Children's books alive with vision and verve

The Quilt, by Ann Jonas. New York: Greenwillow Books. Pages unnumbered. $10.25. (Ages 3-6.) ``The Quilt'' would make a good basis for a soulful, beautifully animated film for children. The book is intricately constructed around a new quilt sewn by a young girl's parents and made of multifarious swatches from every fabric that has been worn or slept in over several years.

We find the proud owner pointing to squares of material that invoke intimate memories of earlier childhood. As night falls on the quilt, the girl falls into sleep, her swatch-inspired memories becoming the matrix of new dream experiences.

Her framed elephant picture begins to reflect a transfusion of magical starlight filtering into her room -- the frame becoming a ``moon'' that witnesses the evolution of a dreamscape relief map: The swatches come to life.

The girl's last waking moment (a tender musing over the whereabouts of her stuffed animal) is the starting point of her dream. As the swatches of fabric literally absorb us into highly magnified and detailed life situations, the reader is struck by the tasteful plausibility of these images, which reflect the way past, sleep, and new life are all inscrutably intertwined. Overridingly, however, the book is about newness: The past doesn't simply rewind and play back; it is a carnival or a mood or a natural setting from which new experiences are entered into.

If, indeed, the book conveys this simple affirmation of the nature of past and present, it only does so by virture of an honest capturing of the way life actually happens. Even from a visual standpoint, the way colors and images are extended from swatches to dreamscapes is brilliantly natural, letting the beginning and experienced reader alike easily affirm, ``Yes, that's the way it is.'' It's a book that captures and articulates a simple truth, and makes us feel affectionate toward it. Andrew's Bath, by David McPhail. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 32 pp. $12.95 (Ages 2-6.)

Through a perceptive portrayal of one of the most common of rituals, David McPhail's book gives insight into how one's expectations form patterns of experience. Andrew's baths are stormy affairs. ``More water! My boat won't float.'' Or ``Too deep! I'll drown!'' are his perennially exasperating cries.

Hoping for the best but expecting the worst, the parents decide it's time to allow him complete responsibility for his own bath. With only a precarious and uneasy confidence, they direct their hard-to-please bather upstairs to the tub.

What a difference when he does it himself! He fills the tub to a perfect depth and temperature, makes a yummy bathtime snack, and jumps in. But now the real surprises begin as a most unusual chain of events completely transforms the old nightly ordeal.

What Andrew's parents might have experienced had they as much predilection for newness as they had for being insistently immersed in the practical and mundane, was insight into their child's creative imaginings. Yes, there were what sounded like the usual hollerings -- but as the text and illustrations delightfully show, there was anything but the ``usual'' going on!

Yet instead of entering upon a new horizon with Andrew, the incipiently irritated parents are stuck in an armchair negativity in regard to parenting. This humorous, rompingly insightful book offers a mirror of reckoning. Are we endeavoring to see the joyful possibilities of interaction with our kids, or are we merely conditioned to want that ``R and R'' so as merely to achieve stability in a life that does not reach for possibilities? This heavier moral question is, of course, one to which Andrew is contentedly oblivious. His possibilities have been affirmed and realized by the time he goes to bed! Emma's Dragon Hunt, by Catherine Stock. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books. 32 pp. $10.25 (Ages 3-6.)

``Emma's Dragon Hunt'' tells an enchanting story that fully embraces its readers. At the same time, it conveys a moral message about the timeless love and affection which knows no gender, generation gap, nor cultural insurmountability. Much praise is due on all accounts.

Emma's mother is quite irritated when visiting Grandfather Wong expresses some concern about the possible presence of dragons under the house. This ``dragon'' nonsense just serves to frighten little Emma, in mother's view. Grandfather lovingly responds to Emma's fear of dragons by assuring her that she mustn't be afraid of them because ``Our Chinese Dragons are good dragons.'' What follows is a voyage of hearts, young joining old, as Emma and her Grandfather explore various ancient Chinese myths through a series of natural phenomena. They experience together a heat wave, an earthquake, a thunderstorm, and a solar eclipse. One day, when everything begins to grow dark (the solar eclipse), Grandfather explains that ``The dragon is so angry with the sun for waking him that he is trying to swallow it. But don't worry. The sun is so hot that he'll soon spit it out.''

The way ancient Chinese dragon myths can be celebrated through beautiful storytelling and illustrating is the artistic agenda for this book. The feathery, whiskery, otterlike dragons compel the reader's love for them right away. And as we're drawn into the tender love relation between Emma and her Grandfather, the net effect is what all the best fiction brings forth: a world we most willingly enter and never quite leave behind. If There Were Dreams to Sell, compiled by Barbara Lalicki. Illustrated by Margot Tomes. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books. Pages unnumbered. $12.

``If There Were Dreams to Sell'' is another worthy endeavor. It is an alphabet book of the most pristine order, but not at all in the usual mold. Making use of some of the very best verse in the English language (drawing from such sources as Coleridge, Dickinson, Keats, and others), the author wants the young reader to associate his/her letters with the way they are used in key words to which we are naturally drawn in selected phrases, lines, and stanzas from great literature. The ``L'' page, for example, offers the word ``leaf'' and quotes from Coleridge's ``Christabel'': ``The one red leaf, the last of its clan/ That dances as often as dance it can/ Hanging so light, and hanging so high, on the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.'' The corresponding illustration is a beautifully rendered, naked winter tree, barren of all save the lone red leaf.

The author's desire -- ``to meet some unfamiliar words in a friendly way, and to give them an early taste for the imaginative use of language'' -- is fulfilled through an intelligent selection of rich verse and nicely rendered illustrations.

Alphabet books so often rely on pictures of animals or things that are normally part of a child's life, and thus provide an easy bridge of association from letter to image. The uniqueness of this book is its enhancement of both visual and verbal dimensions. It is both beautiful and substantial. Moreover, it may have broken new ground in the way the seed of literary sense can be planted at the most rudimentary level.

Darian J. Scott is an elementary school teacher.

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