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90'S FAMILY

Far-Flung Fables

A Book of International Children's Stories Offers Kids--and Their Parents--Lessons About Cultures

December 15, 1996|MARTHA FREEMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Children are the original revolutionaries.

This, in the words of my 9-year-old, is a big deal to any grown-up whose home has been taken over by them.

But it's true in a larger sense too: Children grow up and inevitably wrest power from us grown-ups, and if we want to share our notion of civilization with the little insurgents, our best shot is to do it while they're smaller than we are. One way, of course, is to tell them what we can through stories . . . and to hope for the best.

"The Best Children's Books in the World," a handsomely illustrated new collection from Harry N. Abrams Inc., invites us to consider the values that grown-ups in other countries have tried to communicate through kids stories, and to admire their artistry in doing so.

Edited by Byron Preiss, this coffee-table size book reproduces text and pictures from 15 international, award-winning children's books, all published since 1984.

Anyone compiling such a selection faces some obvious challenges, the first being the sweeping presumption of the title. But there are also technical constraints in presenting books of different sizes in a single volume--especially when, in some cases, English translations are necessary. The immediate effect is to distance you from the art, the same way a museum catalog does. As a result, my appreciation for these 15 tales was more cerebral than emotional. Then again, these stories aren't meant for me. What would children think of them?

I curled up on a couch with my three kids and tried out a few of the stories. Several retell traditional tales, including "Jichang Learns to Shoot Arrows" (retold by Zhao Zhenwan), a Chinese fable that preaches the virtues of tenacity. The story features gorgeous ink and watercolor illustrations on yellow silk (by Li Xueming), but it was quickly panned by 6-year-old Rosa.

"Didn't you get what it was trying to say?" I asked.

"Yeah. Try hard. Boring."

On the other hand, "Five Wacky Witches," a no less uplifting story written by Ronat Chacham and illustrated by Ora Ayal, was a hit with 9-year-old Sylvie. Drawn in a style I'll call Neon Potatohead, it tells the story of the witches' day on the town. After four are claimed by calamities including cream pies and escalators, the lonely survivor tries to rescue her friends. The tale ends with the five witches pulling up the covers and lying "head next to head." Ayal's story about community comes from Israel--but the witches' wild antics will be familiar to any parent who has ever taken a child to a department store.

Childhood exuberance is celebrated less artfully in "The Flower City" (from Switzerland, written by Eveline Hasler, illustrated by Stepan Zavrel), where Karin and Peter smash the gate of the "dream cemetery," liberating flowers and butterflies that stodgy grown-ups have locked up. It was too cute for this stodgy grown-up, and Rosa was also unimpressed.

"No one was ever in danger," she complained.

Well, sweetie, if it's danger you're after, consider the shattered world Andrey Martynov illustrates in "Bad Advice." Russian writer Grigory Oster demands comparison with Shel Silverstein but is even more anarchistic; his story reflects with grim humor the turbulence of Russian life. In one poem, the writer suggests keeping it a secret if you break a window because: "A war may start . . . windows cracking left and right: No one will punish you."

Mercifully, for our children at least, that excuse won't wash. Indeed, one of the intentions of "The Best Children's Books in the World," as described in the introduction by Jeffrey Garrett, a children's writer and librarian, is to get us thinking about the values and lessons of our own culture.

For example, while sad things happen in American children's books, you'd be hard pressed to find one with a hopeless ending. It's just not done. But I had to stretch my imagination to find any hopeful interpretation for "Street Scene" (from Brazil) by Angela Lago.

This affecting story, told in bright but ominous pictures, concerns a little boy trying to sell fruit to drivers stuck in traffic. The cars are cozy cocoons, their occupants sharp-toothed and threatening. Dashing vulnerably among them, the boy looks eternally bewildered. He sells nothing and finally, in desperation, he steals a gift-wrapped package. It contains--fruit. I suppose you could be cheered by the hero's unquenched spirit, but the more reasonable reaction is despair at the specter of a child trapped in an endless loop.

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