Now Americans can enjoy an acclaimed European series; Little Elephant and Big Mouse, by Benita Cantieni. Illustrated by Fred Gachter. Boston: Neugebauer Press.$9.95; In My Garden, by Ermanno Cristini and Luigi Puricelli. $8.95; The Volcano, by Ivan Gantschev. $9.95; The Moon Lake, by Ivan Gantschev. $9.95; Hieronymus, by Hanne Turk. $9.95

By , Alexandra Johnson is a free-lance writer and critic.

Picture books are a child's compass to his adult self. And, so very often, an adult thinks back to his own childhood: to the colors and images so indelibly imprinted by those first books. No books have greater impact than those that lead us forever back to what first sparked our imagination.

It's with particular pleasure, then, that one alerts readers to a new series of quality picture books published by the Neugebauer Press, the distinguished Austrian press hailed for its fine children's books. Well-known in Europe -- over 100 of its titles are in print in 16 languages -- the press has now launched its English series in London and Boston. It's a publishing event worth noting. Few picture books are lavished with such consistent attention to quality as these. Designed by some of Europe's finest contemporary artists, the Neugebauer books are models of craftsmanship: solidly constructed, handsomely printed, beautifully designed. Most important of all, though, each page bursts and brims with color; images vivid with imagination.

I find it hard to narrow the field to one favorite, but I keep coming back to "Little Elephant and Big Mouse," a story about the unlikely pairing of an oversized mouse and an undersized elephant. A subtle lesson in perspective, the book's real charm lies in Fred Gachter s exuberant illustrations. He infuses each page with gentle humor, a wild whimsical snails, sly lizards, a pontificating mouse, a very vulnerable elephant. Children will love this book.

Recommended: Default

"In my Garden" is an idea ingenious in its utter simplicity. Illustrators Cristini and Puricelli have taken a single linear drawig -- a rural garden, in this case -- and spliced it into a puzzle picture book. Each page is stocked with domesticated animals that any child wil recognize. What will prove more challenging is seeing all the animals. They are camouflaged by their natural environment. Moreover, at the end of each page some part of a new animal -- a head or a hoof -- offers a clue to what's about to appear.

IVan Gantschev, author and illustrator of both "The Volcano" and "The Moon Lake," creates picture books that are to be lingered over. His delicate washes glow with the incandescence of childhood itself. They are rich evocations of a Lake," a simple tale of a shepherd and the jewels the moon leaves him, is a visual feast for child and adult alike. It is a book that shines from the inside.

"Hieronymus" is a chameleon who, discovering he can change colors, embarks on a series of camouflage adventures. Hanne Turk's book becomes a world of fantasy and instruction. Like Hieronymus, children will learn how to colors combine to produce yet a third.But the instruction is well camouflaged by a zany, colorful story line.

The Neugebauer Press can be reached at Box 56, North Quincy STation, Boston, Mass. 02171.

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