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Children's Books : FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION : Why Dragons and Ghosts Endure

June 04, 1989|Robin McKinley | McKinley is the author of many fantasy books for adults and young adults, including the Newbery-winning "The Hero and the Crown." Her latest is "Outlaws of Sherwood" (Greenwillow)

Folk and fairy tales go on being told and retold by each new generation of storytellers because these tales--tales of human nature, of its strengths and weaknesses--go on being true for every new generation of listeners, even when those listeners think they know better than to believe in dragons and in ghosts, and in impractical quests for glory and honor.

Some storytellers make an old tale fresh by subtle new insights into old characters, by sharp new adjectives applied to old adventures. Some tellers prefer to take an old story as a jumping-off place, a background for new stories. This latter impulse is the origin of Merlin Dreams, text by Peter Dickinson and illustrations by Alan Lee (Delacorte Press: $19.95; 167 pp.). Merlin lies sleeping under a great rock deep in the earth, but the earth shifts and breathes; the passing of the seasons whispers to the sleeper and he dreams. (Readers who remember Dickinson's "The Weathermonger" will find an extra edge to these tales of Merlin's dreams). From the first pages, when Dickinson sets out a tale of Merlin and Nimue much likelier and more satisfying than is the usual version, to the last page, a short tale of the last knight of the last king discovering--perhaps--the truth of the old folk tale of the sleeping mage, Dickinson and Lee lead their readers through a maze as varied and magical as one would want Merlin's dreams to be. There are tales (I will not say which) that give themselves away in their first lines, for those quick enough to catch them at it; there are those others that unroll seemingly quietly to inevitable conclusions, which twist on the page at the last. Dickinson's work has wit and style and imagination; Lee's moody drawings and watercolors are the perfect complement to a mage's dreams. Illustrations too often flatly depict the text (or, dreadfully, misrepresent it); Lee's illustrations bring the reader farther into the stories, expand and enhance them. It is also a delight to see a book for all ages, as this one is, so lavishly and lovingly illustrated. Picture books are so automatically assumed to be for small children that the phrase "picture book" means for small children, unless further description is hastily added. This is a shame and a waste.

Nancy Willard and Barry Moser's East of the Sun and West of the Moon (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $14.95; 64 pp.) is another picture book for all ages, and another author-artist pairing to gladden the heart. It is an elegant book; the jacket illustration demands that the book be picked up and looked at, and any glance at Willard's wise and funny text will hook the reader once for all. The story here is a play, and an interview with Willard quotes her as saying it was commissioned by a children's theater group, and that she was happy to work on this particular tale because "when I was growing up I loved stories in which a girl sets out on a quest to rescue the prince instead of the other way around." And an excellent story it is too, full of courage and honor and magic and narrow escapes--and of humor, that vital human ingredient so often missing from traditional tales too earnestly retold. It is perhaps my own failing as a reader--I sometimes have trouble with plays in print on a page--that makes me appreciate certain separate gleams of dialogue and of scene more than the story as a whole, and although the white bear is a very handsome fellow, I do strongly protest the overweight middle-age Prince of Moser's illustration as the swain for the young Karen, particularly when she has just described him as 'the handsomest Prince in the world.'

The story that Balyet (McElderry Books: $12.95) is based on is not so widely familiar as is Merlin or "East of the Sun." Patricia Wrightson explains its origins in her native Australia in a brief foreword. The short novel is bright with Wrightson's usual feeling for her landscape and her people. While the thoughtless young girl and the solemn old woman she calls Granny could easily be your neighbors, the story unfolds with the sad, terrifying logic of a Greek tragedy. The climactic argument between the two of them, when true things are said which are so hurtful that neither can easily or quickly forgive the other--thus leaving both vulnerable to the danger that threatens them from the ghost of Balyet--springs directly from their two personalities. There is no convenient manipulation by the author to get her characters where she wants them. But Wrightson gives her characters a better hope of peace--and of growth--than Eurypides ever did. This book is unillustrated, but it knocks another foolish generalization on the head--that short, simply phrased books need be simple in theme and resonance. This book is the former; it is not in the least the latter.

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