In the lives and in the literature of children, some ideas are always fresh. Friendship, family, fairness and rebellion are themes that give rise to endless variations. The cadences can be goopy sweet or raucous, somber or whimsical: Within the range and depth of a child's emotions is an ear for many rhythms.
Out of Australia come Wombat & Bandicoot: Best of Friends (Joy Street/Little, Brown: $13.95; 32 pp.). Lumbering, mischievous Wombat and high-strung Bandicoot are the best of friends. They live together, play together, picnic together, quibble over toys.
The relationship of these two critters is elegantly described in pictures. Wombat gives rib-testing bearhugs. Bandicoot snores. The pair splash about in the ocean, not in total accord about what is fun and what is not--until a nose-to-nose encounter with a shark makes the shore look like the most entertaining place of all. Wombat hides from his picnicking buddies, but they entice him into the open with a trick any child who has refused to come to dinner will recognize.
Kerry Argent's scant 72 words are the perfect complement to her hilarious illustrations.
Housekeeper of the Wind by Christine Widman (Harper & Row: $15.95; 32 pp.) takes a more serious look at a spat between loyal friends. Yula keeps house for the Wind; the Wind brings her cool breezes and the sweet smells of the meadow. But, as with any close friends, their faith in each other sometimes leads them to expect too much. They quarrel over a silly thing, a hot, dry day, then slam doors, retreat and sulk. Through the quiet gifts that only a soul mate could offer, the two reconcile.
Lisa Desimini's oil-painting illustrations seem lit from within, glowing with the bright light of friendship that endures despite a momentary snit of anger.
In a gently humorous narrative short on subtlety, Cecile Schoberle's Esmeralda and the Pet Parade (Simon and Schuster: $14.95; 32 pp.) tells of the mutual devotion of a boy and his goat.
Esmeralda the goat is a troublemaker, and everyone knows it. When her master, Juan, makes plans with his friends for the annual Pet Parade, the other children warn him: "Make sure that goat stays in line." Juan laments to his grandfather that "nobody believes in Esmeralda . . . (and) nobody believes in me." Predictably enough, Esmeralda's high jinks make her the hit of the parade, and Juan is a hero to his friends.
Linoleum block prints catch the simplicity of the story and the colors of its Southwestern setting.
Artist Carmen Lomas Garza offers glimpses of her childhood in Kingsville, Tex., in Family Pictures (Children's Book Press: $12.95; 31 pp.). Garza's paintings of her family and community show the everyday activities that remain vivid in memory: picking oranges for her grandmother, making tamales with the entire family, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.
Her straightforward text, in English and Spanish, explains the main idea in each family picture. But look again, and again, and again--from the haphazard detail of these loving snapshots emerges slowly, and is worth searching for.
Araminta's Paint Box by Karen Ackerman (Atheneum: $12.95; 32 pp.) follows a family and a little girl's prized possession across the United States. Araminta loses her paint box on the trip from Boston to the territory called California. As if driven by its own will to follow her, the box passes from one owner to another: as a toolbox, a riverboat stowaway, a baby bassinet and finally a miner's gold-nugget carrier.
On the way, it plays a role in scenes from American life in the mid-19th Century. Through an uncanny coincidence, and as we suspect all along that it will, the box lands back in the hands of Araminta.
Watercolor illustrations by Betsy Lewin seem a little out of sync with the text.
Notable and appealing for its utter lack of sweetness is George Mendoza's Traffic Jam (Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $14.95; 32 pp.). Mendoza's whimsical text--about being stuck in a car that is stuck in traffic--gets an edge from the illustrations of David Stoltz. Imagine gonzo artist Ralph Steadman drawing as a child. The anarchic, brink-of-lunacy flavor of the drawings captures the dark impatience of a young passenger who knows he could drive much better than dopey old Mom or Dad.
In our narrator's agitated mind, the road is clogged with animals: "Out my window, pigs looked smart, riding in a duck-drawn cart." An occasional remark from Mom or Dad pierces the reverie to reinforce the boredom of it all. The obvious solution would be to take the wheel, maybe drive to outer space. Of one thing the rider is certain: "If I could drive, I'd show them how. If I could drive, we'd be there now."