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FANTASY AND FOLKTALES : A Quartet of 'Keepers'

December 17, 1989|NATALIE BABBITT | Babbitt is the author and illustrator, most recently, of "Nellie--A Cat on Her Own" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), reviewed on Page 7

Among this year's crop of children's fantasy books, there are, as usual, a few that are well worth their price--what we used to call "keepers." Choosing books for children is a gamble, of course, for a book finally is a personal thing; we cannot always explain why we are fond of one and not another. Still, they can be a compliment to the recipient and as good a message of love as any I know.

The best method is to pick a book that you know you would have liked when you were a child. I was delighted by Melisande (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $13.95; unpaged), a story written almost a century ago by the durable British children's author, E. Nesbit, with brand-new illustrations by British artist P. J. Lynch. From the tale's beginning--a princess is cursed with baldness at her christening by the requisite bad fairy--you know this will be an amusing story, distinguished by Nesbit's tongue-in-cheek adherence to fairy-tale conventions. After a bald childhood, Melisande finally is given a leftover wish of her father's. She asks for hair that will grow an inch a day, and twice as fast each time it's cut.

Disaster! In no time at all she is going to bed with her hair cut short and waking up with a mile of it clogging her bedroom. The confusion and problems all are cleared away by a wise prince, but he isn't so wise that he doesn't make a few mistakes, for which you only like him better.

Another keeper is Ute Krause's Nora and the Great Bear (Dial Books: $11.95; unpaged). I didn't think so at first, for the pictures are thin, colored cartoons difficult to appreciate without the text. The story is quickly told: Nora, a modern little girl, goes out into the snowy forest with the village hunters to search for the Great Bear. They all carry weapons, but don't let that put you off; this is more a pilgrimage than a hunting expedition.

No bear is found, so Nora, frustrated, goes off to look on her own without her weapons, wandering so deep into the forest that she loses her way. Night falls and she is beginning to despair when the Great Bear appears, huge and silent in the moonlight, and leads her back to camp, whereupon he disappears, leaving no tracks.

The story is special because of what it has to tell about the elusive realities of nature and because of Krause's subtle style. Once understood, the story gives her simple pictures a deeper meaning. Though neither beautiful nor skillful, they convey the lonely cold of the forest and avoid trivializing the bear, even though he is only a cartoon. Perhaps a more gifted illustrator would have gone too far and spoiled the magic. At any rate, I found the two halves, words and pictures, nicely wedded at last.

Another book-with-pictures that is not simply a picture book is Virginia Hamilton's The Bells of Christmas (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $16.95; 59 pp.) illustrated by Lambert Davis. One of our very best children's writers, Hamilton has managed over the years to write about African Americans with wisdom and truth, never once shrill or accusatory, letting events and very human characters make their own statements.

Here, she creates the story of a black family's Christmas out of her mother's memories of Christmas holidays in Ohio around the turn of the last century. This is a middle-class Christmas, full of love, security and comfort, and the statement is clear: The media's heavy hand notwithstanding, this country always has had a black middle class, prosperous and hard-working, living free of the big-city ghettoes, with strong family ties and strong family values.

The story, as well as Lambert Davis' pictures, are calm and dignified, rooted and serene; they take their time. Both reflect careful historical research in their richness of detail and make a beautiful Christmas book for people of any age.

Finally, I would like to recommend an odd and very entertaining work of nonfiction that can help save parents from the wrath of their children when it is discovered that, after all the hoopla, there isn't any Santa Claus. In Who Is Santa Claus? The True Story Behind a Living Legend (Canongate Publishing Limited, Edinburgh, distributed by David & Charles, Inc., North Pomfret, Vt: $22.95; 104 pp.). Robin Crichton explains how the legend developed and spread from the historical 2nd-Century Nicholas to the present-day fat man in red velour. Chrichton is a film maker, and this book came along after he made a movie called "The Curious Case of Santa Claus," which the book's jacket claims has been widely successful. I hadn't heard of it, but never mind; the book itself is engrossing, well told and full of fascinating details covering the Santa's evolution throughout the Western world.

The numerous pen-and-ink decorations by Margaret Nisbet, including maps, are poorly reproduced and all too abundant, so the less said about them the better. The book is not really for children, anyway; rather, parents should read and absorb it in order to be ready to say, when the time comes, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus if you look at it this way: It all began nearly two thousand years ago . . . " and I think children will understand that behind the hokum there is something quite real that has answered and will go on answering a widespread human need for a very long time.

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