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GIFT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN : Wilhelm Grimm's Last Tale

November 20, 1988|Eve Bunting | Bunting's most recent book for young readers is "How Many Days to America:A Thanksgiving Story" (Clarion Books).

Wilhelm Grimm's Dear Mili, illustrations by Maurice Sendak (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $16.95; all ages) is the first addition in a century and a half to the 210 fairy and folk tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm between 1812 and 1815. This previously unpublished work, newly translated from the German by Ralph Manheim, was discovered in a letter Grimm wrote to a little girl in 1816. The story was handwritten and had an introduction addressed to "Dear Mili." He will tell her a story:

"There was once a widow who lived at the end of a village; all she had in the world was a little house and the garden that went with it. Her children had died, all but one daughter, whom she loved dearly." A war is coming and to save her daughter, the mother sends her to hide in the forest where "the wind blew wildly in the tops of the fir trees and when thorns took hold of her dress she was terrified, for she thought that wild beasts had seized her in their jaws and would tear her to pieces." Illustrator Maurice Sendak's woods with their twisted branches are terrifying indeed. Look closely and you can see monster shapes, skeleton legs, staring empty eyes.

A guardian angel guides her over cliffs and past chasms to a little house where she stays with a kindly old man for what she believes to be three days. When it is safe for her to leave, he reveals that he is St. Joseph and that she has been with him not three days but 30 years. He gives her a rosebud and says she will return when the rose is in full bloom. The guardian angel brings the child back to her aged mother and they have one happy night together before they both die, the rose in full bloom between them.

Sendak is quoted as saying of the story: "It moved me tremendously. . . . It has to do with the particular aspect of childhood, which is the incredible, touching loyalty of children, even in the face of demonic forces."

The dignity of the text and the mysticism of the illustrations make this a book that will reveal itself on many levels through countless readings. A newly discovered Grimm tale is reason to rejoice. But share it cautiously with a child. There is much here that is frightening.

This appears to be the season for classics, and for Maurice Sendak. His is the cover illustration for Tail Feathers From Mother Goose--The Opie Rhyme Book (Little, Brown: $19.95; all ages). Culled from the collection of Iona and Peter Opie, which is now housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, most of these rhymes have not been previously published. They include George Bernard Shaw's "Opus 1," composed by himself to sing when petting his dog, Rover: "Dumpity doodle dum big bow wow / Dumpity doodle dum dandy!" That's it! Opus 1 indeed!

The meaning of many of these rhymes will be obscure to today's children but they are a valuable part of their heritage. Illustrated by a who's who of artists that includes Helen Oxenbury and Martin Handford of "Waldo" fame, the book is a visual delight.

Swan Sky by Tejima (Philomel Books: $13.95; age 5 and up) is the story of the little swan, too ill to fly north with the rest of her family. Following their instincts, the rest leave, her last goodbys trailing across the empty lake behind them. But before morning, they return to stay with her through the hours before she dies. When they leave again, they fly through a sky brilliant with stars to the realization that death is not the end and that spring will come again. "Quoh, Quoh," they call to the bright northern sky. The stark beauty of Tejima's woodcuts reflect the cold blues and blacks of night and the golden glory of daybreak. They are a perfect complement to the simplicity of the story.

Island Boy, story and pictures by Barbara Cooney (Viking: $14.95; ages 5 to 12), is a true family saga that encompasses three generations of Tibbetts, saltwater farmers off the coast of Maine. It was Pa who first cleared Tibbetts Island and built the house. Twelve children were born, of whom the youngest was Matthais. As the years passed, the young ones left, but for Matthais, the island call was too strong and he returned to marry and have children himself. The child reader will enjoy the loving scenes of spring planting, sailing and snow sledding as the seasons turn and the cycle of being continues for each succeeding generation of Tibbetts.

Herbert Five Stories by Ivor Cutler, illustrations by Patrick Benson (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard: $13; ages 3 to 7), begins when Herbert wakes in the morning and may have turned into an elephant or some other kind of animal. Imaginative children may find the concept intriguing, but it's doubtful that many children in this country will find these five stories very interesting or amusing. The text seems strangely lacking in vitality. Because the book was originally published in England, we may just be suffering from a cross-cultural humor gap. Patrick Benson's illustrations, bright and preposterous, have a more universal appeal than the text.

There are also five stories in the new James Marshall book, George and Martha Round and Round (Houghton Mifflin: $13.95; ages 3 to 7). Here they are again, our two favorite hippos, having adventures, playing tricks on one another. Watch out, George, here comes Martha! And this time she has the hose! At the end of the book, George observes: "Good friends just can't stay cross for long." Martha agrees. These two like each other a lot. We like them a lot too.

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