More Annotated Alice, annotated by Martin Gardner (Random House, $35). Some 30 years ago Martin Gardner brought out The Annotated Alice, the most entertaining of all editions of Lewis Carroll's two immortal masterpieces, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Gardner's editorial approach was simplicity itself: He reprinted the best possible text, made sure the celebrated John Tenniel illustrations were properly positioned, and then larded his wide margins with factual and fanciful material of all kinds -- explanatory notes, brief interpretive essays, scholarly minutiae. For instance, Gardner looked up the weather records for July 4, 1862 -- the "golden afternoon" when Charles Lutwidge Dodgson went rowing with the three Liddell sisters and told Alice the story of Wonderland -- only to discover that the day was in fact "cool and rather wet."
The Annotated Alice opened the floodgates to similar editions of other popular books: Mother Goose, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Wizard of Oz have been among the classics enriched, or sometimes weighed down, by this treatment. Still, no other books -- with the possible exception of the Sherlock Holmes mystery stories -- so welcome amateur scholarship as the Alice adventures, combining as they do imaginative fantasy, arcane mathematics, literary parody, social satire and sheer silliness. During the past three decades the corpus of Aliciana has grown dramatically and the best of that material, drawn from critical studies, letters to Gardner, his own researches and Carrollian journals like Jabberwocky, makes up More Annotated Alice.
Rather than needlessly reprinting the Tenniel pictures, Gardner happily decided to reintroduce the illustrations done early in the century by American artist Peter Newell, best known to children's book collectors for The Hole Book (it comes with a hole in the middle) and The Slant Book (the whole volume is cut like a slanted parallelogram). Michael Patrick Hearn contributes an enthusiastic and informative account of Newell's career. In general Newell's illustrations are considerably more realistic than Tenniel's, but they make for a winning and persuasive alternate vision of Wonderland. As a supplement Gardner also includes "The Wasp in a Wig," a once lost episode of Through the Looking Glass, rediscovered in 1977.
In general, the notes for More Annotated Alice tend to be of a more hair-splitting character than those in the original Annotated Alice. Still, there are revelations. For instance, consider the excursus on the Mad Hatter's never-answered riddle, "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?" Gardner repeats some of the suggested answers from AA, but ends with a bang: Denis Crutch discovered that in an 1896 edition of the novel Carroll gave a solution to the riddle -- "Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front." Now, the gist of this solution had been known to scholars -- but only in later editions that corrected the spelling of "nevar" to "never," thus corrupting Carroll's text and losing the wordplay: "nevar" clearly being "raven" with the wrong end in front.
If you enjoy this sort of thing, More Annotated Alice will offer many evenings of pleasure. And if you don't, this is still a handsome edition of one of the three most quotable books in English -- the one that's a lot more fun than the King James version of the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. The Kid's Book of Chess, by Harvey Kidder (Workman, $14.95). Every child should acquire certain basic skills beyond those taught in school, and one of them is the ability to play a decent game of chess. After all, this game of kings offers a lifetime of challenge and refreshment, a secondary world in which to lose ourselves when this one is too much with us, and good training in dealing with sudden catastrophe. It is also a lot of fun. A 12-year-old boy can play his grandfather -- and beat him. It also builds character. The 12-year-old boy may turn around and be trounced by his 9-year-old sister.
Workman Press is always coming up with book-toy gimmicks, one year it's a juggling manual with colored handkerchiefs, another year it's an insect manual with bug box. This season Workman has reprinted and retitled Harvey Kidder's 1970 Illustrated Chess for Children, and then packaged it with a plastic chess set and board. Kidder's introduction to the game is nicely geared to the very young (he wrote it for his 6-year-old son), which means that by junior high some school kid will be sharpening her endgame and getting ready to knock off Gary Kasparov.
Knowing his juvenile audience, Kidder emphasizes the feudalism inherent in the familiar Staunton figures -- the pawns are pikemen who strike sideways; the bishops advise the king and queen; the knights, being mounted on horseback, can leap over other pieces, and so forth. (He takes this chivalric nomenclature a bit far by calling the rook a castle, which is legitimate but hardly the norm.) The bold illustrations clearly demonstrate the way the various pieces move, though it will take all but the brightest kids a bit of time to grok the knight's strange L-shaped maneuver. Kidder also defines the terminology, from the often misunderstood "gambit" (not just a strategem but "an opening move in which a piece . . . is sacrificed to gain an advantage in position") to the all-important "fork" ("a move that threatens two pieces at once").
