Books that sound as good as they look. Poems to read aloud

BLENDING rhythms and sounds, colors and forms, four picture books of poems designed to be read aloud sound as good as they look. For younger elementary school children, Up and Down on the Merry-Go-Round, by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, illustrated by Ted Rand (Henry Holt, New York, $12.95, 32 pp., ages 5 to 8), recreates the pleasures of blurred sound and sights from many-directioned motion. The poets speak through the fragmentary thoughts of one small girl caught in the whirl.

Ted Rand's fluid brush, dripping rich color, documents the shapes and tones of an almost lost art form from the Victorian era. He swirls the upbeat, wild-maned horses and all the other animals from the imaginary zoo, streaking the air with colors.

Anna's Summer Songs, poems by Mary Q. Steele, illustrated by Lena Anderson (Greenwillow, New York, $11.95, 32 pp., ages 4 and up), aims to help the same audience become budding naturalists. Lena Anderson's dry-brushed watercolors depict cheery Anna and the fruits and flowers in the idyllic, rural thought-world of a Swedish ``flower child.''

Steele's love of the Swedish edition of these pictures inspired her poems. Through Anna, she muses on the ways each fruit or flower (enlarged around the words) colors a world that is full of days that are delicious as a strawberry-crowned picnic cake. Her best poems match this life with tidy little lines and clear strong rhymes.

The surprise of this group may be The Green Lion of Zion Street, by Julia Fields, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (McElderry Books, New York, $13.95, 32 pp., ages 5 to 9). Fields' black English works, expressing the perceptions of city children waiting at a school bus stop. Her crisp, urban similes explain that the kids wait for the delayed bus in ``weather ten times colder than a roller-skate.''

Jerry Pinkney's elegant line drawings, washed over with subtle color, describe the children in their marvelous urban architectural scene. Careful details of emotion and posture, clothes and books, develop with the story. As the tension mounts, the feared lion appears, first as if it's in their thoughts, and then on its real-life pedestal, in all its mossed-over stoniness.

Fields's central, contemporary concept startles with its force. After all, demographic changes in cities may well have made one culture's monuments meaningless and fearful to another. These kids analyze the unknown lion like Old Testament poets demystifying an unfamiliar idol. The lion, they say, can't act: ``It got feet which cannot cross the street. It got lips that do not make sips. It got a mouth hard in stone. It cannot eat meat or chew a bone.''

Fields stretches her readers with perfectly precise and elaborate adjectives that give black English some of its flair: ``Its dome of a head supercilious in the air.... That full imperious stare, that full disdainful head of imperturbable hair.''

Finally we turn to the mighty desert of the American Southwest. The timeless simplicity and primordial quality of Mojave, by Diane Siebert, illustrated by Wendell Minor (Crowell, New York, $13.95, 32 pp.), speak to all ages.

Diane Siebert lets the desert tell its story. The land embraces with love and joy the multitudes of plants and insects, great and tiny creatures, that inhabit the plains and mountains. Seasonal change, millennial change, human and natural history, mark its contours and transform its face. Regular rhythms and clever rhymes propel us through space and the vagaries of time.

Wendell Minor's artistic vision at times parallels that of Georgia O'Keeffe. He isolates stark rock and mountain forms before infinitely modulated, colored skies. Bighorns, tortoises, jacks he enlarges, sculptures, and textures in the strange desert light.

Each of these titles delivers that winged feeling that only a beautifully orchestrated book of illustrated poems can bring. No wonder so many readers never outgrow a taste for sharing this liberating part of childhood.

Margaret D'Evelyn is a free-lance reviewer.

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