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CHILDREN'S BOOKSHELF

Say It With Pictures

October 16, 1994|MICHAEL CART

Once the province of innocuous illustrations and sentimental stories about poky little puppies, the picture book has undergone an aesthetic overhaul in the last decade to emerge as one of the most creatively stimulating areas of publishing for children. Not only is the art now innovative and visually satisfying, but the accompanying stories have become richer and more textured, as well. This happy harmony of art and text are hallmarks of four of the best of the current bumper crop of picture books.

Author-illustrator Patricia Polacco's PINK AND SAY (Philomel: $15.95) offers an emotionally powerful story of an interracial friendship forged on a Civil War battlefield. Injured and left for dead, 15-year-old Union soldier Say Curtis is rescued by another teen-ager, Pink Aylee, who has skin "the color of polished mahogany." Separated from his own fighting company, Pink manages to carry Say to his home where his mother, Moe Moe Bay, lovingly nurses the wounded boy back to health. Based on a real-life experience of her great-great grandfather, Polacco's story demonstrates that history does not always promise happy endings. For when the two boys try to return to their units, they are captured and sent to the notorious Andersonville Prison where, tragically, Pink is hanged. Polacco's haunting story has the integrity of emotional truth while her richly colored pictures spill across double-page spreads to expand the reader's emotional involvement with this memorable and moving tribute to the human spirit.

Though seldom more than 32 pages long, picture books are large enough to embrace the whole range of human emotion, and hilarity is the order of the day in the latest of Susan Meddaugh's wacky stories about Martha, a pooch who can talk when she eats alphabet soup. In MARTHA CALLING (Houghton Mifflin: $14.95) the word-loving canine enters a radio call-in contest and wins a weekend for four at the cozy Come-On-Inn. The only problem? Those three little words Martha hates: "No Dogs Allowed." Not to worry, though: Meddaugh's brightly colored, deftly designed cartoon illustrations conspire with Martha's effervescent babblings to laugh-out-loud effect and a comically satisfying resolution.

Arthur Yorinks, author of the Caldecott Medal-winning "Hey, Al!," has teamed up with veteran Mad magazine artist Mort Drucker to bring us a rollicking story of the Old West, WHITEFISH WILL RIDES AGAIN! (Michael diCapua Books/HarperCollins: $15). Yorinks' tale about a legendary lawman who has traded his gun for a harmonica moves along as briskly as a runaway buckboard while Drucker dazzles us with full-page pictures that are filled with comic detail and combine the best of cartoon and caricature techniques.

A fiesta in the Old Southwest is the setting for Deborah Nourse Lattimore's FRIDA MARIA (Browndeer Press/Harcourt Brace: $14.95). Working with rich earth tones, Lattimore has created fresco-like paintings that evoke the art and architecture of the California missions. They also provide a rich historical backdrop for this affectionate story of a spirited girl who defies tradition to ride in an important horse race, winning--in the process--both the event and the approval of her tradition-loving mother.

Remember Ratty, Mole and Toad?

Did you ever wonder what happened to the animals from "The Wind in the Willows"? For example, did Toad remain a sensible animal? A sequel to Kenneth Grahame's classic children's story is being published this fall. Write us what you think happens. We'll publish the best of your sequel ideas. Send by Oct. 21. to:

WILLOWS, Book Review, L.A. Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053

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