A Fred Astaire frog

The Story of the Dancing Frog, written and illustrated by Quentin Blake. New York: Knopf. 32 pp. $9.95. Quentin Blake's new book, ``The Story of the Dancing Frog,'' is about an amazing frog named George who becomes a web-footed Fred Astaire. It's a delightful picture book that has the ability to appeal to both adults and children. Although the story starts on a somber note, the book is far from that. The tale is fun all the way.

In the opening pages we meet Gertrude Godkin, a willowy young woman who quickly marries a handsome naval officer and is almost as quickly widowed when her husband is drowned. In her despair, she wanders along the overgrown bank of the river, contemplating the same fate for herself. But she is suddenly stopped from doing anything rash by something very unusual and totally unexpected: a frog dancing on the lily pads.

The rest, shall we say, is history. Gertrude and the frog quickly become a team, with her managing the act and George leaping, tapping, and pirouetting to the utter joy and astonishment of the crowds. They quickly move from small, seedy music halls (it's the England of the 1920s) to the important stages of Europe -- Paris for the Follies, Spain and flamenco, ``Swan Lake'' in Russia. George even does an avant-garde dance with a ``woman who waved shawls.''

George and Gertrude get invited to society parties and out to dine at chic restaurants where chefs create special dishes expressly for George's palate, like ``worms in butter sauce.'' Through thick and thin, George and Gertrude stay together, friends and companions as they fade out of the spotlight and into retirement in the south of France.

It's an unexpected kind of picture book for younger children; Blake's pen and ink illustrations are alive with wit and feeling, making wonderful jokes and rich visual comments that amplify the wry, crisp text -- as when George appears lounging in a glass on a waiter's tray at a swank reception or dons a top hat to rehearse a number. Blake's water colorings wash the story with mood -- from the gray-blue melancholy English river at the beginning to the terra cotta oranges and sun-bleached yellows of Prove nce at the end. There is, in short, that fine harmony of words and images, that pas de deux between visual and the verbal, that only the best picture books manage to do without stumbling.

``The Story of the Dancing Frog'' is more than a mere nostalgic homage to the '20s and '30s and the glittering mystique of those times. Rather, Blake claims these materials and reshapes them -- with compassion and humor and abundant imagination -- into a modern fairy tale for us all.

John Cech is the editor of ``American Writers for Children, 1900-1960''; he is on the faculty of the English Department at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

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