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Two Christmas Tales for the Very Young : DANIEL'S GIFT by M. C. Helldorfer; illustrated by Julie Downing (Bradbury: $13.95; 32 pp.; ages 4-8)

December 13, 1987|Kristiana Gregory

The first of many pleasant things to notice about this book is its jacket. Remove it and it feels like stiff wax paper, bend it and you realize it's rip-proof--it won't disintegrate in your toddler's hands. Another thing, the artwork is robust and decorated with borders similar to those on medieval manuscripts. And the story is familiar: A child finds his way through cold and darkness to the Nativity.

On a snowy winter night, Daniel watches over his flock while a bright star shines in the east. Eventually he nods off, but when he wakes, his favorite sheep has been stolen. What follows is a hilarious search through the butcher's cottage, where Daniel finds his sheep disguised as a baby. This trick of the butcher's is common to many folk tales in which an animal thief hides his plunder under blankets. The lighthearted story turns serious when Daniel returns to the field and a glowing stranger appears. "I bring you good news," he says. "This night a child is born. He is King of kings, Shepherd of men. He lies now in a sheep's crib in Bethlehem."

Daniel walks until he finds a stable where "music stirred the air like a hundred wings." Like the little drummer boy, he offers a gift of song. Peaceful, evocative watercolors show Mary, Joseph and the Wise Men in medieval costume; the landscapes reflect rural England.

Lest the reader be confused about a 15th-Century child wandering up to baby Jesus, note the author's afterword. Inspired by an English playwright known as the Wakefield Master, she adopts his technique of blending two old tales, one sacred and one boisterous. "For many medievals, the most wonderful of all stories, God coming to his people, was true for all times and for all places," Helldorfer explains. "Hence, the playwright's audiences did not think it odd for the shepherds to complain of English weather before walking to Bethlehem."

Children won't mind this lapse in logic and they will be charmed by Downing's spirited illustrations, especially when they notice the miniature goings-on inside the borders.

BABAR AND FATHER CHRISTMAS by Jean de Brunhoff; translated from the French by Merle Haas (Random House: $16.95; 40 pp.; ages 4-8).

If your bookshelf will fit a place mat standing up, you're in luck because that's how tall this reissue is; otherwise, this could end up flat underfoot or on the kitchen table. To read it, you need both hands and an uncrowded lap.

Most adults are sure to recognize this facsimile of the hand-scripted edition that was published originally in 1940 to a success so rousing it has not been out of print since. The tale, of course, is about Babar the king of elephants, his wife queen Celeste, their children Pom, Flora and Alexander. Babar wants Father Christmas to visit his kingdom so he tracks him down to a cave near the town of "PRJMNESWE."

The language is rich with big words like "extraordinary" and "distribution," the drawings bright and big at every turn. Jean de Brunhoff has been hailed as the originator of modern picture books, but he died of tuberculosis before he could see any of his stories published. Fortunately, his son, Laurent, has since illustrated and written at least 20 Babar adventures and is likely, let's hope, to continue.

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