The following two-page checklist can be torn out for future reference. It gives this newspaper's choice of the best books of 1981, selected from those previously reviewed. Comments are from articles published since last January. Capsule reviews are loosely grouped by subject, with titles listed alphabetically. BIOGRAPHY/AUTOBIOGRAPHY
* ASKING FOR TROUBLE: The Autobiography of a Banned Journalist, by Donald Woods. New York: Atheneum. $12.95. Without a trial, and without giving specific reasons, South African authorities forbade white newspaper editor Woods from communicating in public. Woods fled the country and now lives in exile in Britain. This is largely the story of his ''education,'' in the broadest sense, from his boyhood days as the son of a trading-post owner until he could no longer accept South Africa's stifling racial atmosphere. But it is also the history of South Africa itself and the incredible pace of change there over the last half-century.
* DOUBLE BILL, by Alec McCowen. New York: Atheneum. $10.95. This memoir by the actor who has portrayed such figures as Pope Hadrian VII and the New Testament writer Mark abounds in anecdotes, witty observations, and sincere tributes to colleagues, telling in the process better than any other book in recent memory what it's really like to be an actor.
* EDITH SITWELL: A Unicorn Among Lions, by Victoria Glendinning. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $17.95. Regardless of the varied critical opinions of her poetry, Edith Sitwell's life has enough unusual twists and turns, plus humor and pathos, to make an intriguing biography. The first two have appeared this year, though neither is as authoritative nor comprehensive as one might wish. Glendinning's is a sensitive portrait that emphasizes the private person behind the public persona.
* EDITH SITWELL: A Biography, by Geoffrey Elborn. New York: Doubleday & Co. difficult aspects: her platonic association with homosexual painter Pavel Tchelitchew (also included in Glendinning's biography,) and her supersensitivity to personal and literary criticism.
* GEORGE ORWELL, by Bernard Crick. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co. $17. 95. This painstaking study, the first to make use of Orwell's private papers, traces the writer's life from his conventional English upper-class upbringing, through his political baptism during the Spanish Civil War and his lackluster early career as a novelist, to his belated fame as a foe of totalitarianism, ranked in the exalted literary company of Hobbes and Swift.
* J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: Shatterer of Worlds, by Peter Goodchild. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. $15. From brilliant, sensitive student, to director of Los Alamos, to chief of the Atomic Energy Commission and eventual stigma as a ''security risk,'' Oppenheimer's complex life is fascinatingly chronicled in this book, based on the BBC-TV series.
* A LIFE IN OUR TIMES, by John Kenneth Galbraith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. $16.95. A well-nigh complete record of economist Galbraith's professional life since leaving his family's farm in Ontario in 1926, absorbing for its many surprises, pungent style, and deadpan good humor.
* THE SAGE OF MONTICELLO, Vol. VI, Jefferson and His Times, by Dumas Malone. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. $19.95. A fascinating record of Jefferson's years as elder statesman at Monticello focusing on his role as farmer, scholar, and founder of the University of Virginia and bringing to conclusion Malone's ambitious biographical undertaking begun in the '40s.
* SOME SORT OF EPIC GRANDEUR: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $25. The result of the author's 30-year quest for every relevant fact and figure about Fitzgerald's life, this, the third full-scale Fitzgerald biography to have been published, fills nearly all of the gaps that remained after the first two.
* SWANSON ON SWANSON, by Gloria Swanson. New York: Random House. $15.95 in hardcover/New York: Pocket Books. $3.95 in paperback. Independent, tenacious, and astute in her dealings with Hollywood moguls, less so in her romantic relationships, Swanson is a hearty survivor of the tinseltown that wrecked so many gifted but less tenacious stars. Her book purports to tell all but actually tells too little about her real self, about the heart of the person hiding inside those stylish clothes.
* WALDO EMERSON: A Biography, by Gay Wilson Allen. New York: The Viking Press. $25. A meticulously thorough study, which in content and scope surpasses the monumental achievement of Emerson's earlier biographer, Ralph Rusk. On the personal side, Allen goes beyond the mere retelling of gossip by relying heavily on gleanings from Emerson's journals and letters. On the literary side, he analyzes all of Emerson's writings, lucidly explaining them individually, and in relationship to each other, and exploring the various influences on Emerson's development. MEMOIRS/LETTERS
* AMERICA LOST AND FOUND, by Anthony Bailey. New York: Random House. $9.95. If anyone else has written about the wartime evacuation of 16,000 British children, many of whom were sent to safety in America, no one has conveyed more sensitively than Bailey what it was like to be one of them. With wit and skill he paints an engaging picture of the Midwest of the '40s, seen through fresh, unbiased eyes, and of the poignant farewells on both sides of the Atlantic.
