Anthology may only whet kids' appetites

The World Treasury of Children's Literature, Volume II, selected and with a commentary by Clifton Fadiman. Illustrated by Leslie Morrill. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 608 pp. $29.95. Anthologies always have a certain appeal. Reading them is a bit like going to a tag sale; it's fun to browse, and you secretly hope that you are going to find some hitherto undiscovered gem.

Book 3 of Clifton Fadiman's ``The World Treasury of Children's Literature,'' although it neither offers much that is unusual nor redeems reputations of forgotten children's masterpieces, does provide ample opportunity for browsing in a collection of literature aimed, according to Mr. Fadiman, at children ``from ages nine through 13 or 14, and on up.'' The first two books in this series, published last year, offered readings for children aged 4 to 9.

But for whom, really, is this third book intended? If one wants a survey of world literature for older children, Fadiman's volume only goes part way. There are selections representative of 24 countries, but most of the readings are by standard English-speaking writers such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, P. L. Travers, James Thurber, C. S. Lewis, Louisa May Alcott, E. B. White, Lewis Carroll, and M. E. Kerr. Both standard children's pieces and contemporary 20th-century selections are included, and there is a fair sampling of both prose and poetry.

Despite an attempt at completeness, however, the anthology is not fully successful.

First, there are too many selections from longer works. Although readers can get a taste of some writers from these excerpts, few readers -- child or adult -- will feel satisfied with the small samplings from ``Mary Poppins,'' ``Charlotte's Web,'' or from any of a host of longer works represented by only a few pages. Such brief readings may whet the appetite of young readers (Fadiman often encourages his audience to get the whole book), but who can make a meal from a sampling of appetizers?

Other than an attempt to arrange things ``roughly in order of difficulty,'' the book has a disconcertingly lackadaiscal structure. Although the random organization seems to be an attempt to encourage browsing, the peculiar hodgepodge is more annoying than encouraging. The reader, discovering Jack Prelutsky's ``Toucans Two'' with its hilarious alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes, will have no idea where to look for other poems that delight so much in sound and rhyme. There is no reason why

a reader could not browse, as Mr. Fadiman intends, in an organized library rather than a disorganized one.

Where present, the critical commentary is helpful. Fadiman's simple, clear comments -- those, say, on Philippa Pearce's ``Tom's Midnight Garden'' -- are refreshingly perceptive. But many of the selections are without any comment. Why provide over a page of biographical material on Louisa May Alcott, a well-known writer, and not a word on Alf Proysen?

Strangely, the most valuable part of this anthology is the last 25 pages, ``For Grown-ups Only.'' Here Fadiman presents succinct, intelligent observations on children's literature. His comments on the ``hidden child'' that remains tucked away in most adults (and certainly in all great writers of children's literature) will be helpful to many parents who wish not only to read literature to their children but also to enjoy it with them. And Fadiman's comments on the validity of c hildren's literature as a genre will remind many that, far from being an inferior field of study, children's literature is a legitimate academic discipline.

Book 3 of ``The World Treasury of Children's Literature,'' then, is an adequate anthology. There is an abundance of selections, with most major writers represented, and the readings cover the field of children's literature.

But there are better ways to meet the authors included in this oversized, overpriced book. The judicious parent can surely give a child great experiences by providing the complete novels of the writers who receive only a few pages here. A careful combination of books from the local library with some complete, inexpensive paperback editions from a bookstore will be far more rewarding than these tiny, random selections.

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