Children's books are of course available all year round, but they seem a particularly enticing commodity around the holidays. And not only for children, who treasure their books in a way that often fades with age, but also for moonlighting adults, who can appreciate a level of sophistication in art and design that makes these books the biggest bargains on the publishing scene. For those who've waited till now to make their selections, here is a last-minute look at some of the best this season has to offer.
HAIL TO MAIL by Samuel Marshak (Henry Holt: $14.95). Newly translated by Richard Pevear, this delightful tale by Russian children's poet Marshak follows a particularly determined certified letter as it follows world traveler John Peck from New York to Boise, Switzerland and Brazil before (not to give away the ending) it finally catchs up to Mr. Peck back in old New York. Unafraid to rhyme "yesterday" with "Schenectady," Hail to Mail is particularly well-served by the sophisticated primitivism of Vladimir Radunsky's illustrations.
LITTLE LOU by Jean Claverie (Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $14.95). Dedicated to Memphis Slim, the piano great who was a longtime fixture on the Paris jazz scene, this playfully illustrated work by Frenchman Jean Claverie takes us into the Depression-era world of its title character, a small boy who learns about Bach and Mozart at piano lessons but finds he has the blues in his soul. A gangster attack on a local club add a little excitement to the proceedings and give Little Lou his big break.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens (Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $25; 152 pp.). and THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW by Washington Irving (Stewart, Tabori and Chang: $25; 63 pp.). While it is left to each generation to rediscover the classics of children's literature, the virtue of these two new editions (published in conjunction with Creative Education Inc. of Mankato, Minnesota) is that the illustrations are so rich they immediately feel timeless. Roberto Innocenti, a past winner of the Bratislava Golden Apple, among other awards, brings a vivid sense of detail to the Dickensian panoply of 19th-Century London, capturing its poverty as well as its exuberance. Gary Kelley, by contrast, works in broader strokes as recalls the moodiness of the autumnal world of New York's Hudson River Valley.
DINOSAUR DREAM by Dennis Nolan (Macmillan: $13.95). Children and dinosaurs have been an item for generations, and though "Dinosaur Dreams" is hardly the first book to take advantage of that phenomenon, it is one of the most charming. When a baby brontosaurus appears outside Wilbur's window, the young lad has no choice but to walk the creature back through several strata of time until he meets up with the toddler's parents deep in the Jurassic age. If author/illustrator Nolan's ideas are not brand spanking new, his breathtaking illustrations more than make up for it.
A 19TH CENTURY RAILWAY STATION by Fiona MacDonald, illustrated by John James (Peter Bedrick Books: $16.95; 48 pp.; ages 10 and up). Just as Ninja Turtles have not quite replaced dinosaurs, space ships have not quite replaced trains in the child's imagination. This book, a British import, carries all the excitement of a visit to an old-fashioned railway station. With vivid description and illustration (the cutaway drawings are unusually clear here), the book covers everything from engine models and switching layouts to construction of sleeper chairs and modern uses for the old station buildings.
A FLOWER GROWS by Ken Robbins (Dial Books: 12.95; all ages). This picture book combines the magic of storytelling with the precision of science instruction. Ken Robbins photographed the stages of development of an amaryllis, a breathtaking flower whose fast-growing stalk produces a ring of enormous trumpet-shaped flowers. Robbins' text explains how the parts of the flower unfold, how the plant goes into hibernation, and how it stores nourishment for its next flowering. Rather than use straighforward color photographs, Robbins shoots in black and white and hand-tints the pictures; this illustration technique lends his pictures a luminous beauty that suits the poetry of the story.