell clung to my hands. I washed my hands, I washed the book. It made no difference. I threw the thing in with the dishes, drowned it with Lux liquid. The chemical aroma was just as pungent. I sent the book through a heavy wash cycle along with some towels -- and still from its pages faintly wafted up the foul fragrance of some ungodly plastic brew. It's really too bad because Mike saw Bathtime Pals and reached for it instinctively, clearly yearning to give a nibble to the cute yellow duck on the front. But I wouldn't let him come near the book. A shame.
The Amazing Voyage of Jackie Grace, by Matt Faulkner (Scholastic, $13.95; ages 3-6). All children are pirates at heart. Give them half a chance and they'll run up the Jolly Roger, transforming a picnic table or tree fort into the home of as scurvy a crew as ever haunted the waterfront dives of Shanghai or the Spanish Main. Add a sword, an eyepatch, or -- most important of all -- a plank for prisoners to walk and any Captain Kid will be gloriously happy for an afternoon.
In The Amazing Voyage of Jackie Grace a boy of about 10 carefully sets his model pirate ship into his bath. He slides into the water and -- suddenly -- a whiskery, pot-bellied sea captain, in full military regalia, comes running to commandeer the tub. He is soon joined by two crew members -- one a lummox, the other an old salt -- who warn that a monster storm is about to hit. And hit it does. Out of nowhere Faulkner conjures up a tsunami that comes crashing down on the three men and boy, seizing the bathtub and sending it into very rough seas indeed. When the weather clears, however, the adventure has only begun. For on the horizon but drawing near, with the skull and crossbones waving in the breeze and cannons poking from every porthole, proudly sails the captain's own ship, now commanded by a vicious pirate crew. Somehow our intrepid quartet must overpower an oily Jean Lafitte-like villain and retake the vessel.
This is a superb picture book, brimming with dramatic illustrations and thrilling action. It will make any young seadog long to take a bath. And that's an achievement in itself.
Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature, compiled by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $20; ages 12-up). These pieces -- drawn from programs presented at Simmons College -- make clear that children's literature is not just kid's stuff. Here the elite of the calling -- Alan Garner, Katherine Paterson, Natalie Babbitt, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Joan Aiken, Maurice Sendak, Chris van Allsburg, and others just as distinguished -- talk about their art, their inspiration, their ways of creating. Aiken, for instance, presents a moving memoir of how it was to grow up the daughter of poet Conrad Aiken. Cooper offers a brilliant homage to Walter de la Mare, and more particularly to his classic collection of poems, Come Hither. Much of the book deals with fantasy, what the editors call "the perilous realm," and it is fascinating to eavesdrop on figures like Madeleine L'Engle, Lloyd Alexander and M.E. Kerr as they talk about myth, storytelling and the interplay of romance and realism. This is quite an engaging assemblage for anyone who believes children's literature really is literature, and not just a set of training manuals for the domestication of toddlers, tots and teens. It could be read with pleasure by anyone who enjoys, say, the Paris Review "Writers at Work" interviews.
Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs , translated by Randall Jarrell; pictures by Nancy Ekholm Burkert; The Fisherman and His Wife , translated by Randall Jarrell; pictures by Margot Zemach (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $5.95; $4.95; all ages). My admiration, verging on idolatry, for Randall Jarrell is an open secret: I don't think any post-war American writer wrote a more witty and delicious prose, or more moving poetry. Near the end of his life Jarrell turned his talents to children's literature, composing such now-classic tales as The Animal Family and The Bat-Poet. He also translated a number of classic fairy tales by the brothers Grimm and Ludwig Bechtstein (the latter in a volume titled The Rabbit-Catcher, now long out of print). These two reissues offer young readers a chance to sample Jarrell's flavor. Here, for instance, is how he begins Snow White: "Once it was the middle of winter, and the snowflakes fell from the sky like feathers." Who could stop reading?
Still it must be admitted that Jarrell's text is overshadowed, or rather outshone, by Nancy Ekholm Burkert's exquisite, heart-quickening illustrations. The young Snow White glows with an innocence, beauty and quiet vitality that seems the embodiment of childhood. Years ago, John Gardner wrote that "Looking at them, you wish they were the first pictures you'd seen in your life." By contrast, Margot Zemach's watercolors for The Fisherman and His Wife, perhaps the greatest of the Grimm tales (and the inspiration for Gunter Grass' The Flounder), possess an almost cartoon-like quality that emphasizes (unduly I think) the comic rather than chilling aspects of this story of greed and unbridled ambition. Both, though, are books any child or parent would be proud to own, delighted to read.
Michael Dirda is children's book editor of Book World.