Books that last for children

ON a visit to the bleak industrial town of Darlington in northern England, children's author Jill Paton Walsh was besieged with ideas for books. The adults she met wanted her to write books about ordinary children living in towns like Darlington, books they were sure their pupils and library borrowers would understand.

But the children of Darlington had other ideas, Miss Walsh recalls.

`` `Have you ever thought of writing a pony book?' one of them asked. And another said, `Couldn't you write a book about witches and magic? I like witches.' A third said, `I liked the bit in your book about the sea. I've never seen the sea. Holidays we always go to our gran's in Ashbourne.' ''

What she learned from that visit, Miss Walsh adds with characteristic tartness, was that ``two . . . children wanted realism, and one wanted fantasy, and none wanted relevance to Darlington.''

It's a marvelous quip of a story, one of the many perceptive insights shared in a new paperback edition of a collection of essays originally published in 1981, Celebrating Children's Books (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 244 pp., $6.95, paper). Editors Betsy Hearn and Marilyn Kaye have gathered provocative thoughts from some of today's best writers for children, as well as from concerned editors, librarians, reviewers, and teachers.

These are people who do what they do out of great respect for youngsters' strong moral sense and their ever-evolving view of reality. And these are people who increasingly deplore the trend toward problem-oriented, so-called ``relevant'' children's books among big publishers.

They've seen all the titles that appear on the juvenile lists, titles that purport to help children and adolescents cope with the challenges of divorce, unemployment, abuse, abandonment, aging, and various physical disabilities. And they no doubt suspect that many publishers are not as interested in helping children cope as they are in cashing in on society's strains.

But ``Celebrating Children's Books'' is not meant to be a collection of grievances. Rather, it's a genuine celebration of the lasting values of good children's literature.

As author Susan Cooper writes in her essay, ``We small people enjoy reading -- need to read -- about big people; at one end of that scale is the newspaper gossip column, at the other the New Testament.''

Somewhere along that scale, too, are what I like to think of as the Books That Last, the remarkable children's books that will be taken down from the shelf over and over again, read and reread behind closed doors and in lofty tree houses.

One new title this fall has a particularly fine blend of essential ingredients. In Flame-Colored Taffeta (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 130 pp., $10.95, ages 12 and up), author Rosemary Sutcliffe draws her readers in with vivid imagination, rich language, and compelling storytelling.

Like many Books That Last, it has an uncomplicated, straightforward plot -- 12-year-old Damaris Crocker and 13-year-old Peter Ballard befriend a mysterious traveler and care for him in their secret forest hideaway.

That's the plot. The story is something else again. Set in the mythical English village of Sormerley Green at the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie's bid for the throne, ``Taffeta'' is chock full of smugglers and sailors, midnight riders, and crosses chalked on stable doors. Genty Small, the wise woman, dispenses potions and sound advice, while Caleb Henty, the horseman, shivers in his stirrups.

In addition to an impressive array of eccentric characters, author Sutcliffe serves up the kind of plum pudding of description and detail that ought to make young readers hunger for more of the same. In the wild countryside, there's the ``wild-duck skein of wind-shaped hawthorns'' and the ``woodwind call of an oystercatcher'' in a sky ``as blue as a dunnock's egg.'' In the nearby woods, we see a vixen whose eyes shine ``unwinking like two green elf lamps in the gloom,'' and come upon a cottage ``dark and humped like a large sleeping hedgehog.''

The only unfortunate note is struck in the last few pages, with an ending that's both too tidy and too abrupt. Still, one hopes that the title of this engaging book won't discourage too many boys, since the questions that are explored here -- Where are we going? and What are our obligations to each other? -- are the stuff of truly exciting literature.

Another new fall title takes these questions a step further as it touches on man's higher moral sense, as well as his purpose in life. Those topics could make for pretty heavy reading, but author Louise Lawrence has a talent for humorous understatement that prevents Moonwind (Harper & Row, 192 pp., $12.50, ages 12 and up) from falling into the abyss of serious self-consciousness that ruins many sci-fi novels.

``It was one thing believing he was more than flesh and blood, that there was another side to him indestructible and immortal, but he was not dying to prove it . . . ,'' Lawrence writes of her leading man, the first Welsh teen-ager on the moon. Gareth Johns has won his trip to the American moon base by writing a far-fetched essay about an imaginary Lunacy Syndrome. During his stay there, he's pursued by a Santa Barbara beach bunny, but eventually loses his heart to a 10,000-year-old astral being. So much for love, American style.

There's a sturdy balance of emotions here, and the author's respect for her reader's intelligence keeps the narrative pace lively and suspenseful. Although some serious questions are brought in, there are enough muttering robotic work units and squawking computers to provide needed comic relief.

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