Meet the Three Kings, a gift elephant, a boy poet

HERE is a varied sextet of hard-cover books -- all strikingly illustrated and set in unfamiliar locales. Amahl and the Night Visitors, by Gian Carlo Menotti and illustrated by Michele Lemieux (William Morrow, New York, $15; 64 pp.; all ages), is the favorite Christmas opera presented as a book. When I read this to my eight-year-old friend Alfred, he was much taken by the handsome and profuse illustrations in rich Rembrandtian tones. Although the figures are slightly stylized, they are very expressive and lively. A sense of spaciousness is just right for a night glowing with such wonder. Reading the pleasantly astringent text about a crippled boy who gets to bring his gift and accompany the Three Kings in their search for the Child is a delightful experience. Another friend, 11-year-old Amy, was immediately interested in reading the book when she heard it was a Christmas story. Although there is no reference to the opera, it would surely deepen the appreciation of it for any child or adult.

Another book about a gift, this time a wedding present, is Suleiman the Elephant, by Margret Rettich, translated from the German by Elizabeth D. Crawford (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, New York, $11.75; 32 pp.; ages 5-6). Yes, the elephant is the gift presented by the King of Portugal to young Prince Maximilian of Austria upon Max's marriage to Princess Maria of Spain. ``Kids will all like this one,'' declared Amy, ``because it's funny and some of it is true and some fake.''

In marvelously crowded drawings full of 16th-century detail in soft colors, the book tells of Prince Max's journey by sea and by land, across Italy, Switzerland, and Austria, with his bride and his huge gift. The text is hilarious as well as historical, and the true history of the unusual event is soberly presented on the last page.

Laine, five years old, couldn't pick her favorite, on the basis of the pictures, between ``Suleiman'' and Girl from the Snow Country, by Masako Hidaka, translated from the Japanese by Amanda Mayer Stinchecum (Kane/Miller, New York, $10.95; 32 pp.; ages 4-9). This is the only one of the six books that is properly a ``picture book,'' as the text is slight and the big double-page watercolor illustrations are absolutely charming.

Baby Darcy (18 months) often reached out to pat colorfully dressed ``Mi-chan,'' while Alfred and Laine examined the ``snow bunnies'' the little girl had made. This book was originally written in Japanese, and no attempt is made to explain the native customs. But none of my young friends seemed to care, since the pictures of Mi-chan and her mommy going to market and making bunnies out of fresh-fallen show are so clear.

Also featuring snow scenes, but in an altogether different mood, is The Painter and the Wild Swans, by Claude Clement, illustrated by Frederic Clement (Dial, New York, $12.95; 32 pp.; ages 5 and up). This unusual book features illustrations that are elegant acrylic paintings. Several in panel form, cleverly showing a man in a boat coming to look like a floating swan as the distance gradually increases, prepare the reader for the final metamorphosis in this story. I found the paintings chilly, but Baby Darcy reached out for the birds. Amy, who read the brief text while holding Darcy on her lap, liked the book because ``it shows that if a man really wants something, he will go after it.''

The man in this case is a Japanese poet/painter who, after seeing some exotic singing wild swans, cannot rest until he experiences their beauty again. The pages are embellished with Japanese writing, which is probably a translation of the text, as a poem by the ``painter'' of the title is given in English and Japanese at the end. Unfortunately, the landscapes that open the book look to me more like photographs I've seen of China than of Japan.

Moving on to Africa, we find Juma and the Magic Jinn, by Joy Anderson, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, New York, $11.75; 40 pp.; ages 6-8). The pictures are very attractive in warm tones, with the boy, Juma, sensitively drawn. I read the children this story about Juma, who would rather write poems and draw pictures than do sums in school. Hoping to escape, he invokes his personal ``jinn,'' who gently teaches him a lesson. The children listened attentively but guessed the outcome. Both Amy and Alfred were interested in the map that was thoughtfully provided in the back to locate the island of Lamu in Kenya. Alfred leaned over to look at each illustration and seemed a little disappointed that there were not more of them.

It was Alfred's turn to read I'm in Charge of Celebrations, by Byrd Baylor, with pictures by Peter Parnall (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, $11.75; 40 pp.; ages 6-8). The free-verse text with its very short lines made it easy for him. The word ``celebrations'' gave him pause, but when he sounded it out, he knew that it was ``like parties.'' Bold, poster-color shapes zoom across double pages in stylized evocations of the Southwestern desert of the United States, where a girl lives and keeps a record of wonderful moments -- like the time she saw a rabbit watching a triple rainbow. This particular event became for her Rainbow Celebration Day, which falls on Aug. 9. A nice idea.

And overall, a lovely collection of titles.

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