Dancing pigs, balletomane wolves, puppies who can't bark and other winsome creatures animate this summer reading list for the younger set.If there is only one book to send with the kids to camp this year, be sure it is Maurice Sendak's latest, Swine Lake, HarperCollins, $15.95). It is his first collaboration with the late James Marshall, the beloved author-illustrator of George and Martha, The Stupids and Miss Nelson Is Missing. It is also one of the best books of Sendak's long, distinguished career. As he explained to me in a recent interview for another journal, he and Marshall had been talking for years about doing a book. It was only when Marshall was too weak to draw the pictures himself that Sendak took the project in homage to his dear friend.
The story reminds us what a skillful writer Marshall was. In it, a lean and mangy wolf stumbles upon a new production of "Swine Lake" in a decaying part of the city and immediately craves members of the porcine company for his dinner. But when he secures a ticket purely by chance, he gets so caught up in the performance that he forgets what he came for. The wittily told modern fable suggests that if music does indeed soothe the savage beast, then art may transform the basest of instincts. Remarkably, Sendak has retained Marshall's spirit without compromising his own sensibility. He makes Marshall's wolf as memorable as any of the Wild Things, and the book is a visual romp from beginning to end. Sendak boldly lards this labor of love with the most outrageously swinish puns: The Borshoi Ballet instead of the Bolshoi, the Daily Bacon, Odile Chitterlings the prima ballerina, the New Hamsterdam Theatre. His pictures have not been this jolly in years. Sendak has learned to laugh again, and the children will too.
It must have seemed at first a daunting task to illustrate The Tale I Told Sasha (Little, Brown, $15.95) by Newbery Medal-winning poet Nancy Willard. How to depict the Bridge of Butterflies, the Field of Lesser Beasts? These haunting lines conjure up myriad seductive images that melt one into another with each new reading. But David Christiana wisely captures the atmosphere of Willard's verse while weaving his own limpid, watercolor fantasies into this tale of a little girl who goes chasing after a yellow ball to the home of the King of Keys, the keeper of all lost things. The poem threatens to get marooned on the shores of Sgt. Pepperland ("His twilight sherbet, pansy creams/ and starlight-covered jelly beans"), but in the end this beautiful book will send children off dreaming through long summer nights.
Samuel Marshak was one of the founders of modern Rus-
sian children's literature. Soviet children used to know his poems by heart, but only since glasnost have American editors shown any interest in issuing his poems here. Translated by Richard Pevear, Marshak's The Absentminded Fellow (Farrar Straus Giroux, $16) is refreshingly free of Marxist cant, and Marc Rosenthal has illustrated the nonsense verse alarmingly in the style of the Roaring Twenties funny papers. His rendition of the scatterbrain title character looks like Andy Gump! Rosenthal previously collaborated with Richard Pevear on an excellent edition of Daniil Kharm's First, Second, but Pevear, who has also translated Dostoyevsky and Gogol, is better at prose than poetry. He freely adapted The Absentminded Fellow with no regard for Marshak's meter or dependence on couplets, and it is disconcerting to have the locale transplanted from Leningrad to London. Tea with biscuits or bread and jam seems very Mary Poppins here. Pevear also relies too much on false rhymes ("whether" and "other," "yours" and "outdoors," "more" and "there" with "stir"). But Rosenthal's infectious good humor and comic ingenuity make The Absentminded Fellow a fine book for a vacation.
Bob Kolar's Do You Want To Play? (Dutton, $16.99) is a spectacular debut. This new picture-book artist mixes his media in the postmodernist manner of Lane Smith but minus the meanness. Technically the book is a treatise on friendship, but there is so much to do in these 32 pages! Funny little characters pop up everywhere, always involved in something wild and unexpected. Kolar gives instruction on how to draw one of them and includes an amusing story within the story ("The Big Angry Bear"). The child can learn "hello" or "welcome" in a dozen languages and just as many ways of making up after a spat. Kolar has even invented a contemplative board game for two or more friends to play. He slips in plenty of things to think about, but they never intrude on all the summer fun and games.
Ex-Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer has found a lucrative second career writing and illustrating children's books, and his latest, Bark, George (HarperCollins, $14.95), is a hilarious shaggy dog story. Poor little puppy! He can meow, quack, oink and moo, but he just cannot bark. Fortunately his wise mother takes George to the vet, who knows exactly what to do. Feiffer's drawings here are as lean and spirited as in any of his celebrated comic strips, and he ends the tale with an unexpected punch line. Look for the bewhiskered artist himself, pushing a baby stroller in the crowd.
Even infants have their summer reading this year. Kay Chorao's Knock on the Door and Other Baby Action Rhymes (Dutton, $15.99) is a perfect beach-blanket book. Chorao crams her pretty pictures with smiling, laughing pigs, ducks, dogs, cats, mice, bears, bunnies and babies. She also provides clear tiny diagrams, showing exactly how to play "This Little Piggy," "Pat-a-cake" and many other games. And remember to pick up Janet and Allan Ahlberg's "The Baby's Catalogue" series, which includes See the Rabbit, Baby Sleeps, Doll and Teddy, and Blue Buggy (Little, Brown, $5.95 each). These are the most delightful books imaginable, obviously gleaned from long firsthand experience. At day's end every parent will feel just like dear old Dad in Doll and Teddy, scurrying the baby back to bed.
Michael Patrick Hearn is writing a biography of L. Frank Baum, the author of "The Wizard of Oz."