* ERNEST HEMINGWAY: Selected Letters 1917-1961, edited by Carlos Baker. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. $27.50. That peculiar blend of energy, forthrightness, and insouciance which characterizes American prose at its best is especially visible in this stunning self-portrayal, which, along with the familiar image of bravado in youth and pride despite his fading reputation in later life, gives new evidence of Hemingway's sensitivity and generosity, irreverent humor, and studiousness as a writer and reader.
* LETTERS FROM AFRICA, 1914-1931, by Isak Dinesen. Translated by Anne Born. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. $25. Written from her coffee plantation in Kenya to her relatives back home in Denmark, these letters provide a rich new biographical perspective on the brilliant storyteller whose sophisticated romantic fiction won her international acclaim.
* LETTERS FROM COLETTE, selected and translated by Robert Phelps. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. $12.95. Whether her subject is love or illusion, gardens or children, Colette, one of the 20th century's finest prose stylists, pierces to the quick, peeling back anything that obscures the moist living tissue itself. This is the first book to give us some of her many, many letters.
* WAYS OF ESCAPE, by Graham Greene. New York: Simon & Schuster. $12.95. These memoirs, covering the novelist's career from 1929 to the present, in Africa, in South America, in Vietman, portray Greene as a close approximation of the heroes in his own books: a man with a divided conscience, half-saved, half-doomed; a man with a checkered past and a dubious future, riding the promise of grace, uncertain of the promise; a man in quest for ''laughter in the shadow of the gallows.''
* WILL'S BOY: A Memoir, by Wright Morris. New York: Harper & Row. $11.95. In crystalline, impressionistic prose, Wright captures the innocence, resilience, nonchalance, and dawning awareness of his bittersweet boyhood during the second and third decades of this century.
* BASIN AND RANGE, by John McPhee. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. $10 .95. A geology primer that reads like a thriller. Wise readers will plunge in, forgive the uncharacteristic sprinkling of jargon, and partake of McPhee's delectable blend of dramatic fact, poetry, and humor. And, almost in spite of themselves, they will discover how a master storyteller can bring the driest of subjects to life.
* THE BLOCKBUSTER COMPLEX, by Thomas Whiteside. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press (distributed by Columbia University Press, New York). $12.95. An examination of the publishing industry today, in which Whiteside warns against many hazards in the current trend toward the takeover of small independent houses by giant conglomerates. Among those he decries are concentration on quantity rather than quality; the resultant loss of whole classes of books; and the too-rapid turnover of editorial personnel.
* THE CAMERA AGE: Essays on Television, by Michael J. Arlen. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. $12.95. These thoughtful essays, originally published in the New Yorker magazine, remind us that increasingly we are ''living our lives in terms of what we think the cameras tell us.''
* THE COMET IS COMING: The Feverish Legacy of Mr. Halley, by Nigel Calder. New York: The Viking Press. $12.95. A lively, entertaining history that tells us what is known about comets and gives some modern speculations to ponder - recommended as background reading for what will be an astronomical event of a lifetime, when the famous comet returns in 1985.
* CITY KID, by Mary MacCracken. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. $12.95. The true story of how tutor MacCracken broke through barriers and stereotypes to meet an an emotionally disturbed 7-year-old (arrested 24 times for arson, theft, and truancy) on his own ground, and to offer him the healing warmth and love of an adult who cared.
* CROCKETT'S FLOWER GARDEN, by James Underwood Crockett. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. $24.95 in hardcover, $14.95 in paperback. The late Jim Crockett's enthusiasm for vegetables and flowers spills across the pages of this book, which contains a chapter for each of the nine months of the growing season, plus one covering indoor activities for the winter months, as well as some tips not seen in Crockett's earlier books or on his TV series.
* FROM SCARFACE TO SCARLET, by Roger Dooley. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $25. A rousing and readable chronicle of nearly all the Hollywood films of the '30s, organized into 50 categories, summarized, and analyzed in terms of what they reveal about the life and times.
