IN SOME fundamental way, what we today call the picture book had its beginnings in the prehistoric cave, with those remarkable paintings that blended the power of visual image with a verbal accompaniment to tell that most wonderful of things -- a story. The endpapers of Ugh by the well-known picture book team of Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski (Farrar Straus Giroux, $13.95; ages 3-8) make use of cave paintings to summon up that prehistoric time as the setting for their latest fantasy. Yorinks and Egielski approach prehistory from a hilariously skewed perspective -- the sort that most adults over 40 are familiar with, thanks to endless movies that bend geological and biological timetables into pretzels. Yorinks and Egielski present a world in which cave man and the dinosaurs are next door neighbors. In fact, in the world of Ugh, "for fun, everyone went to the grove and watched dinosaurs eat trees."
However, the little boy named Ugh is not allowed to take part in these amusements. Instead, a stone-aged Cinderfella, he's stuck doing all the chores around the cave, waiting for his chance to win his independence from siblings who are more tyrannical than any Tyrannosaurus rex. Things are so bad Yorinks exclaims, punningly, on the boy's behalf, "Oh, Ugh. Woe was Ugh." Luckily, Ugh is highly imaginative; and his inventiveness, though it makes his brothers and sisters angry, gives him consolation and, in the end, leads him to create the vehicle that propels him out of the cinders and to the top of the clan's hierarchy.
The book is an unusual mix of elements. Egielski's pictures bathe this world in warm color and quirky humor. His scenes of the extended cave family (which Yorinks calls "the world") are an unforgettable melting pot of every imaginable race, size, shape, and hairdo. Yorink's text quips and kids while at the same time making its more serious point about the importance of creative people and the changes they may bring to their world. Without thumping you or your little ones over the head with this theme, Ugh celebrates those things that, in all their eccentric glory, make us uniquely, individually ourselves.
When it comes to inventions, Eric Carle's The Very Quiet Cricket (Philomel, $17.95; ages 2-7) is state-of-the-art. The book comes with a tiny microchip device bound into the front cover that allows the child to pull a tiny plastic lever and have the sound of a cricket join in with the reading of this story. In the opening pages of the book, a cricket hatches from its egg and encounters a series of other insects, including a locust, a cicada, a dragonfly and a luna moth. The cricket certainly has our sympathies as he spends a frustrating day and evening attempting to make his own sound in answer to their various calls to him, and we wonder what will help him to find his voice. The answer appears, naturally, in the form of a female cricket, who calls forth undreamed-of music from him -- the very cricket sounds that have been playing through the house for the 15 minutes it has taken you to read this to your young listener.
Carle's abstract pictures take the child up close to the natural world. His brushwork catches the essential buzz of a bumblebee, the diaphanous wings of a dragonfly and even the disappointment on the face of the cricket when, by nightfall, he is still unable to make a sound. The batteries in the micro-chip are good for several years, so this book should be singing its gentle lessons about change and growth around your house for some time.
One certainly doesn't need any gimmicks to tell a good story. Valerie Scho Carey's Quail Song, with illustrations by Ivan Barnett (Putnam, $14.95; ages 4-8), is able to make its music without batteries. In this adaptation of a Pueblo Indian folktale, Quail cuts herself on some sharp grass while she is harvesting her crops and calls out: "Ki-ruu, ki-ruu." Coyote thinks this is a splendid song and wants to take it home as a lullaby for his children. Over her protests that it is really a cry of pain, Coyote forces her to teach it to him. But something happens each time that he learns it: Coyote keeps losing the song, and each time that he does, he returns to the ever more reluctant Quail to make her sing it for him again. By now the child listening to this story has realized, with Quail, that something has to be done, or Coyote will be forever coming back to relearn the song and Quail won't be able to finish her harvesting.
How Quail tricks the bullying Coyote provides the ironic climax of the story, and I won't give it away, except to say that it's a mouthful for Coyote. Barnett captures this moment and the mood of Coyote's defeat especially well with his rough collages. Barnett's abstract forms complement Carey's text without overpowering its subtle inflections of character, and his collages invite the child and adult sharing this book to participate imaginatively in "reading" the illustrations. However, one wishes that all of Barnett's pictures were as strong as the final double-page spread of Coyote, stranded in the night, his blue head drooping and his insides full of confusion. No wonder he howls as he does! LEO AND Diane Dillon have given visual shape to another kind of song in the picture book version of Ai da (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $16.95; ages 7-up), a story version of the famous Verdi opera, told by Leontyne Price, probably the greatest living singer of that role. Everything about this volume is grand -- from its marbleized endpapers and smooth, rich textures to its stately prose and the shimmering palette of its pictures. How else does one evoke on the page that mythic world of ancient Egypt and its celebrated lovers -- the Ethiopian princess Aida and the Egyptian army officer Radames?
The Dillons make strategic use of two different visual styles to animate the complex plot and to convey its emotional power. They alternate friezes -- done in the two-dimensional fashion of ancient Egyptian narrative painting -- on the upper left-hand pages above the text with poetic, full-page pictures on the right hand pages. The small pictures help to move the action along, while the larger paintings ask us to linger over scenes of extraordinary emotional energy. Take, for example, Aida's encounter with her father, King Amonasro, as he towers over her in the green moonlight and forces her to betray Radames. Or take the slow, calm descent of Radames into the tomb where he will be interred with Aida at the end of the story. But rather than letting the emotional content of these paintings freely spill into the world of the reader, an ornamental border of two golden strips both frames and seals off our access to each of these remarkable pictures. It is rather like trying to look at the ocean through the guard rails of a ship -- a limiting rather than an expansive experience.
Price's retelling of the opera is solid and commendable. She does her best to breathe life into a story that is not meant to be told solely in the form of words and pictures. For this romantic tale needs something else -- Verdi's music and Price's singing -- to send it soaring.
To round out this concert of picture books, Helme Heine's The Marvelous Journey Through the Night (Farrar Straus Giroux, $14.95) offers one last song -- a lullaby. "Every night," the book begins, "you start on a marvelous journey. Without luggage, without passport, without money. When it's time to go, you make the secret sign. You put your hand over your mouth and yawn." Below the text we see a line of people composed into a spectrum of occupations, ages and types: a chef, a pope, an Indian, an artist, a boxer, a little girl. All are queued up for sleep, and within a page, Heine's little sleep spirit, dressed in a hooded nightgown and holding the moon on a string, has led them, along with animals and fish, into that other world, where "you forget who you are and what your name is" and slowly drift in your own bubble into "the paradise of dreams," where the rabbit is not frightened by the hunter and "the world looks like a painted picture."
The nightly passage that Heine creates has its dark edges, especially at the beginning where, in his pictures, he does not spare the reader some quick glimpses of the anxieties that come with sleep. Ultimately, though, these shadows wash into the vibrant blues and greens and reds of Heine's watercolors where they are suffused with an unthreatening, lyrical surrealism. Here, he tells his readers, you are safe. Even the duck that was meant at the beginning of the book to be a meal escapes, and everyone emerges on the other side of this journey refreshed. For millennia lullabies have been sung to protect the child from troubling, nocturnal phantoms. In his loving concern for the sleeper's spirit, Heine has added a memorable new verse to this ancient song. John Cech teaches children's literature in the English Department at the University of Florida in Gainesville. His first picture book will be published next year.