PUSS IN BOOTS Translated from the French by Malcolm Arthur Illustrated by Fred Marcellino Michael di Capua Books/Farrar Straus Giroux 32 pp. $14.95. All ages
THERE ARE two ways to illustrate a fairy tale. One is serious: the use of traditional styles of art to depict characters in period costumes and richly detailed settings. The other is comic: cute cartoons that evoke a jolly world of pratfalls. The texts of the classic versions of these tales by Perrault or the Grimm Brothers allow for both these contradictory possibilities: They present absurd situations in a serious matter-of-fact style. The genius of Fred Marcellino's wonderful pictures for Puss in Boots, a story first told in print by Perrault, is that they provide a visual equivalent to this verbal combination of the sublime and the ridiculous: They brilliantly represent both ways of illustrating fairy tales at the same time.
Marcellino's characters, bewigged and bedecked in elaborate confections of silk and ribbon and lace, romp through gently bucolic landscapes and sumptuously overdecorated rooms, in a nostalgic dream version of courtly life. This is serious art, technically accomplished and richly detailed.
Meanwhile, however a sly comedy undermines the seriousness. Except for the cover picture, which shows Puss in a plumed hat and ruff that appear to be borrowed from an earlier illustration of the tale by Gustave Dore', Puss wears only exactly what the text says, a snazzy pair of high topped boots; otherwise, he is all naked cat, and when he absurdly stands erect, it looks like he's soaking his hind legs in a pair of buckets. Meanwhile, the ogre is a maniacal Mr. Clean; and in his opulent mansion, a snake's tail emerges discreetly from under the cover of an ornate silver serving dish. All characters' eyes often pop, and their elegantly bedecked bottoms often stick out at grotesque angles. A particularly good joke is that, as a group of reapers bow way down low to the very short Puss, their clothing and their postures form a clever parody of those of Millet's famous gleaners.
All this has the effect of undermining the documentary realism of the style, sending up the seriousness. But then the detail and texture equally undermine the humor, and make all the impossible events being depicted seem, somehow, eminently possible.
While Fred Marcellino is well known for his book jackets, Puss in Boots is his first picture book; it's an impressive debut. These sly, beautiful pictures evoke the ambiguous nature of fairy tales in a way that should please and repay the close attention of both art specialists and children. Perry Nodelman is the author of "Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books."