* JUNGLES, edited by Edward S. Ayensu. New York: Crown Publishers Inc. $35 .While tropical rain forest accounts for only one-twelfth the world's land surface, it provides more than half of its total plant and animal species. Brimming with little-known facts and eye-catching pictures, this fascinating book shows us the last great bastions of the jungle: Amazonia, West Africa, and the Malay archipelago. It also sounds a serious warning: jungles are disappearing at a disastrous rate, by some estimates, at 50 acres a minute, and the implications for earth's climate and atmosphere, not to mention its rich reserve of plant and animal variety, could be staggering.
* THE KILLING OF KAREN SILKWOOD: The Story Behind the Kerr-McGee Plutonium Case, by Richard Rashke. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. $12.95. More than six years after she died in a mysterious and perhaps sinister auto accident, a bitter controversy still rages over whether Karen Silkwood was the victim of corporate negligence in the nuclear industry. This book draws on many sources to pull together as much about the story as is known, but it leaves us with the necessary reminder that the questions about nuclear safety may still outnumber the answers.
* LETTERS FROM THE COUNTRY, by Carol Bly. New York: Harper & Row. $12.95. An unusual collection of stern and loving essays, originally published in the Minnesota Monthly, decrying the shallowness of life in the Northern agricultural heartland of America, and shedding light on why, in the midst of prosperity, the inner life often seems so impoverished.
* LITERARY DEMOCRACY: The Declaration of Cultural Independence in America, by Larzer Ziff. New York: The Viking Press. $20. Ziff reexamines the fertile period between 1837 and the Civil War, when Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Poe helped America establish its literary independence from Europe.
* LUCY: the Beginnings of Humankind, by Donald C. Johanson and Maitland A. Edey. New York: Simon & Schuster. $16.95. ''Lucy'' is the ancient hominid whose 3.5-million-year-old remains were unearthed by Johanson in Ethopia, part of a rich find that sheds much light on human roots. Written with the speed and excitement of a novel, the book takes readers into the heart of research into evolution and the earliest traces of humanity on earth.
* OLD GLORY: An American Voyage, by Jonathan Raban. New York: Simon & Schuster. $14.95. A splendid, revealing, and exhaustively, not to mention mischievously, detailed account of a Briton's journey by 16-foot powered boat along the Mississippi River to scrutinize ''the real America.''
* PERSONAL IMPRESSIONS, by Isaiah Berlin. New York: The Viking Press. $12.95. The Oxford don's tributes to Pasternak, Einstein, Churchill, Roosevelt, and 10 others - some world renowned, some obscure - are consistently stimulating. They reveal the fiber of the intellect and the human spirit as a thing of wonder, more breathtakingly alive than in the work of any other writer in recent memory.
* THE QUESTION OF ANIMAL AWARENESS: Evolutionary Continuity of Experience, by Donald R. Griffin. New York: The Rockefeller University Press. $13.95. An important book, in which a highly qualified scientist gives compelling reasons why we all should begin to face up to the question of whether or not animals think.
* RED STAR IN ORBIT, by James E. Oberg. New York: Random House. $12.95. Since the first sputnik, the Russians have wanted to conquer space and now, most specifically, to be the first humans to walk on Mars. This is the fullest account yet of the Kremlin's program, including many critical failures, until now unknown in the West, and the loss of a number of cosmonauts. Oberg also uncovers the propaganda machine, whose many-layered distortions may prevent the complete story from ever being told.
* A RIVER NO MORE, by Philip L. Fradkin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $15.95. An eye-opening history of the interrelationship between Western development and water politics, focusing on the Colorado River basin.
* SAND RIVERS, by Peter Matthiessen, with photographs by Hugo Van Lawick. New York: The Viking Press. $19.95. On this colorful safari to the remote Selous, the largest and least-known game preserve in Africa, prose master Matthiessen brilliantly captures the primeval flora and fauna of a world likely not to survive much longer.
* THE SECRET THAT EXPLODED, by Howard Morland. New York: Random House. $14.95 . Morland is the peace activist who, in the name of preventing nuclear war, ferreted out and published in a magazine the crucial design secret that made the H-bomb possible. Before his article appeared, that secret had been discovered independently or stolen by the Soviet Union, China, Britain, and France. This book presents Morland's brash account of his adventure, along with his ideas on disarmament which are neither original nor constructive enough, alas, to be anywhere near worth the price his fame may have cost us all.
* SOUL OF A NEW MACHINE, by Tracy Kidder. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co. $13.95. A near-novelistic though true suspense story about the development of a high performance computer at Data General, offering a window on corporate life in this fast-growing, up-by-the-bootstraps industry.
