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The World Is Round : by Gertrude Stein, pictures by Clement Hurd (Arion: $200; 117 pp.) with The World Is Not Flat by Edith Thacher Hurd

March 09, 1986| Myra Cohn Livingston | Livingston is a poet and author of "The Child as Poet" (Horn Book). and

It is fascinating to speculate how Gertrude Stein might react to this newest edition of "The World Is Round," bound (literally and figuratively) to attract Stein devotees and the child-listeners for whom the story was written. First published in 1939 and again with alterations in 1967 by Young Scott Books of New York, the book has traveled across country. Now Arion Press of San Francisco has added a splendid dimension by offering the heroine Rose's adventures in a rose-red round format, together with a more conventional square-shaped essay on its publishing history, "The World Is Not Flat." For whimsical effect, there is a red-and-blue balloon--all three packaged together in a rose-pink box.

It is perhaps unprecedented in publishing history that in slightly less than half a century, Stein's book should be issued in three varying formats, all interpreted by the same illustrator, Clement Hurd. To view these three editions together is to marvel how Hurd's illustrations remain vital and fresh, yet how significantly changes in the world have affected the pictorialization and attitude toward children's responses.

Stein insisted in 1939 that the heroine, Rose, "look French," that the pages be pink and that the type be blue--Stein's favorite color. For the second edition, in 1967, Clement Hurd and the publisher, William Scott, could ignore these strictures. White paper and a new black typeface were introduced; rose was used for the endpapers and as one of the illustrative colors. Hurd, while retaining his original concept for the pictures, recut them in wood and linoleum blocks. Thus, Rose and Willie and a number of animals were transformed from pink into black. In the Arion edition, the use of these same blocks printed in a warm blue seems a stroke of genius on the part of Hurd and Andrew Hoyem of Arion Press. The world is still round, but the children, no longer French-Thirties-Pink or Sixties-Black, have transcended ethnic and national barriers, just as Rose conquered her fears, carved her name around the tree trunk and climbed the mountain.

Equally meaningful in terms of changed attitudes is Rose's response to the "Night of Fear" and "Night." No longer, as in 1939, are there jagged rocks, a menacing waterfall. The fearful blackness of night sky and mountain of the 1967 edition have vanished. Nor does Rose hold up her hands to ward off the blinding light. In this new edition the blue of mountain, the splay of foaming water, and Rose's content as the beacon light envelops her firmly establish that today's children must of necessity respond quite differently in a world where fear resides not in nature but in forces outside its province.

Clement and Edith Thacher Hurd have devoted themselves to the making of books for children for almost five decades. Any parent who has read "Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown knows the delighted response to Hurd's pictures. Edith Hurd's informational books and the Hurd collaborative life-cycle books have continually engaged young readers. It is fortuitous that the publishing history of "The World Is Round" should be written by Edith Hurd, who not only provides background, including the Stein correspondence, but offers to readers interested in children's books a look at the heady atmosphere in which both began their work and their interaction with William and Ethel Scott, John McCullough and Margaret Wise Brown of Young Scott Books.

And what of the children for whom the story is intended? Will they laugh, be intrigued or puzzled to read how Rose wondered "would she have been Rose if her name had not been Rose." In 1939, the eminent critic-editor Louise Seaman Bechtel voiced belief that Stein had instilled spirit and warmth into prose that was ordinarily, in other children's books, dull and lackluster. Language in 1986 has changed; it is even more pedestrian in most books today. Perhaps children will view Stein's sentences as impossible, lacking proper punctuation. Surely "The World Is Round" would be banished from the language arts curriculum of most schools.

But what a joy for anyone who is or can remember being a child, thinking without periods or proper sentence structure, making connections between words and ideas that are more apt to lead to nonsense than sense, and weaving into story every event of life. The prose is as syncretistic as the child's mind; indeed almost paleological in its concept, connecting together through rhyming words that insist it be read aloud, as verse:

Well anyway just then the hay went away, hay has that way and the water went away and the car did stay and neither Rose nor Willie were drowned that day.

Lucky the Stein collector or parent who will purchase this stunning pair of books. As for the balloon, it is probably prudent to hold on to it as tenaciously as Rose held on to her blue chair. If prices at the recent Antiquarian Book Fair are any indication, it would fetch--as a bit of ephemera--$200 in another 50 years!

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