Some 150 writers and artists have contributed to "Wonders," an anthology containing "Writings and Drawings for the Child in Us All." The editors of the volume solicited most of its contents in a letter asking for a short work "that ultimately appeals to the child in you." Behind the editors' vision of childhood lies Wordsworth's "infant philosopher" trailing clouds of saccharin. And many present-day writers, like the Romantic poets, seem to believe that the simple or the young are closer to "the eternal verities" than the cultured or sophisticated. This sentimental primitivism is responsible for much nonsense, as, in this book, when fine writers collaborate with their children on stories. The results are often clovingly sweet.
The introduction to "Wonders" is itself full of wonders. Citing works like the Psalms, the editors note, for example, that children and adults have long shared a dual interest in good literature. Children took to the Psalms, of course, like they took to castor oil. The Psalms were the anvil, and rote learning the hammer, as Calvinists battered out "little vessels of grace" throughout the 17th century. With the appearance in the 18th century of easier and more entertaining children's books, the popularity of the Psalms among the young plummeted.
The editors also claim that children's interest has prolonged the lives of many works, including "Gulliver's Travels." The version children have read since the 18th century resembles Swift's book about as much as a tub full of warm water resembles a tub full of hornets. Swift's sting is unforgettable, and the success of the child's version of "Gulliver's Travels" has had little effect on the popularity of the original.
The selections in "Wonders" are as idiosyncratic as the introduction. Comparatively unknown figures like Winston Groom and Anne Roiphe have contributed very good stories, while some fine writers like John Irving and Ann Beattie have submitted silly pieces. Every dog must have his day, but Beattie's "A Biting Dog" only has 14 sentences, hardly enough for a bark. Irving's "The Old Friends," about friends paying a visit to the author's house in Vermont, occasions pointless chatter about girlfriends, dogs, food, nicknames -- in short, about everything and nothing.
Among the best selections in the volume is Chinua Achebe's "The Drum," a Nigerian trickster tale about a tortoise. Trickster tales appeal because their heroes are little "people" who, through the power of positive cleverness, overcome seemingly invincible ogres, whether the ogre be the 10-year-old bully next door or an unfeeling Internal Revenue Service.
Closely related to trickster tales in which the fortunes of the main character are usually changed for the better are transformation tales in which the identity of the hero is changed. In a story by Paul Bowles, Kitty, a little girl, becomes Kitty, a cat; in a tale by Donald Hall, a cat becomes a story. Although transformations are ancient -- as George Plimpton shows in "Abracadabra: On the Important Question of Wanting to Be a Goat," an entertaining account of the identities Zeus assumed when under the influence of Aphrodite -- transformation tales seem particularly suited to democracies. In a comparatively mobile and classless society, children are not simply told but believe that they can grow to be or to transform themselves into whatever they wish.
Most of the illustrations in "Wonders" are poor, but even worse are the selections illustrated by children. Two striking exceptions are Frank Modell's happy sketches of two dogs sharing a chair and chewing on a shoe and James Stevenson's gloriously ridiculous depiction of "How Turtles Tap Dance."
"Wonders" includes good writing by Gloria Emerson, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Anselm Hollo, Ken Kesey, Edward Hoagland, Lewis MacAdams, Harry Mathews, Willie Morris, John Phillips, James Purdy and Ntozake Shange. Unfortunately, one has to wade through much that is of little interest. A smaller, more selective book would have been more satisfying.