* TRACKS, by Robyn Davidson. New York: Pantheon Books. $11.95. An inspiring, irritating, and wonderful record of the author's hike across the great Australian desert, which is as much an inner journey toward independence as an outer one toward a distant horizon.
* 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future, by Gerard K. O'Neill. New York: Simon & Schuster. $14.95. Looking into existing technology rather than a crystal ball, Princeton physicist O'Neill predicts the year 2081 will be a time of interstellar travel and space colonies.
* WRITERS AT WORK: The Paris Review Interviews, Fifth Series, edited by George Plimpton. New York: The Viking Press. $16.95 in hardcover, $8.95 in paperback. Richly informative and fascinating conversations with 15 eminent writers, P. G. Wodehouse, Gore Vidal, Joyce Carol Oates, James Dickey, Jerzy Kozinski, Joan Didion, Kingsley Amis, and John Cheever, among them, originally published in the Paris Review between 1953 and 1978. CURRENT AFFAIRS
* THE CHILD SAVERS, by Peter S. Prescott. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $12.95. A painstakingly researched expose of the incredible legal and human chaos within New York City's juvenile justice system by a senior writer at Newsweek, who deserves praise for breaking the wall of silence.
* FROM HOUSEWIFE TO HERETIC, by Sonia Johnson. New York: Doubleday & Co. $14. 95. The chronicle of a housewife and mother's discovery of feminism in 1976 and her excommunication from the Mormon church three years later because of her work on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment.
* FROM THE YAROSLAVSKY STATION: Russia Perceived, by Elizabeth Pond. New York: Universe Books. $12.95. Comprehensive, carefully documented, but above all overflowing with a feel for Soviet reality set against a backdrop of Russian history, this is simply the best popularized volume now available explaining the Soviet people, their rulers, their system, their country.
* THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE: The Chinese and their Revolution 1895-1980, by Jonathan D. Spence. New York: The Viking Press. $19.95. The Yale historian's meticulously researched and lucid account of China's byzantine political history during the past 85 years, in which he ingeniously focuses on the lives of three Chinese writers to give dimension to the broad panorama.
* THE REAGAN REVOLUTION: An Inside Look at the Transformation of US Government, by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. New York: E. P. Dutton. $12.75. The veteran political analysts insist that people shouldn't be fooled by occasionally ''moderate'' dialogue on the part of the President nor by occasional willingness to compromise - he's a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and his administration offers the greatest promise of revolutionary change in government since the first term of FDR.
* REFUSENIK: Trapped in the Soviet Union, by Mark Ya. Azbel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. $17.95. In this moving and heroic book, physicist Azbel, who applied for an exit visa to Israel in 1972, tells how he trudged the Kafkaesque corridors of Soviet officialdom battling the world's most efficiently malign bureaucracy, was dismissed from his institute, prevented from earning a living, harassed by the KGB, and separated from his family before being allowed to leave - five years later.
* THE ROAD FROM HERE, by Paul Tsongas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $12.95. The junior senator from Massachusetts makes his case for a new brand of liberalism by analyzing energy policy, US-Soviet relations, the economy, and five other ''realities'' of the contemporary world.
* THE SECOND STAGE, by Betty Friedan. New York: Summit Books. $14.95. It's time, says the author of ''The Feminine Mystique,'' for the women's movement to put more emphasis on the family and - helped by men - to ''restructure institutions'' and ''transform the nature of power itself.'' HISTORY
* THE LISLE LETTERS, edited by Muriel St. Clare Byrne. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 6 Vols. $250 until Dec. 31, $300 thereafter. In this groundbreaking edition, the personal, official, and businesss correspondence of Viscount Lisle (Lord Deputy of Calais and illegitimate son of Edward IV) resurfaces, after being preserved for 400 years by the British crown. The letters should fuel a new flurry of scholarship on the Tudor world.
* MARY CHESNUT'S CIVIL WAR, edited by C. Vann Woodward. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. $29.95. Chesnut's memoirs, excerpts of which were first published in 1905, have provided a vivid but piecemeal social history of the Civil War period. Now this well-crafted edition of the whole text, including a firsthand account of the battle at Fort Sumter, events in Richmond, and Columbia , S.C., and life at the Chesnut plantation in Camden, S.C., after the war, will ensure this record its rightful place as an American classic.
