ANIMALS, witches, giants, even umbrellas: The stuff of picture books is rich and varied indeed. Award-winning illustrator Jan Brett takes for her newest canvas prehistoric time. In The First Dog (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, $13.95, 32 pp., ages 4 to 8), she imagines what might have led to the age-old bond between man and canine.
Kip, a cave boy, is on his way home. Three times he withholds his succulent snack of rhino ribs from the wolf that has padded along behind; three times the wolf warns of approaching danger. Finally, boy and wolf make a pact: One will share his food, the other will accompany and protect.
Brett's strength is as an artist rather than a storyteller. Her plot is deliberate and slight, and at times seems chiefly a frame in which to hang the illustrations.
The latter, however, are unquestionably spectacular. Towering glaciers, rocky outcroppings, and expansive green plains compose a breathtaking landscape. The creatures that inhabit it are rendered richly and precisely, so that their power and magnificence shine through. And, as in her previous books, Brett's use of decorative borders provides both visual splendor and a wealth of supplementary detail.
Bring Back the Deer (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, $13.95, 32 pp., ages 4 to 8) also explores the relationship between man and animal. A native American boy sets out one winter's night on a hunt that becomes a spiritual quest. By honoring the wisdom and traditions of his elders, the boy learns what it is to know the deer and become one with him - a process that involves drawing knowledge and strength from deep within.
Jeffrey Prusski's telling is marked by quiet lyricism. Frequent textual repetitions and near-echoes lend it an incantatory, ritualistic quality that nicely mirrors the story's themes. Neil Waldman's pastel watercolors combine lifelike and abstract images to create a dreamy, mystical mood. As in the text, patterns and echoes are used to good effect: In one stunning spread, the deer's antlers frame a stand of trees and also seem part of them. This gentle yet powerful book speaks to our search for a place within the natural world and affirms a community among all living things.
Gail Haley has also drawn on traditional lore, although to very different ends. Her Jack and the Fire Dragon (Crown, New York, $14.95, 40 pp., ages 5 to 9) is a tale of fantasy and adventure rooted in contemporary Appalachian storytelling and in centuries-old sources including Celtic ballads and Arthurian legend. Readers familiar with the intrepid hero who scaled the beanstalk will relish seeing Jack pitted against another outsize adversary. Here, Jack and his brothers' homesteading efforts are disrupted by old Fire Dragaman, who inhabits an underground cavern. To put an end to the trouble, Jack descends into the lair, where he must call on all the ingenuity he can muster - and a touch of magic, too!
Caldecott medalist Haley's vibrant linocuts capture both the flavor of Appalachia and the fearsome majesty of the shape-changing giant and his subterranean castle. Peppered with dialect and folksy expressions, her text is as vigorous and vivid as her art.
The troublemaker in The Boy With Two Shadows (J.B. Lippincott, New York, $12.95, 28 pp., ages 4 to 8) is a witch - or, to be precise, a witch's shadow. Entrusted to a careful boy while the witch herself is on vacation, the shadow wreaks havoc in the fruit store, taunts the boy's dog and its shadow, and bullies the boy's own shadow unmercifully until the witch returns.
A whimsical premise, funny details, and skillful deadpan delivery by author Margaret Mahy combine to form a lighthearted, appealing story. Its humor finds expression in Jenny Williams's illustrations as well. Watercolors with a generally soft, friendly feel, they contain many slyly funny asides in their depictions of pranks and mischief not pointed to in the text.
Antics from a similarly improbable quarter form the basis of The Enchanted Umbrella (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 13.95, 32 pp., ages 4 to 8), a witty story that Odette Meyers has adapted from a French folk tale. In it, Patou overcomes adversity and makes his fortune with the help of a magical, flying, and apparently sentient umbrella bequeathed him by an old umbrella-maker he loved.
This is a wonderfully absurd, tongue-in-cheek tale of villainy punished and goodness rewarded. Patou's umbrella lofts him past such delightfully incongruous perils as a tiger in the French countryside; and it leads him not merely to safety but to a land whose people have never seen umbrellas and thus presume - and pronounce - him king. The humor is ably extended in Caldecott medalist Margot Zemach's colorful, droll illustrations.
Amy Meeker is a free-lance writer and editor based in Boston.