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Retelling 'Hans Brinker' : THE BOY WHO HELD BACK THE SEA paintings by Thomas Locker; retelling by Lenny Hort (Dial Books: $15; 32 pp.; ages 3-7)

November 15, 1987|Kristiana Gregory

The day this book came in the mail, three adults monopolized it while our children begged for a look. "Just a sec," we kept saying. We were so captivated by the artwork that we stood in the kitchen staring at the pages, vaguely aware that the kids were in the next room catapulting off the furniture.

Thomas Locker's oil paintings are worthy of all the synonyms of "superb," and it's certainly a temptation to list them. "Where the River Begins" and "Sailing With the Wind" are two notable books that he recently illustrated and wrote. In "The Boy Who Held Back the Sea," he solos as artist to Lenny Hort's charming retelling of "Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates."

Seventeenth-Century Holland is the backdrop for this classic story, the paintings reminiscent of the Dutch masters Vermeer and Rembrandt. You should see the stone village in torchlight as guards arrest a peg-legged pirate. A seascape under a full moon is miraculously luminescent; notice, too, the clouds, dramatic in every scene, as ever present as the windmills.

The boy Jan discovers that "the mighty ocean (is) leaking through a small hole in the dike." At first, nobody in town believes him because Jan is notoriously naughty, always daydreaming about sea monsters and, worse, refusing to go to church. You know the rest.

This is actually a story within a story. A similarly misbehaving boy named Pieter has been sent to his room. His white-capped grandmother comes in with the cat and, to comfort him, tells the tale of the young Dutch hero who held back the sea. By the last page, the cat in her lap is snoring, but Pieter is alert, ready to rejoin his family and the world as a good boy.

Floors in the house are swept clean, walls whitewashed and the furnishings spare; sunlight filters in through beveled windows. Pastoral scenes catch shadows and breeze as if you were there. "The Boy Who Held Back the Sea" will endure as a classic story and as a glorious work of art. This will be equally treasured by child and adult. Now, to let my children have their turn!

HOTEL BOY by Curt & Gita Kaufman; photographs by Curt Kaufman (Atheneum: $11.95; 40 pp.; ages 5-8). This poignant photo journal presents a 5-year-old boy named Henri, who lives with his brother and mother in a New York City hotel room. Mother searches for work daily, washes their clothes in the bathroom and finds castoff toys for them. Despite Henri's sad situation, he talks about happiness: leaning against a tree; a birthday cake; his mother reading to him. Read this to your children if they think all kids live in houses.

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