* THERE IS A RIVER: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, by Vincent Harding. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $19.95. With a tone of closeness and advocacy, this black historian traces the struggle for emancipation and equal treatment, from the slave trade right up through the civil rights movement , challenging such myths as black passivity and dependency. FICTION
* THE BOOK OF EBENEZER LE PAGE, by G. B. Edwards. Introduction by John Fowles. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $13.95. Purportedly found among the papers of the late G. B. Edwards, a resident of the isle of Guernsey in the English Channel, this unusual book shines for the treasure of arcane wisdom it contains, spoken offhandedly or only implied in the actions of the quarry workers, seamen, and farmers whose story it tells in the period before, during, and after World War II.
* THE BOOK OF LIGHTS, by Chaim Potok. New York: Alfred A Knopf. $13.50. The story of an American Jew's search for identity and faith in the 1950s, focusing on a young seminarian headed for the rabbinate, but sent by the Army to Asia and then led by his own spiritual quest to Jerusalem. Potok's effective mixture of intellectual probing with irreverent humor rivets the reader's interest while at the same time exploring issues with which practically everyone can identify.
* THE CHANEYSVILLE INCIDENT, by David Bradley. New York: Harper & Row. $12.95 . A complicated and ambitious novel, which uses the mystery surrounding the family history of a formidably intelligent black professor to weave one of the best novels yet written about the black experience in America.
* THE COLLECTED STORIES OF ELIZABETH BOWEN, with an introduction by Angus Wilson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $17.95. Spanning the period from the Edwardian Age through World War II and illuminating the world of the British upper class, these 79 stories by the lately rediscovered Irish-born, British-bred writer are rich in imagination, psychological insight, entertainment, and craft.
* THE GERMAN LEGENDS OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM, edited and translated by Donald Ward. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues. Two vols. $42. Of inestimable value to scholars, this collection of 585 stories now is available for the first time in English. The stories range from brief anecdotal paragraphs to fully developed narratives, with Vol. l devoted to legends of mountains and lakes, and Vol. 2 to stories of conquest, heroes, and kings.
* GORKY PARK, by Martin Cruz Smith. New York: Random House. $13.95. Though punctuated with gruesome details that will put off some readers, this fine espionage novel also transcends the genre, to render believable, realistic, and gripping portrayals of certain segments of Soviet society and of one man's search for meaning.
* IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELER, by Italo Calvino. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $12.95. A demanding novel about reading and writing, which exemplifies what it is talking about by starting and breaking off 10 books in the course of one and by posing readers a sly literary puzzle.
* JULY'S PEOPLE, by Nadine Gordimer. New York: The Viking Press. $10.95. An ironic and illuminating story, set just after the outbreak of a black revolution in South Africa, in which a white family is smuggled out of the country to safety at the home of their long-time black servant. The challenges of the reversed master-servant roles are explored with Gordimer's rare poetic insight.
* THE MEETING AT TELGTE, by Gunter Grass. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $9.95. A mere canape beside Grass's last big novel, this book centers on the meeting of a group of poets in 1647 amid lingering violence as negotiations proceed to try to end the Thirty Years' War. The writer's reveal themselves to us rather more than to themselves and perhaps nudge readers of this century toward a little self-examination.
* THE OXFORD BOOK OF SHORT STORIES, chosen by V. S. Pritchett. New York: Oxford University Press. $19.95. Forty-one well chosen examples, from early to current, of the short-story craft.
* SPRING MOON: A Novel of China, by Bette Bao Lord. New York: Harper & Row. $ 14.95. An extraordinary and spellbinding novel that presents the panorama of events that have precipitated China from one crisis to another during the last century, as seen through the eyes a privileged family, the Changs.
* TAR BABY, by Toni Morrison. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $11.95. Central to this lyrically written novel are a retired white millionaire and his wife, living in seclusion in the Caribbean; the elderly black couple who have long supplied their domestic help; the servants' well-educated, cosmopolitan niece; and the young American black fugitive with whom she falls in love. Examining the tensions and dependencies among these thoroughly believable characters, Morrison also explores the diversity of black experience.
* THREE WOMEN AT THE WATER'S EDGE, by Nancy Thayer. Thayer's second novel deals with the transitions women often must make today by tracing how a middle-aged mother molds a useful new life after the breakup of her marriage and examining the impact of her transformation on her two grown daughters.
