Ten years ago, a former schoolteacher looked for a book about hospitals to share with her son Jeff, who was having surgery. When she couldn't find one she considered adequate, she decided to write one.

In the decade since Harriet Sobel wrote "Jeff's Hospital Book," numerous authors have tried to lessen children's suffering by helping them learn about the hospital experience in a book. A child who understands what is meant by "having an operation" may one day face his or her own -- or that of a friend -- with less unease.

Here are some books to consider:

*Jeff's Hospital Book. By Harriet Langsam Sobol. Henry Z. Walck, 1975; out of print; ages 4-9

This excellent photo essay shows a boy having surgery to correct crossed eyes. Jeff progresses from expectation to worry to discomfort, and finally to joy when he goes home. It presents a series of encounters Jeff has with his parents and the hospital staff, and it examines his emotions. Photos of Jeff in the operating room shatter the mystery of that frightening place.

Jeff is an appealing subject, with a visible ailment that will interest children. He is very concerned with that all-important question, "How big is the needle?"

*The Hospital Book. By James Howe. Crown, 1981; $13.95, paperback $4.95; ages 6-10

If I could buy only one book to help a child prepare for a hospital stay, this would be it. All the common trappings of hospital care -- from bedpans to CAT scans -- are explained to some degree. Knowing that very young children may believe that every piece of frightening equipment is meant for them, the author assures the reader it isn't so.

Quieting such fears, while admitting that being sick is going to hurt, is a major intent of "The Hospital Book." It suggests that we, like the children pictured here, "can get through a difficult experience." Of seven chapters, "How Will I Feel?" stands out with advice for handling fear and pain, for asking questions and expressing anger. Mal Warshaw's sensitive photographs show children in a spectrum of moods and settings.

This is the only book I found that openly states that doctors and nurses make mistakes. "Sometimes they're rushed or tired, sometimes they're not such nice people to begin with and sometimes they don't do things the way you would do them yourself."

*Emergency Room. By Bob and Diane Wolfe. Carolrhoda, 1983; $7.95; ages 6-10

This book follows a handful of patients, mainly children, through such common emergencies as broken bones and burns. The text gives simple explanations and illustrations of many procedures -- monitoring a heart, taking X-rays, inserting intravenous lines. The photos are its greatest strength, such as the segment showing a young boy getting stitches above one eye. But phrases that aren't likely to mean anything to children -- such as blood sugar level and heart attack -- are used.

*Madeline. By Ludwig Bemelmans. Viking, 1958; $11.95, paperback $3.95; ages 5-8

Generations of children have been thrilled by the classic tale of Madeline, who stands on her bed and displays the scar where her appendix was removed. This is the same spunky French schoolgirl who says "Pooh-pooh" to the tiger in the zoo, and has the same excitement as when the book was first published by Simon & Schuster in 1939.

Bemelmans' drawings of Paris, where Madeline lives, look eternally fresh and vibrant. His exaggerated rhymes are witty and fun to say out loud.

Madeline is charming any day, but when you're sick it's especially welcome to find that she makes being in the hospital a triumph. Her operation is the envy of her friends-who also want their appendixes out.

*Lyle and the Birthday Party. By Bernard Waber. Houghton-Mifflin, 1966; $10.95; ages 5-8

There'll be no mistaking this for a serious book. Its hero, Lyle, a sweet-tempered crocodile, lives with an upright family named the Primms. His trouble begins when people think he's sick, although he's not. Nevertheless, he is "dressed in a hospital gown and put to bed." What child would not appreciate the injustice?

In fact, some children do perceive a hospital stay as punishment, so you may want to set the record straight as you read about Lyle. But don't deny yourselves the pleasure of Bernard Waber's cleverly focused drawings and pointed humor. This book is the next best thing to having the amusing crocodile in the pediatrics ward with you.

*A Night Without Stars. By James Howe. Atheneum, 1983; $10.95; ages 8-12

With the same insight he applied to "The Hospital Book," James Howe has written this novel about an 11-year-old, Maria, and her open-heart surgery. It's a moving work and one of the very few books on hospitals for older children. "Stars" tells of the friendship between Maria and Donald, another patient. Donald is the only person to talk to Maria with candor about his own surgery, for burns, and what to expect. The effect of anesthesia, he says, is like "a night without stars."

Maria is sorely in need of such talk. One of her girlfriends speculates openly that "if you've got a hole in your heart, all your blood could leak out." Maria's parents, although loving, have a stoic attitude. Have faith in God, her mother says. Be brave, advises her father.

Maria worries about her scar, about whether God will be asleep during her operation, about dying. Donald tells her, "Listen, it makes sense to be scared. They're going to cut you open and then go have lunch."

Despite a tendency to over-interpret his characters and an occasional false, sentimental note, Howe sustains our sympathies and even makes us laugh.