OF the thousands of children's books published each year, only a handful, like Robert McCloskey's ``Make Way for Ducklings'' [see story on Page 9], become classics. For a book to remain in print for half a century, and more importantly, to be loved by several generations of children, calls for a rare blend of elements: a compelling story grounded in the kind of genuine emotion that transcends time and - in the case of picture books - illustrations that never lose their freshness or appeal.
Perhaps a few titles from this selection of outstanding new books will become classics - but only time will tell.
A talented husband-and-wife team, Don and Audrey Wood (``The Napping House,'' ``King Bidgood's in the Bathtub''), has come up with yet another winner: Piggies (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $13.95, ages 2 to 6). This rollicking bedtime story features a pair of pudgy little hands and two fistfuls of fanciful ``piggies'' - fingers - that cavort across exuberantly illustrated pages until finally, all tuckered out from their merrymaking, they line up, kiss each other good night, and settle down to sleep.
Master illustrator Jan Brett's trademark jewel-like colors and detailed page borders have never been more arresting than in Edward Lear's classic nonsense poem, The Owl and the Pussycat (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $14.95, ages 4 to 8). Set against an exotic Caribbean backdrop, the story of the unlikely couple and their happy voyage unfolds in all the sun-drenched hues of the tropics, bringing renewed vigor to the words.
The parameters defining ``picture books'' are being stretched in intriguing ways these days, as artists experiment with different visual mediums to tell a story. Faith Ringgold, for example, uses quilts. Tar Beach (Crown, $14.95, ages 4 to 8) is based on one of her story quilts (this one is part of the permanent collection in New York's Guggenheim Museum) and tells of eight-year-old Cassie, who retreats with her family to a city rooftop (the ``tar beach'') on a hot summer night. In a move th at echoes an African-American folktale metaphor for wish-fulfillment or escape, Cassie imagines herself flying. Soaring high above the city, she wears the George Washington Bridge ``like a diamond necklace,'' her flight giving wings to her dreams and longings. Ringgold writes with simple eloquence, and her bold, vivid artwork is brilliantly conceived and executed.
Wishes can be dangerous things. When business at Frank and Zelda's pizza parlor plummets, a mysterious stranger grants them a wish. Soon, customers line the streets, demanding pizza morning, noon, and night. Pizza for Breakfast (Morrow Junior Books, $13.95, ages 5 and up), by Maryann Kovalski, serves up a cheerful, modern-day twist on the Grimm brothers' classic fairy tale, ``The Fisherman and His Wife.'' Here, Frank and Zelda discover that fame and fortune aren't everything and, in a highly satisfying conclusion, decide they are more than ready to accept happiness in a humbler form.
For Beginning Readers
Henry is worried about his coming visit to Grandma's house. Will Grandma like Mudge? Will Mudge be allowed to sleep indoors? Who will protect Henry from things that go bump in the night if Mudge sleeps outdoors? In Henry and Mudge and the Bedtime Thumps (Bradbury Press, $11.95, ages 6 to 8), Henry and his dog once again prove to be the perfect vehicle for those just graduating from picture books. Cynthia Rylant's text is lively, humorous, and precisely tuned to the beginning reader, and Su,c ie Stevenson's cartoon-like illustrations provide additional sparkle.
Thomas and his grandfather are back in Go Fish (HarperCollins, $12.95, ages 7 to 11), by Mary Stolz, with black-and-white illustrations by Pat Cummings. Once again, the award-winning collaborators celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary, whether it's a fishing trip, a game of cards, or a boy and his grandfather sharing a folk tale handed down from African ancestors. Readers will find the warmth this close-knit duo exude both refreshing and reassuring, and will come away enriched by the thoughtful me ssage about the continuity of all things.
Shadows (Farrar Straus Giroux, $12.95, ages 7 to 11) finds young Jamie stranded with his aunt and uncle in rural West Virginia while his mother looks for work. His loneliness is eased by his grandfather, from whom he learns to make shadow figures with his hands - a hawk, a bobcat, a dog. In a dramatic conclusion that blurs the line between realism and fantasy, Jamie follows the shadow animals into the night and saves his grandfather's life, healing a rift in the family and facing up to some truths about himself in the process. Dennis Haseley's spare, atmospheric tale is punctuated by Leslie Bowman's haunting black-and-white illustrations.
Young Adult Novels
Just in time for baseball season comes Finding Buck McHenry, by Alfred Slote (HarperCollins, $13.95, ages 8 to 12), a deftly written, fast-paced novel that sports fans and couch potatoes alike will find engaging. Banished to an expansion team, Little League catcher (and avid baseball-card collector) Jason Ross stumbles on a mystery: Is school custodian Mack Henry really baseball great Buck McHenry, star pitcher from the old Negro leagues? Henry's grandson Aaron and a famous TV sportscaster's daughter (b oth of whom have signed on for the new team) join Jason in unraveling the mystery and wind up not only the wiser for their efforts, but also with a most appropriate new coach.
Everything three-time Newbery award-winning writer Gary Paulsen touches these days turns to gold, and The Cookcamp (Orchard Books, $13.95, ages 10 to 12), his new novel, is no exception. Drawing once again on his native Minnesota north woods, Paulsen spins a poignant tale of a young boy sent to live with his Norwegian grandmother, a cook for a remote road crew. Told from the point of view of the five-year-old, the bittersweet story is intensely moving.
The year is 1963, a turning point for 14-year-old Sheryl Williams. An Easter weekend visit from her all-black Brooklyn neighborhood to relatives down South awakens her to the stinging injustices of racism, and she returns home determined to support the brave men and women who are risking their lives to fight discrimination. Freedom Songs (Orchard Books, $14.95, ages 12 and up) is an impressive debut for first-time novelist Yvette Moore, who writes with confidence born of personal experience. Her fluid p rose and spirited dialogue are a delight, and this book should be required reading for those studying the civil-rights movement.
Welwyn Wilton Katz, one of Canada's top writers for children, weaves a lyrical, unusual tale in Whalesinger (Margaret K. McElderry Books, $13.95, ages 12 and up). When a summer scientific expedition on the California coast turns out to be a front for an illegal treasure hunt, Nick, still emotionally raw from a recent family tragedy, and Marty, a below-average student with most unexpected talents (including the ability to understand whale song), team up in a dangerous scheme to expose the coverup. This e xpertly crafted story is part fantasy, part romance, and part suspense - but the heart of it, and the shining thread that ties it all together, is the mysterious, magical presence of the great gray whales.