* THE TESTAMENT, by Elie Wiesel. Translated from the French by Marion Wiesel. New York: Summit Books $13.95. Lacing time together in such a way that continuity is not important, this novel hauntingly recounts the life of the Jewish-born Russian poet Paltiel Kossover. It describes his journey from devout communism in his youth to devout Judaism - and imprisonment by Stalin's minions - in his maturity. A remarkable book, in which Wiesel offers a fervent and eloquent account of the moral journeys endemic to our times. THE ECONOMY/INVESTMENT
* EVERYONE'S MONEY BOOK, by Jane Bryant Quinn. New York: Dell Publishing Co. authoritative guide on a broad range of topics from buying a used car or vacation home to estate planning, credit rights, and tips on insurance and long-term investments.
* WEALTH AND POVERTY, by George Gilder. New York: Basic Books. $16.95. At once a tour de force of conservative economics, a handbook for supply-siders, and the most comprehensive statement available on the philosophical basis for Reaganomics. Liberal readers will find their views challenged by it.
* BEIJING STREET VOICES: The Poetry and Politics of China's Democracy Movement, by David S. G. Goodman. Boston, Mass./Salem, N.H.: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd. $20. Goodman, in Beijing (Peking) for the 1978-79 academic year, offers a history of China's short-lived Democracy Movement and translates the poetry from ''Democracy Wall'' into English for the first time.
* EARLY AUDEN, by Edward Mendelson. New York: The Viking Press. $20. To say that this significant study of the great poet's work illuminates the obscurities and intentions in Auden's poems is an understatement. Tracing the early work (through 1939), Mendelson largely succeeds in unlocking the poet's mind, giving us close readings of the poems themselves. HUMOR
* THE LAST LAUGH, by S. J. Perelman. New York: Simon & Schuster. $12.95. This posthumous volume includes 15 pieces as consistently excellent, intriguing, and cheerful as any Perelman has done. It is filled with both literal and fanciful reminiscence, youthful and middle-aged hope, reasonable and foolish love, and comeuppances galore.
* SOCIAL STUDIES, by Fran Lebowitz. New York: Random House. $9.95. A professional New Yorker, Lebowitz considers America a foreign country, and a hardship post to boot. Not to be confused with a junior high textbook, her book has at its heart ordinary speech - phrases snipped from regular context and then framed with sarcasm. For those who enjoy New York chauvinism, the book is a delight. FOR CHILDREN
* BABAR'S ANNIVERSARY ALBUM, written and illustrated by Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff. Introduction by Maurice Sendak. New York: Random House. $12.95. The de Brunhoffs' stories have struck responsive chords across several generations, possibly because their ''wisdom'' confronts, rather than dodges, the possibility of upheaval in life, balancing it with delightful illustrations of the lovable elephant, Babar, and his extended family. This 50th anniversary volume includes three books by the elder de Brunhoff, Jean, and three by son Laurent, prefaced with the fascinating Sendak Introduction.
* THE CHRONICLES OF PANTOUFLIA, by Andrew Lang. Illustrations by Jeanne Titherington. Boston: David R. Godine. $10.95. Adventures with a moral from a mythical kingdom somewhere near the Danube, in which Lang, the great 19 th-century fairy tale expert, displays an erudite knowledge of folklore, myth, and history, and his delightful dry humor. That moral? Successful living requires a balance of diligence, pragmatic skills, learning, the enriching joy of fantasy, and a cultivated imagination. Jeanne Titherington's mystical black and white illustrations beautifully capture the tenor of the text.
* LET THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN, by Mildred Taylor. New York: The Dial Press. $ 10.95. A dramatic sequel to the 1977 Newbery Medal winner, ''Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,'' this book focuses on a young black girl growing up in the South during the '30s to demonstrate the transcendent power of strong family love and to give a chilling lesson on racism. Marketed for young adults, it will touch readers of any age.
* OUTSIDE OVER THERE, by Maurice Sendak. New York: Harper & Row. $12.95. The main character is nine-year-old Ida, who takes care of her baby sister while their mother is lost in a reverie of her husband, a sailor away at sea. But this is a picture book that breaks with convention and literal-minded expectations. Words and illustrations are meant to do more than tell a story; Sendak attempts something approximating musical composition, setting an inner experience to music. His hauntingly beautiful watercolors reveal concerns that run deeper than the narrative.
* WONDERS: Writings and Drawings for the Child in Us All, edited by Jonathan Cott and Mary Gimbel. New York: Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books. $17.95. A pioneering experiment, predictably uneven in quality, but full of wonderful surprises. Established writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Isaac Asimov, and Nikki Giovanni, as well as newcomers contributed stories, poems, fantasies, fables, and pictures they ''might like to tell a child (of any age)'' or ''that ultimately appeal to the child in them.''