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The Lure of Magic and Mystery

August 27, 1989|VIRGINIA HAMILTON | Hamilton's "In the Beginning: Creation Stories From Around the World" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) was a 1989 Newbery Honor Book. Her newest book for children, "The Bells of Christmas," will be published in October by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Truly fine picture books never bore adult readers, no matter how many times their children insist, "More! More!"

A case in point is Anno's Math Games II (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $19.95; 104 pp.) by Mitsumasa Anno, simply one of the best thinkers and artists creating modern-day books for young children. Illustrated in full color, his new collection of math games begins with the story of a Magic Machine and its two busy inventors, Kriss and Kross. When Kriss and Kross put something into a hole on the left of the machine (such as a pair of glasses) then another something (a pair of glasses with eyes) comes out of the opening on the right. By encouraging children to make connections, this story helps stimulate creative thought. Later chapters develop concepts of cause-and-effect, likeness and number systems.

Also employing magic are two exciting new books that treat their subjects--black heritage and old Russia--with simplicity and respect. Phil Mendez's The Black Snowman, illustrated by Carole Byard (Scholastic: $13.95), begins in Africa before the slave ships arrived, as an aged storyteller wraps himself in a multicolored cloth called a kente . Its magic makes his mind young, enabling him to remember many stories, which he tells to the Ashanti village children.

This storytelling ritual goes on for years--until the slave ships arrive, destroying village life. The invaders take the villagers to America, where they are sold as slaves, but one of them wears the magic cloth. Thus the kente is handed down among the slaves for more than 100 years.

"The Black Snowman" begins in present-day America, with the story of Jacob, a boy who fears that his mother will be unable to afford Christmas presents. Angrily, Jacob equates his family's poverty with their black heritage, and sadly, he despises both his mother and his brother Peewee.

Warm and kind like his mother, Peewee asks Jacob to forget his worries for a while and help build a snowman. Jacob objects: But the snow is dirty, watery and black from the streets. "Then we'll make a black snowman," says the ever-optimistic Peewee. Foraging through a trash can to gather clothes for the snowman, they find the torn and battered kente , which comes alive with African mystery, and transforms the snowman.

Phil Mendez, a former animator for Disney Studios, has created an original story with the ageless spirit of a folk tale. The story is told briskly, with care taken to reflect the speech and manner of contemporary kids. Carole Byard's soft pastels of old Africa are sometimes shadowy and brooding, but always provocative, full of expression and feeling. Her richly expressive faces allow us to share in her characters' joy, longing and pride. Here is a finely tuned fantasy with a happy ending.

The Little Snowgirl (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $13.95), Carolyn Croll's adaptation of a traditional Russian tale, shines with the author's richly detailed illustrations of Russian decorative art. It is Christmastime and all of the village children are on their best behavior, lest the spirit of Christmas--"Babouschka"--deem them unworthy of presents. The story's protagonists, however--a woodcarver and his wife--have no child who can delight in waiting for Babouschka's Christmas Eve visit. To lift his wife's spirits, the woodcarver sculpts a child out of snow. In the morning the couple venture outdoors to see the new snow-child. To their shock and delight, she has come to life. But she is not quite real. For when the couple asks the child to come inside where it is warm, she refuses, telling them, ". . . I must stay where the cold wind blows."

The woodcarver and his wife fix the snow-child an icy supper and a frozen bed to sleep on while they go about making her presents for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, they can't resist bringing the child inside out of the snow, causing a grave turn of the plot.

This gentle folk tale flows smoothly through crisis and beyond to its fulfilling end. The art is strong in design and color, pleasing to the eye. The depiction of adults and children in embroidered scarfs reminds one of the popular Russian nested dolls.

Gyo Fujikawa's illustrations are as warm as sunshine on a summer's day. Even the black-and-white sketches, which alternate with full color in Oh, What a Busy Day (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $13.95) are brightly lit. The dark designs of a patchwork quilt seem warm, comforting to the yawning toddler waking up to the start of a busy day. Big board books such as this one, crammed with things to see and do--puppies nursing in the grass, kids eating breakfast from a table groaning with much food--are meant to delight toddlers who can picture themselves in familiar situations. You name the fun; you'll find it in Fujikawa's wonderfully playful book. Fujikawa illustrated Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses" in 1957. It should be noted that her "Babies" board book (1963) was the first children's book to feature infants of all races and nations.

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