PAULA Fox has a voice as dark and rich as Barbados molasses. Her stories for children are equally resonant - often dealing with complex issues such as alcoholism, the tyranny of slavery, and the wages of hatred and envy. At the recent Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children's Literature, Ms. Fox, whose novel The Village by the Sea was awarded top honor in the fiction category, spoke about her uncompromising choices in subject matter.
``I have a very powerful sense that if you don't acknowledge the darkness, you really can't have a great spoonful of the light, either,'' she says. ``I write about what I have to write about, or what engages me, or what I think about. One is shaped in a certain way - just the way your thumb print is, the way your eyelashes grow, [so] your nature has its stamp and its thumb print and eyelashes, and I write that way.''
Founded in 1967, the prestigious Boston Globe-Horn Book awards are presented annually to writers and illustrators in three categories: fiction, picture books, and non-fiction.
Fox's ``The Village by the Sea'' is the story of 10-year-old Emma, who is sent to stay with relatives on Long Island while her father has heart surgery. She is doubly burdened by her concern for her father and by the fact that she's the target of a stream of barbed remarks from her Aunt Bea - a woman who seems bent on exacting payment from those around her for her own disappointments in life.
Emma escapes to the beach, and together with Bertie - the girl next door - builds a village on the sand out of objects washed up by the sea. The tiny structures are as fragile as Emma's relations with her aunt, however, and when Bea destroys the village, Emma feels justified in hating her.
It isn't until she returns home that Emma finds an entry in her diary - an entry made by Bea in which she describes herself as ``a sad bad old woman.'' It's not an apology, exactly, but it's enough to dissolve the lump of hatred Emma feels and to start the healing process.
``The Village by the Sea'' is an exquisitely balanced story, and as lush with imagery as Fox's other distinguished books.
Two books won honors in the fiction category. Eva, by Peter Dickinson, is a bold, futuristic tale of a young girl who, after a tragic car accident, has her memory transferred to the body of a chimpanzee. Gideon Ahoy!, by William Mayne, is a moving story of the precarious balance achieved by a family in caring for Gideon, a deaf and brain-damaged teenage boy, and what happens when that balance is threatened.
A good picture book, says author-illustrator Rosemary Wells, ``is written to be read aloud 500 times by an intelligent adult. No matter how lush and impressive the art is, if the story is overlong or boring, it will adorn a shelf.'' Pointing to the ranks of picture books that have stood the test of time, she says that the artwork is often tremendously dated. ``But it's the cadences of the words and the soul of the writer that remains, like a Mozart melody.''
The sweet strains of Ms. Wells's own winning picture book, Shy Charles, are sure to linger. The hero is a reticent chap, the only offspring of a longsuffering mouse couple. Fed up with their bashful son, Charles's parents sign him up for ballet and football to draw him out. The results are disappointing. But when the babysitter falls down the stairs, Charles comes through like a trooper.
Wells's deliciously spare, rhyming text is witty and touching. Her humorous drawings (the image of chubby Charles suited up in tights for his first ballet class is alone worth the price of admission) will amuse adults as well as children, who are sure to ask for this story again and again.
Runner-up Barbara Cooney calls her book Island Boy, ``a song to Maine and to the life of simplicity and decency and love.'' ``She confesses that she's in love with Matthais Tibbetts, the central character of the tale.
It's not hard to believe, though. Two-time Caldecott medalist Cooney has the rare ability to immerse herself in time and place and character, and communicate her vision to readers through a flawless marriage of images and words. ``Island Boy'' chronicles the life of a hard-working Maine native, and in so doing illuminates and preserves a way of life that has all but disappeared.
The other honored book was Julie Vivas's The Nativity, an audacious version of the beloved biblical story. Vivas, a young Australian artist, has created a cast of down-to-earth characters as unconventional as they are controversial - the angel Gabriel, for example, decked in workboots, informs Mary of the impending event over a bowl of soup at the kitchen table. But there's no denying the sense of joy and vibrancy in her vision.
David Macaulay's latest book, the The Way Things Work (which Mr. Macaulay drily refers to as ``the heaviest picture book of 1988''), is an ambitious and brilliantly realized compendium of the functions and origins of some 400 machines - from such things as zippers and staplers to radar, microchips, and nuclear fusion.
Like his other books - among them Cathedral, Castle, and Pyramid - the artist's most recent work is remarkable for its clarity, originality, and universal appeal. Macaulay, who studied architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, says that he ``learned to see things from the inside out. I learned that ... there is usually a logical connection between what something does and how it looks, and that understanding the way something looks can often help us understand what it does.'' His book is both educational and entertaining.
Honor books were Laurence Yep's The Rainbow People, a dazzling selection of traditional, 1930s Chinese-American folktales, and first-time author Philip M. Isaacson's Round Buildings, Square Buildings, and Buildings That Wiggle Like a Fish. Mr. Isaacson sheepisly admits that if it hadn't been for his wife's badgering, his book would still be ``in a cardboard box under a queen-size bed at Two Benson Street in Lewiston, Maine.'' That would have been a shame. His paean to the world's architectural gems, brimming with full-color photographs of structures ranging from fishermen's shacks on an island in Maine to the Taj Mahal, is another splendid information book.