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Children's Bookshelf

September 11, 1988|RICHARD PECK | Peck is an author of children's books.

Hammock time is behind us now, that season of beach books, good intentions, and two-sentence letters sent home from camp. Time now to stuff the tote bag with unstuffy books to enliven the school days. Back-to-school books, whether in the classroom library or waiting at home as alternatives to TV, open inviting doors to a variety of subjects. Astronauts, say, and certainly dinosaurs. Circuses and volcanoes and for good measure, a talking dog.

The bold illustrations of Byron Barton's I Want to Be an Astronaut are just right for holding up in front of a circle of kindergarteners, who'd gladly be bobbing around the ceiling. There are just enough words to keep us in orbit, and the pictures in rich crayon-box colors depict such exciting matters as blast-off, suiting-up, weightlessness, and eating your peas in space. Though you may have to do some fast talking, you might even convince your audience that some of these astronauts are female.

Dinosaurs are the perennial superstars of early childhood. New on the Mesolithic landscape is Tyrannosaurus Was a Beast: Dinosaur Poems by Jack Prelutsky with illustrations by the late Arnold Lobel. It begins soberly enough with mug shots of the 14 featured creatures with their bonafides noted:

Quetzalcoatlus

Late Cretaceous

Most of North America

40-50' wingspan; 8' tall.

But from there, we skid into the galloping sassiness of Prelutsky's verse:

Stegosaurus blundered calmly through the prehistoric scene,

never causing any other creature woe,

its brain was somewhat smaller than the average nectarine,

Stegosaurus vanished many years ago.

Lobel's pale dino-portraits don't quite keep pace, but then Prelutsky sets a brisk one, of witty wordplay that doesn't patronize the young reader with the baby talk of "controlled vocabulary."

Another childhood favorite--and something of a dinosaur lumbering toward extinction--is the circus. In 1977, Paul Binder founded New York's Big Apple Circus as a one-ring show ("One ring is more than three") to showcase an endangered tradition. Hana Machotka's The Magic Ring: A Year With the Big Apple Circus is her admiring look at this earnest effort, inspired by the European "New Circus" movement that "emphasizes theatricality rather than spectacle."

In his introduction, Binder says that "Circus is adult stuff, the stuff of dreams--or of potential nightmares. Bodies flying through the air; humans facing wild beasts; taming creatures of flight; . . . Circus, when done right, is a dream come true, a nightmare turned right."

Machotka's prose is less lyrical. The visual artistry of aerialists and clowns defines both prose and still photography, and the format here is very National Geographic magazine, too Earthbound for the calculated fantasy of the subject.

Volcanoes, somehow, are more photogenic, at least in the awesome shots of Volcanoes by the veteran science writer Seymour Simon. The very name of these eruptions derives from Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, and the Hawaiians still invoke the name of their goddess Pele, with reason.

Volcanoes occur where the plates of the Earth's cracked crust meet. In the North Atlantic, Iceland is still being formed, and the Pacific plate is so volatile that it's called the "Ring of Fire." Simon concentrates on volcanic activity in this decade: Iceland and Guatemala; Mauna Loa, Hawaii's largest; and looming over all, Mount St. Helens.

"Volcanoes" is a handsome book of few words. It expands upon Patricia Lauber's 1986 Newbery Honor Book, "Volcano," from Bradbury, that chronicles Mount St. Helens. Both books are popular-science page-turners for the middle grades, and both underscore the creative powers of volcanoes, as well as their destructive.

The jacket copy of Petra Mathers' latest recommends it for "anyone who has ever outgrown a good friend--or been left behind by one. . . ." Fair enough, but Theodor and Mr. Balbini is also a minor classic for people who wonder what their household pets are thinking. Mr. Balbini, a mature gent of regular habits, finds out when his apparently faithful big black dog Theodor begins to speak. Man's best friend maybe, but Theodor's full of complaints. He's weary of their walks, wearier still of the leash, and up to here with dog food:

"Mr. Balbini had planned to have the last lamb chop and feed Theodor the rest of the Bow-Wow Beef Bits. But that was out of the question now. He opened the refrigerator. 'Macaroni and cheese?' he suggested.

'I don't think so,' said Theodor.

'Chicken pie?'

'I wouldn't mind that last chop,' said Theodor."

A conflict indeed, genially resolved by a taciturn French poodle, of all people. Mathers' earlier "Maria Theresa" was an Ezra Jack Keats Award winner. Now she's brought off another masterful mix of prose and pictures, straight-faced and slightly surreal and bound to please both adults and children.

After all, the best books for all seasons are for sharing among the generations, at school, at home.

I WANT TO BE AN ASTRONAUT by Byron Barton (Thomas Y. Crowell: $7.95; unpaginated) TYRANNOSAURUS WAS A BEAST Dinosaur Poems by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Arnold Lobel (Greenwillow: $11.95; 32 pp.) THE MAGIC RING A Year With the Big Apple Circus by Hana Machotka, introduction by Paul Binder (William Morrow: $8.95; 72 pp.) VOLCANOES by Seymour Simon (William Morrow: $12.95; unpaginated) THEODOR AND MR. BALBINI by Petra Mathers (Harper & Row: $11.95; unpaginated)

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