There's still a good many cold, long evenings till spring and I can imagine few more enjoyable ways to spend some of them than teaching and playing chess with one's children. But once a youngster has mastered the game, buy him or her a good wooden chess set and a full-size board. It's a gift that will last a lifetime. Prehistoric Zoobooks, created and written by John Bonnett Wexo (Wildlife Education, Ltd., 3590 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego, Calif. 92101, $19.95). Each issue of Zoobooks magazine is devoted to a zoo animal -- bats, say or dolphins -- and offers an appealing mix of facts, drawings, illustrated comparisons and games. This same approach has now been applied to early life on earth and the resulting 12 slender magazines have been attractively packaged in a sturdy plastic box, with accompanying family activity guide and prehistoric time-line poster.
The set should please just about everyone, combining, as it does, elements of a kid's magazine, comic book, children's encyclopedia and museum guide. As usual, moms and dads will learn as much as their offspring. For instance, in the volume about dinosaurs we are told that most reptiles "had teeth that were only loosely attached to their jaws," with accompanying picture. So what, you may ask? Well, thecodonts -- the predecessors to dinosaurs -- "had teeth in sockets -- and dinosaurs inherited this. This gave dinosaurs stronger teeth than other reptiles -- so they could hold on to their prey better." Which in turn contributed to their eventual domination of the earth for millions of years.
The pictures are striking -- I love the tyrannosaurus engorging some hapless fellow beast whole. A sidebar helpfully adds that the shape of T-Rex's jaws enabled it to swallow an animal as big as a horse in a single gulp. Visually, these books offer layouts of constant activity, combining text, boxes, illustrations, and marginal strips in a manner reminiscent of The Magic Schoolbus series. All in all, a welcome publishing venture. A Fish That's A Box: Folk Art from the National Museum of American Art, by M.M. Esterman (Great Ocean Publishers, 1823 North Lincoln St., Arlington, Va. 22207, $12.95). Speaking of welcome publishing ventures, Great Ocean Publishers of Arlington has brought out another of its all-too-rare books, and it is a handsome piece of bookmaking for kids. Best known for a beautiful edition of Gulliver's Travels with J.J. Grandville's illustrations and for Beethoven Remembered (by one of his pupils), this new book offers sharp photographs of folk art objects, brief accounts of their creators and their work, and a running commentary addressed to the young reader.
Unlike those tall slender alphabet books drawn from museum holdings, A Fish That's a Box is actually a primer on how artists see, for each of the illustrations reveals ordinary materials transmuted into things rich and strange. A chair that looks like a banjo. Bottlecaps turned into a lion. A Minute Maid orange juice can made up to resemble Bing Crosby. A box shaped like a fish. There are also exotic shop signs, a scary jug face, a bust carved out of a brick.
All these wonderful objects are immediately appealing to kids, partly because they are made from the very same materials that children tend to work with when they do their own art projects. Monet and Poussin and Henry Moore may be great, but kids are more likely to laugh over a Gerald Ford totem pole. And once they've stopped laughing, start to understand how an artist transforms the overlooked into the out-of-this-world. A lovely book. The Telling Line: Essays on Fifteen Contemporary Book Illustrators, by Douglas Martin (Delacorte, $49.95). If one picture is worth a thousand words, then surely 182 pictures, most of them gorgeous, are worth $50? Aristotle might argue with that logic, but not anyone who opens this beautifully designed, well printed and lavishly illustrated survey of post-war British picture-book artists. Included are essays on Charles Keeping, Brian Wildsmith, Helen Oxenbury, John Burningham, Raymond Briggs, Quentin Blake, Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Anthony Browne, Michael Foreman and a half dozen others. Not a clinker in the lot.
Editor Martin, himself a book designer, writes stiff, slightly academic prose touched with gush -- which is a pity -- but he has nonetheless gathered together important material and taken seriously artists whose best work is often appreciated only by kindergarteners and their parents. (That's a slight exaggeration, but see how many adults know the wonderful work of Shirley Hughes.) Each chapter includes a short biography, lots of pictures (sometimes preliminary sketches as well as finished illustrations), comments by the artists themselves, notes for further reading and a compact list of books which they have graced.
Martin is often very shrewd in understanding an artist's choice of medium and the nature of his effects; he has, for instance, a pungent paragraph on the remarkable calmness in Michael Foreman's watercolors. (Admirers of this often ethereal artist may be surprised to learn that he worked for some months as an art director for Playboy, which may explain the racy Erte-like nude titled "Waiting for the Party.") In several instances, like that of Charles Keeping and the reclusive Nigel Lambourne (who illustrated much material for the Folio Society), Martin managed to talk to his subjects just before they died, thereby gaining irreplaceable knowledge.
Anyone fascinated by the art of the picture book will want to look through this one. That includes a lot of kindergarteners and their parents. The parents should also read it.
Michael Dirda is children's book editor of Book World.