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Books For Kids

AESOP'S FABLES By Jerry Pinkney; North-South/SeaStar: 96 pp., $19.95

OLIVIA By Ian Falconer ; Atheneum/Schwartz: 40 pp., $16

KATE AND THE BEANSTALK By Mary Pope Osborne Illustrated by Giselle Potter; Atheneum/Schwartz: 40 pp., $16

SIR WALTER RALEGH AND THE QUEST FOR EL DORADO By Marc Aronson Clarion: 240 pp., $20

October 22, 2000

AESOP'S FABLES By Jerry Pinkney; North-South/SeaStar: 96 pp., $19.95

Beautifully designed, this lush, oversize volume showcases Jerry Pinkney's artistry in grand style. There's a king's ransom worth of material here, as Pinkney serves up

more than 60 of the ancient Greek slave-philosopher's fables. Aesop's wisdom spills across the pages as freely as Pinkney's glorious watercolors, alight with the many creatures who people the tales, from fiddling grasshoppers and diligent ants to wily foxes, clever crows, brave mice and grateful lions. Each of the

vigorous retellings concludes with the kind of succinct moral that centuries of readers have come to expect (e.g., "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched"; "You are judged by the company you keep"). And whether the homilies concern a wolf in sheep's clothing or sour grapes, the timeless virtues resonate as freshly as the day they were minted. Pinkney brings his considerable talent to bear on everything from thumbnail animal portraits to sweeping full-page vistas of hearth and woodlands, and his detail, delicacy of line and subtle palette create an elegant foil for the simple parables. If there's room on the shelf for only one picture-book version of Aesop, this could be it. (All ages)

OLIVIA By Ian Falconer ; Atheneum/Schwartz: 40 pp., $16

Come one, come all for this extraordinary debut for both Ian Falconer and his unforgettable porcine heroine. The author/artist begins this day-in-the-life tale with a kind of behind-the-scenes peek at Olivia. Articles from her wardrobe are strewn across the endpapers--red tights, red sunglasses, a red T-shirt and red tank top--until the title page reveals her selection: a red sailor dress with black-and-white striped tights.

"This is Olivia. She is good at lots of things," the narrator begins, like an emcee introducing the star of the show. The genius of the volume is its economy: the brief text brilliantly plays off the artwork, rendered only in shades of red and black with an occasional background setting; a deceptively simple design unifies each spread. For one such spread, demonstrating "[s]he is very good at wearing people out," Falconer shows Olivia engaged in a variety of activities in 13 black-and-white vignettes, using red sparingly--for a hammer handle, a yo-yo, a ball, a mixing bowl spatula and a jump-rope--as she progresses from energetic to spent. Against a completely white background, these vignettes seem to bob on invisible undulating waves, with the intermittent splashes of red creating a sense of movement and urgency--until Olivia's collapse at the lower right-hand corner of the spread beneath a single line of text ("She even wears herself out").

The few full scenes amplify the deadpan humor: a beach setting allows for the full impact of Olivia's spectacular sandcastle model of the Empire State Building; a full-bleed black-and-white image of a tutu- and tiara-clad Olivia bowing to unseen fans answers the narrator's question, "What could she be thinking?" as she stares at her favorite painting, featuring Degas' ballerinas, in a museum. Whether in full scenes or vignettes, Falconer keeps the focus on his inimitable protagonist. He clearly understands his audience: a standout spread shows Olivia getting dressed in her red-only wardrobe ("She has to try on everything") in 17 separate fashion poses. Falconer's choice to suggest Olivia with minimal details and a masterful black line allows readers to readily identify with her--no doubt, they will. There's a little bit of Olivia in everyone. (Ages 3 to 7)

KATE AND THE BEANSTALK By Mary Pope Osborne Illustrated by Giselle Potter; Atheneum/Schwartz: 40 pp., $16

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