Four stories to catch a toddler's eye

Hi, Butterfly!, written and illustrated by Taro Gomi. New York: William Morrow & Co. Pages unnumbered. $10.25. This is one of the season's most imaginative and brilliantly conceived children's books. The story revolves around a young boy's attempts to net a bright yellow butterfly. His efforts are very cleverly constructed in almost puzzle-like fashion, so that the action of one page is coupled with that of the next, creating a domino effect of ever-heightening drama.

From start to finish the butterfly is cut out of every other page, a device contributing to its ``elusiveness,'' for what at first always seems so catchable inevitably escapes and is transformed into something else. As the boy chases the butterfly through country fields, city streets, construction sites, and even, in the end, into his very own house, he barely escapes one disaster after another.

At one point he prepares to catch what looks like the butterfly near a pile of steel girders in a construction area, but what he actually brings his net down on turns out to be the yellow hard hat of one of the workers!

The illustrations are as engaging as the story. It is author/illustrator's use of the cutout, however, that makes this simple, very visual tale so original. The Runaway Duck, written and illustrated by David Lyon. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books. Unnumbered, $11.75.

Egbert is a beautifully constructed wooden duck painted a creamy frosting white with a bright orange bill. He sits on a bright red stand with yellow wheels, one of which has a plaque with his owner's name. The adventures start when the toy bird's young owner, Sebastian Willowfrost, ties him to his dad's car so he won't roll away. When the boy finally remembers where Egbert is, the treasured duck is doing 60 miles an hour down the highway! He is torn from the car's bumper and is hurled into flight ``like a real duck,'' until he plops down into the nearby ocean. From there he is chased by a shark, lands on an island, and befriends a shipwrecked French artist. When Egbert and the artist are rescued, they are taken back to France, where they become folk heroes and even meet the President of France.

Does he meet his original owner, Sebastian, again? It is worth reading the book to find out.

The story offers many levels of participation. Not only are there incredible escapades, but also poetry, romance, and even an introduction to map reading as Egbert literally bumps into a number of different localities. Each illustration has colors so rich and thickly applied that an almost three-dimensional effect is created.

The joy and companionship this favorite toy shares with various other characters are felt by the readers, too. Both of Egbert's owners -- first Sebastian and then Jacques -- embrace this toy to the degree that they ``pray and write poems'' for him. Their earnest affection will capture a young reader's heart, while at the same time inspire him with visions of friendship and loyalty. Take Me for a Ride, written and illustrated by Michel Gay. New York: William Morrow & Co. Pages unnumbered. $10.95.

In the simplest possible way, and on a level a young child will be able to comprehend, ``Take Me for a Ride'' teaches children to be sensitive and caring in their relations with others.

One summer day, while a toddler named Teddy is at the park with his mother, a bright yellow butterfly lands on his stroller. (No, he won't try to catch this one as in ``Hi, Butterfly!'') Teddy crawls out of his stroller, offers ``How about a ride?'', and proceeds to give him one, warning the butterfly to ``hold on!'' Suddenly a frog asks for a push, then a duck, then a little kitty, then a fox, and a bear.

As he pushes into the park he begins to meet forest animals, all of whom eventually retreat behind the thickets. At first full of toddler energy, Teddy suddenly sits down in total fatigue, wants to know where all his friends have gone, and yells for help. How all these friends band together to reciprocate Teddy's generosity is portrayed in a way that conveys the essential tenderness of a two-year-old. The Bells of London, written and illustrated by Ashley Wolff. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co. 32 pp. $12.95.

Set in Elizabethan London, this book is a richly woven tapestry of centuries-old poetic verse and exquisitely rendered historical detail. Ms. Wolff has imaginatively connected some of these age-old songs, creating a splendid backdrop for her own story of a little girl forced to sell her pet dove. From the town hustle and bustle surrounding St. Giles, to the rich countryside of Shoreditch, the reader feels he is traveling along with the characters and experiencing the sights, smells, and sounds of early England.

The linoleum-block illustrations give a feeling of substantiality and craftsmanship.

Children will undoubtedly memorize some of the many irresistible verses, thus becoming part of the very soil of oral tradition from which these verses sprang. Readers of any age group can recapture this period of history in a most imaginative story of freedom and friendship.

Darian J. Scott is an elementary school teacher.

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