Getting Pooh and Babar Together Is Hard Work

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE 20TH CENTURY CHILDREN'S BOOK TREASURY

Edited by Janet Schulman

Knopf

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

306 pp., $40

For the little ones, "The 20th Century Children's Book Treasury" is intended as a voyage of discovery. But for their parents, Random House's new anthology is more likely to be a sort of class reunion of the imagination.

A multitude of well-loved and warmly familiar faces leap from past to present as one flips through the pages of this book. The tall black figure of Miss Clavel and her little troupe of French school girls in "Madeline" (1939), the warm and fuzzy rabbits of "Good Night Moon" (1947), the adventurous mallard family of "Make Way for Ducklings" (1941), and the peace-loving bull in "The Story of Ferdinand" (1936), all make their appearances.

But there are newer faces to meet and greet as well. Papa-Daddy and Elder Abbajon spin tales while fishing on the bayou in "A Million Fish More or Less" (1992), "The Tub People" are rescued from the bathtub (1989), and everyone runs away from "The Stinky Cheese Man" (1992).

That's the whole idea behind what Random House is promoting as its once-in-a-century compendium of children's books.

"I'm not trying to say that this is a definitive list of the best 44 children's books published in the 20th century," says Janet Schulman, the book's editor. Instead she sees it as "a kind of overview of the century."

Her inclusion of some less familiar titles was deliberate, Ms. Schulman says. "I hope it will make parents go to a bookstore and start browsing," she says. "I want to tell them, 'Don't stick always just to the tried-and-true classics.' "

For Schulman, who has worked with children's books for more than 40 years, the anthology is a labor of love. She saw the approach of the millennium as a rare opportunity to work on such a project. In choosing entries she was guided in part simply by her own enthusiasm. "So many titles just leapt to mind."

Normally, she points out, no publisher could afford to put such a book together, given the royalty payments involved in working with contemporary literature. The expense of gathering together more recent works explains why "most anthologies you see for children are largely fairy tales" or works from past centuries.

But when presented with the chance to be included in an unusually ambitious project that would span the century, Schulman says most publishers were eager to be part and quick to work out affordable arrangements. "No publisher could have done this without the cooperation of other publishers."

The collection includes almost exclusively works by American authors - with just a sprinkling of British - and attempts to appeal to children of various ages. Each story is marked with a colored book logo, indicating special appeal for toddlers, preschoolers, or children older than 5.

Given her long tenure in the business, Schulman says it was an interesting task to mix the old with the new. Today's writers, she points out, "have fewer boundaries and can do more." She recalls Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" as a turning point in children's books. With the success of that richly imaginative work, which plays on fears of the dark and the unknown, it suddenly became acceptable to address "the inner child, the fear, and some of the negative things that had been taboo before."

But, she says, "That doesn't mean today's writers are more imaginative." Rather, she regrets a current trend toward valuing "painterly illustrations that appeal to adults" over imaginative stories. "Forty or 50 years ago, the illustrations worked closely in tune with and were often done by the same person who wrote the story," says Schulman.

"A lot of the older books allowed for more imagination on the child's part," agrees Beth Puffer, manager and buyer for New York's Bank Street Bookstore. "More comes from the pictures today."

The mixture of certain truly evocative classics with some newer titles is one of the appealing aspects of an anthology like the "Book Treasury," says Ms. Puffer. In addition, the combination of titles from so many different publishing houses makes the book unique. "It makes a great standard beginning library."

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