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SPECIAL SECTION: Children's Books : CHILDREN'S FICTION : Words of Fantasy

May 22, 1988|MITZI MYERS | Myers teaches children's literature at UCLA and recently won the Children's Literature Assn. Award for the year's best critical essay.

THE MEXICAN AMERICANS by Julie Catalano; introduction by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Chelsea House: $16.95; 96 pp.)

THE INVISIBLE HUNTERS by Harriet Rohmer, Octavio Chow and Morris Vidaure; illustrated by Joe Sam (Children's Book Press: $10.95; 32 pp.)

HOW WE CAME TO THE FIFTH WORLD by Harriet Rohmer and Mary Anchonodo; illustrated by Graciela Carrillo (Children's Book Press: $10.95; 24 pp.)

TO HELL WITH DYING by Alice Walker; illustrated by Catherine Deeter (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $13.95; unpaginated)

THE GREEN LION OF ZION STREET by Julia Fields; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Margaret K. McElderry Books: $13.95; unpaginated)

UPSIDE-DOWNERS Pictures to Stretch the Imagination by Mitsumasa Anno; illustrated by Mitsumasa Anno (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $13.95; 28 pp.)

SIX CROWS by Leo Lionni; illustrated by Leo Lionni (Alfred A. Knopf: $11.95; unpaginated)

THE LION AND THE PUPPY And Other Stories for Children by Leo Tolstoy; translated by James Riordan; illus. Claus Sievert (Henry Holt/Seaver Books: $15.95; hardcover; 73. pp.)

THE LIGHT PRINCESS by George MacDonald; adapted by Robin McKinley; illus. Katie Thamer Treherne (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $13.95; hardcover;44. pp.)

Children don't write books, and they don't buy them either, for the most part. (The adolescent-young adult market is a different story.) The writers and illustrators of the expensive picture books surveyed here must therefore sell themselves first to Mom, Dad, or a gift-giving relative, who will then go on to become the mediator between the child and the chosen text. All children's books have a dual audience of child and adult and a dual intent of instruction and delight, but first books illustrate these dichotomies with peculiar clarity.

Choosing the books that will socialize one's children has never been easy. Eighteenth-Century parents tried to balance reformist critiques of slavery, cruelty to animals, and the wretched condition of the poor with the maintenance of social stability. Those who would enculturate the '80s' child can salve their social consciences with a rich array of ethnically enlightened picture books. No one can help applauding the producers of such books and the parents who buy them, but neither can one help wondering what a young reader might make of such unadorned carrots as The Mexican Americans by Julie Catalano; introduction by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Solidly informative, packed with facts and illustrative photographs, it carries on the 18th-Century didactic tradition of useful and uplifting knowledge.

Part of an award-winning cultural reclamation project, The Invisible Hunters by Harriet Rohmer, Octavio Chow and Morris Vidaure and How We Came to the Fifth World, adapted by Harriet Rohmer and Mary Anchonodo, are bilingual books addressed to a multicultural audience. The first is a Miskito Indian tale from the oral traditions of Nicaragua, which dramatizes the first contact between the ecologically aware native culture and British traders. The second retells an ancient Mexican creation story and accompanies the story with dazzlingly bright renderings of the original Indian picture writings. The strange and vibrant art of these books will charm sophisticated parents, but may well require some explaining for youngsters still trying to process the everyday objects of their own world.

To Hell With Dying by Alice Walker and The Green Lion of Zion Street by Julia Fields are both beautifully illustrated stories of black experiences. Walker's tale of Mr. Sweet, a good old drunk with a heart of gold who is repeatedly brought back from the brink of death by children's love, may make a few parents nervous with its frankness about faults and mortality. But it has as ennobling a message as a heart could wish, and the adult who reads the tale can relish the racy nuances of Walker's language that are beyond the child audience. Field's is a rhyming story which charmingly mingles black locutions ("the bus be's late") and quite subtle poetic structures. The book's style is matched by the illustrations' poetic renderings of authentic black life. There's not much of a story in kids being scared of a stone lion, but the language is full of zest.

Today's conscientious parents are assailed not just by sociologically alert first books, but also by purveyors of mental gymnastics, moral fables, and more old-fashioned forms of literary and pictorial cultural enrichment. The most effective picture books interrelate text and story, informing the child audience about how the world looks as well as how it functions (or should function) morally and imaginatively. But most modern picture books meld bland text with sophisticated and accomplished pictures, perhaps because parental buyers assume that words are hard and pictures easy to read, an untenable assumption given the complexity of pictorial conventions.

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