The difference between children's poetry and good poems for children is crucial. Children's poetry is liable to play into adult notions of what children should like to read; it is likely to be contrived and sentimental. A good poem for children, on the other hand, has all the qualities we associate with art - vivid language, unusual or striking perceptions, and faith in the intelligence of the audience. Three new books all include good poems for children. Though Ride a Purple Pelican, with rhymes by Jack Prelutsky and pictures by Garth Williams (Greenwillow Books, $13, ages 3 and up), is described in its Library of Congress catalog blurb as ``nonsense verse,'' it is far from meaningless. The sheer brilliance of Prelutsky's wordplay is delicious for adults and children alike: My young son Nathaniel fell into a fit of giggles as I recited ``Rumpitty Tumpitty Rumpitty Tum, Buntington Bunny is beating the drum.'' It's wonderful to show children how the sounds of words can affect their feelings; and because the relation between words and feelings is a cornerstone of rhetoric, these so-called nonsense verses can be good teachers. Most of all, though, they're fun. My favorite is this one: Johnny had a black horse, Jenny had a gray and west from Colorado they rode one summer day.
They rode to California to see the giant trees, then galloped to the rocky coast to feel the ocean breeze.
Fun? Sure. But nonsense? Not exactly. This little poem contains sweeping vistas and a whiff of adventure that ought to widen young minds. Garth Williams, who is justly celebrated for his illustrations in ``Charlotte's Web'' and ``Stuart Little,'' offers slightly peculiar work here: Some of the pictures slide from thrilling fantasy into an odd, vaguely grim surrealism. But overall, this book is a great success.
Eve Merriam's Fresh Paint, with woodcuts by David Frampton (Macmillan, $11.95, ages 5 and up), also reveals a thrilling keenness of diction and observation. Her poem ``A New Pencil'' includes a dazzling description of the author's immigrant grandmother, who saved everything because ``you never know.'' In a subtle twist, this description actually becomes a justification for writing. Writing can help the world see itself; and this kind of sight, as grandma suggests, helps hold the world together.
One poem with an obvious moral - ``Notice to Myself,'' warning against procrastination - ruins its fine word play with a commonplace conclusion. Nevertheless, the weak poems here are few; and Frampton's handsomely primitive woodcuts keep the book close to the world of children's art.
The most uneven of these books is small poems again, by Valerie Worth, with pictures by Natalie Babbitt (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $8.95, ages 5 and up). Too often, one finds here a self-conscious extravagance of language and a sentimentality that bypasses young readers and grates on adults. In ``jacks,'' for example (the book abandons capital letters in its titles), Worth writes about the way jacks ``nest together in the hand'' and the way they land ``in a loose starry cluster'': Seems luxury Enough, Without the Further bliss Of their Slender Iridescent Luster.
``Bliss'' and ``iridescent'' may work in the parlor or the duckpond, but as words for jacks they arouse suspicion. Yet, Worth's book also includes some distinguished writing. Her poem ``fleas'' offers a hilarious and vivid picture of a flea's life on a dog's back; the language is deft and clever. In ``tiger,'' she provides a darkly evocative portrait of that fine beast, while ``heron'' is marred only by a sentimental twist in the next-to-last line.
Worth's best poems leave space for children's minds to play, to wonder, to explore, to question - and so to arrive at their own lessons and morals, which are always the strongest ones. The book includes simple but beautiful illustrations; the frontispiece gracefully evokes the spirit of Robert McCloskey's ``One Morning in Maine.''