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A Tale to Try With Green Eggs, Ham

April 23, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I feel my greatest accomplishment was encouraging students to approach reading as a pleasure, not a chore," a children's author once said. "I tried to turn them on."

Today, the wisdom of such a philosophy is apparent. But four decades ago, when Theodor Geisel first put that philosophy to paper, his manuscript was rejected 27 times. The 28th publisher bought both the pedagogy and the book, however, and Geisel--better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss--went on to become one of the most accomplished children's authors of the century.

The simple and creative verse of Dr. Seuss certainly made reading fun, and children responded by reading more. As a result, Dr. Seuss wrote four of the all-time top 10 best-selling children's books and inspired a generation of authors and illustrators.

Although Dr. Seuss died seven years ago, there's a new addition to his library--"Hooray for Diffendoofer Day" (Alfred A. Knopf, 54 pages, $17), a book Dr. Seuss began and poet Jack Prelutsky and artist Lane Smith finished.

"Hooray" tells the story of an unusual school where the teachers are "different-er" than the rest. But the unique education they impart winds up saving the day--not to mention the school--by preventing a wholesale transfer of the student body to dreaded Flobbertown.

Although the verse is a bit more complicated than some of the more memorable Dr. Seuss books and the drawings not nearly as flip, Geisel's irreverent wit and his penchant for bestowing meaning on nonsensical words has survived the unusual collaboration.

In an addendum accompanied by Geisel's original sketches and notes, Janet Schulman, the author's longtime editor, explains how Prelutsky and Smith managed to piece together an entire book based on "some characters, a setting and a few verses."

(Smith, a Caldecott Medal-winning artist who also created the animation for the 1996 movie "James and the Giant Peach," will join actor Eric Idle in a Dr. Seuss tribute at the Storyopolis Art Gallery and Bookstore on May 16. Information: [310] 358-2500.)

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While Dr. Seuss is the author against whom modern children's verse is measured, it's the centuries-old nursery rhymes of Mother Goose that created the template for the genre. Harry N. Abrams has joined 23 of them with the artwork of Vernon Grant to produce "Vernon Grant's Mother Goose" (32 pages, $9.95).

The collection includes all the traditional Mother Goose favorites ("Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," "Simple Simon Met a Pieman" and the tale of Humpty Dumpty), which have become so familiar that most kids can recite them from memory. But the distinctive paintings of the late Grant--creator of Kellogg's cereal characters Snap! Crackle! and Pop! and once hailed as "America's favorite children's artist"--will make you feel as though you're reading each rhyme for the first time.

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Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to bring poetry to children has been undertaken by Sterling Publishing, whose Poetry for Young People series has profiled and presented the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and Emily Dickinson. In its most recent edition, "Walt Whitman" (edited by Jonathan Levin, illustrated by Jim Burke, 48 pages, $14.95), the series explores one of the most influential men of American letters.

This volume, which begins with a biographical sketch of Whitman, includes selections from the poet's classic collection "Leaves of Grass" as well as abolitionist tracts such as "The Runaway Slave." Each poem is followed by a short glossary of difficult or uncommon words.

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Two slightly more contemporary poetry collections come from Dial Books: "It's Raining Laughter" (Dial Books for Young Readers, by Nikki Grimes with photos by Myles C. Pinkney, 30 pages, $14.99) and "Home on the Range: Cowboy Poetry" (Dial Books, selected by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Bernie Fuchs, 38 pages, $15.99).

The first book matches Grimes' short, bright and original poems with Pinkney's rich attention-getting photos of children at play. The second is a roundup of 19 cowboy poems ranging from the familiar (Brewster Higley's "Home on the Range") to the funny (Georgie Sicking's "To Be a Top Hand").

Another unusual collection is Salley Mavor's "You and Me: Poems of Friendship" (Orchard Books, 28 pages, $16.95), although this compilation stands out more for the illustrations than for the poetry. Using fabric-relief artwork, Mavor has created lively and colorful scenes to accompany whimsical works by writers including Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni and Prelutsky.

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And, finally, an upcoming book that has nothing to do with poetry, but deserves mention here nonetheless, is Maida Silverman's "Israel: The Founding of a Modern Nation" (illustrated by Susan Avishai, Dial Books for Young Readers, $15.99, 97 pages).

On May 15, Israel will celebrate its 50th anniversary, an event that marks the Jewish people's triumph over centuries of oppression as much as it does the birthday of a powerful country. In her book, aimed at elementary school students, Silverman makes use of Old Testament stories as well as tales of more contemporary Jewish suffering to explain the religious and political significance of Israel's founding.

The text is simple and straightforward, although the Arab view of many events is given short shrift. The book ends with a timeline of important events in Israel and a two-page bibliography.

* Kevin Baxter reviews books for children and young adults every four weeks. Next week: Book reviews by Times readers.

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