Retelling classic stories for children - and adults. New versions of tested tales

OVER the past decade, reprints of classic children's books have become an increasingly larger part of most publishers' new releases each year. The practice, of course, makes economic sense. In most cases, the work is in the public domain, and publishers do not have to pay a royalty to both an author and an illustrator. The economics would seem to make sense from the consumer's point of view as well: With the price of new hard-cover books so high, most parents want to minimize their risks before making an investment, and choosing a classic can eliminate much of this guesswork.

But price isn't always - or shouldn't be - the bottom line. Nor can every new edition of a classic necessarily replace the original, which one can usually find in an inexpensive paperback edition.

Aesop's Fables is surely the oldest and perhaps the most illustrated of all this year's revivals of classics. This new collection of nine fables, illustrated by Heidi Holder (Viking, New York, $12.95, 25 pp., ages 5 and up), includes such familiar ones as ``The Country Mouse and the City Mouse'' and ``The Hare and the Tortoise,'' along with lesser-known but no less striking gems of storytelling like ``The Dove and the Snake'' and ``The Stag and the Hounds.''

The quiet earth tones and elaborate decorative borders of Holder's pictures are very nice, indeed. They have an English country feeling to them, right down to their castles and manor houses on distant hillsides, their eye for natural detail (one setting comes directly from a Kate Greenaway garden), and their animals dressed in Edwardian finery.

But the illustrations are all wrong for the stories, and the book as a whole lacks an energy that is integral to the character of the fables. After all, these compressed, tough-minded tales are about the hard knocks of life and the lessons learned. ``Look for use, before ornament,'' one of the fables cautions, offering a moral that should have been more closely heeded in the conception of this book.

Naomi Lewis's retelling of Stories from the Arabian Nights (Holt, New York, $19.95, 223 pp., ages 10 and up) does not sacrifice the powerful, exotic allure of this famous collection of Eastern fairy tales by subordinating them to Anton Pieck's pictures. In fact, one senses that Lewis has made every effort to preserve the immediate, oral quality of these tales as they, no doubt, were told for centuries by a masterly storyteller before emerging in the written forms we have inherited from the 18th century.

Anton Pieck's stylized illustrations and chapter devices are reminiscent of such late Victorian artists as Arthur Rackham, and Pieck offers occasional pictures, not a gallery show that overwhelms the stories and distracts from one's enjoyment or imaginative re-creation of the tales. ``Sinbad the Sailor,'' ``Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,'' ``Ala Al-Din [Aladdin] and the Wonderful Lamp,'' and a handful of other well-known tales are here, along with two dozen far less familiar stories.

Lewis also keeps the traditional framing device of ``One Thousand and One Nights,'' the story of Shahrazad, the virgin who is married to the misogynist King Shahryar and must weave this narrative tapestry to save her life.

As with so many fairy tales, it is strange that these have become stories almost exclusively for children, for in many of the tales a sexual vitality is present just beneath the surface of the stories. But, as Bruno Bettelheim and other commentators on the fairy tale have pointed out, this is part of the honesty and the appeal of the tales - they are meant to speak to adults as well as children, and Naomi Lewis's retellings do - in a strong and clever voice.

The story of the Dutch boy who saves his town from flooding by holding his finger in the dike was invented by Mary Mapes Dodge as an episode for her 1865 novel, ``Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates.'' Over the years the story has taken on the aura of heroic legend, a mythic parable of self-sacrifice. In The Boy Who Held Back the Sea (Dial, New York, $15, unpaged, ages 5 to 8), a new recasting of the story by Lenny Hort, the boy, Jan, is a kind of Tom Sawyer of the Netherlands, who happens upon the leaking sea wall while playing hooky from church one Sunday. The townspeople don't believe his report about the leak, and so he spends a stormy night holding back the waters with his own numbed hand, until the real danger is discovered in the morning and the town comes to the exhausted boy's rescue.

Thomas Locker's full-page paintings are a fascinating mixture of smooth elegance and angular primitivism, done in a style meant to evoke the paintings of Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other Dutch masters. But Locker does not capture action especially well, and his people tend to be tiny forms against vast landscapes and expanses of sky, which makes it difficult for his paintings to register the human drama of this story. In the end, though, this problem of scale on some pages helps the book to create a convincing world in which one small child bravely contends with - and defeats! - the awful forces of nature.

Since some of the copyright restrictions on Rudyard Kipling's ``Just So Stories'' have elapsed, there have been a number of new editions of this classic work of verbal fantasy. Even Jack Nicholson has recorded a version of the Kipling story ``The Elephant's Child,'' with the brilliant auditory illustrations of singer Bobby McFerrin.

Kipling provided his own black-and-white drawings to accompany these 12 stories that he created for his own children, and they are still the best, because they interfere the least with the bursting energy of the tales themselves. In fact, they add graphic touches of rough and - to use one of Kipling's words - ``nubbly'' humor to the stories.

Interesting as they can be, many of Safaya Salter's illustrations for Just So Stories (Holt, New York, $15.95, 96 pp., ages 5 and up) are more or less adaptations of Kipling originals. Ultimately, like the cat in the famous Kipling story that explains the origins of the cat's stubborn independence, these stories also ``walk by themselves.'' They don't need visual embellishment or amplification or illustration; Kipling's verbal genius has already given these creations (and the reader) the feet or fins or wings to join ``the play of the Very Beginning'' of the imagination.

Most of us who remember Sergei Prokofiev's ``Peter and the Wolf'' as a story written to be read with an orchestra will be disappointed in the contemporary retelling by Selina Hastings with illustrations by Reg Cartwright, Peter and the Wolf (Henry Holt, New York, $12.95, ages 5 to 8). Many children have their first introduction to the sounds of the orchestra from this work. But Hastings and Cartwright's book flattens Prokofiev's striking, multidimensional experience; a book alone cannot evoke the same tension or the dynamic textures of the original. It is like reading the libretto of, say, ``The Magic Flute'' without listening to the music.

Some aesthetic experiences do not succeed when they are translated into other media, and this is one. The rich resonances of ``Peter and the Wolf'' are meant to be heard, not read, and for that, one has to turn to a different kind of classic - one of the several fine recordings that pass along, in the fullest sense, the sounds of this story.

John Cech teaches children's literature in the English Department of the University of Florida in Gainesville.

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