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November 10, 1996|MICHAEL CART

Ah, dreams! The stuff of fairy tales. Consider Fanny Agnes, the sturdy farm girl whose big dream is to marry a prince. And why not? If it could happen once upon a time, it could happen again, even in the wild Wyoming town where Fanny works from sunup to sundown on her daddy's farm. But sometimes life falls a little short of fairy-tale size, and Fanny winds up marrying Heber Jensen and going to work on his farm. But she never stops dreaming and one day--well, readers will want to discover the surprising and satisfying ending for themselves. In Fanny's Dream, Caralyn Buehner has written a wise and loving story with a measure of magic, while her husband, Mark Buehner, has provided pictures as sturdy and robustly good-natured as Fanny herself.

Once upon a time on the American frontier, people began making up their own exuberantly original fairy tales with heroes as large as the landscape. We now call them "tall tales," and Steven Kellogg has retold and illustrated a whopper: I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago. Originally a bragging song, Kellogg's rollicking version reworks some of the original verses while adding some new ones of his own that usher exaggeration into the Space Age. Kellogg's energetic pictures almost leap off the page while sparking grins as big as the boasts they depict.

Paul Bunyan, the mighty logger, was a bachelor, mostly, but in Audrey Wood's lively new version of his life, The Bunyans, he's acquired a family--gigantic wife Carrie, a son called Little Jean and a tall, tall girl named Teeny. The kids' feats--carving Bryce Canyon, creating the Continental Divide, etc.--are as out-sized as their parents' feats. David Shannon's marvelous pictures capture both the scale of the story and its sublime silliness.

Speaking of silliness, the fractured fairy tale has become a fixture of modern picture books. Consider Sleepless Beauty, a wacky, rhyming retelling by Frances Minters of the traditional tale, updated and set in a city that looks suspiciously like Manhattan. Prince Charming has been replaced by a rock star and, as for Beauty, well, let's say she's a good deal smarter than her European antecedent. Illustrator G. Brian Karas has created scratchy-looking cartoon illustrations that caper across the pages to match and even extend the rollicking nonsense of the text.

Since elves are fixtures of Scandinavian fairy lore, it's no surprise that some of them should have migrated a little farther north and gone to work for another right jolly old elf, Santa Claus himself. New Yorker cartoonist and prodigious picture book producer James Stevenson tells a sweet-spirited story about The Oldest Elf. While others are busy making modern toys that beep, whine and wail, Elwyn works at making old-fashioned toys like blocks, china dolls and small guitars. Has the computer chip made Elwyn obsolete? Not as long as there's a Christmas, a sympathetic reindeer named Blitzen and a gifted storyteller-artist named James Stevenson.


FANNY'S DREAM. By Caralyn Buehner . Illustrated by Mark Buehner (Dial: $12.99)

I WAS BORN ABOUT 10,000 YEARS AGO. Retold and illustrated by Steven Kellogg (William Morrow: $16)

THE BUNYANS. By Audrey Wood . Illustrated by David Shannon (Blue Sky/Scholastic: $15.95)

SLEEPLESS BEAUTY. By Frances Minters . Illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Viking: $14.99)

THE OLDEST ELF. Written and illustrated by James Stevenson (Greenwillow: $15)

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