ONLY A DREAM

Story and pictures by Chris Van Allsburg

Houghton Mifflin. Unpaginated. $17.95

FOR DECADES there was an annual "Christie for Christmas," a cozy whodunit by Agatha Christie just in time for gift-giving. Over the past several years the children's book industry has established its equivalent: The yearly Chris Van Allsburg.

As with Christie's mysteries, a buyer knows he will be getting good value from Van Allsburg. Some years will be great: The Polar Express is as much a high spot as Murder on the Orient Express. But in other years the style and charm may be there, but the imaginative daring will have fallen a tad short. So it seems with Only a Dream.

A careless boy of 8 or 9 litters on his way home from school; fails to sort his trash; mentally mocks a neighbor girl who is lavishing attention on a tree she planted for her birthday. Later, after watching a television program about the future, Walter falls asleep, dreaming of robots and personal jets and other wonderful things to come. Then, in a series of dream visions -- or are they actual glimpses of the future? -- our hero sees the consequences of today's careless disregard for the environment: Cities buried in trash; forests destroyed to make toothpicks; resort hotels on top of Mount Everest. After Walter wakes up, he is, like Dickens' Scrooge, utterly transformed and eager to perform good works. The next night he falls asleep again and is offered a glimpse of a better, cleaner, simpler world. The story then ends with a neat, slightly sentimental flourish of the kind familiar to readers of The Wreck of the Zephyr and several of Van Allsburg's other books.

Besides A Christmas Carol, Only a Dream recalls H.G. Wells' Time Machine (and other science fiction of the "If this goes on" variety), as well as current thinking about the despoliation of the earth. Van Allsburg's book is consequently less purely playful and more tendentious than the ingenious and shivery Garden of Abdul Gasazi or the larkily uncanny Jumanji. Instead we have a classy equivalent of those schoolroom texts that warn kids not to take rides from strangers and to say no to drugs.

A purely esthetic reading then of Only a Dream makes the book seem mechanical, derivative and trendy; looked at as a pedagogical tool though, a source for family or classroom discussion of environmental issues, it is certainly effective. What bothers me most are the pictures: They neither startle nor sparkle; instead they proffer a somewhat wan, familiar charm. Moreover, the dreamy fuzziness so characteristic of Van Allsburg drastically softens his ecological punch. The mountains of trash simply don't shock; in fact they look rather inviting, certainly more fun than Walter's manicured backyard. And the hotel on Mount Everest shimmers like a quite delightful castle in the air.

Still, this is the annual Chris Van Allsburg and he is an author-illustrator hard to resist. But this year admirers of the children's picture book as an art-form will do better to look for Leo and Diane Dillon's gorgeous Aida, David Macaulay's mind-bending Black and White or William Joyce's homage to the '50s, A Day with Wilbur Robinson.

Michael Dirda is the children's book editor of Book World.