IN THIS MAGAZINE, at least at present, the contributor of the children's books Column is not usually a specialist in the field. However, parenthood and some reviewing experience do seem to he prerequisites for receiving, from time to time, a bulging surprise package of shiny new juvenile publications for review. As I speculatively shuffled through my most recent allotment, it occurred to me that the receipt of such a bundle puts one in a position somewhat analogous to that of the average child, whose picture-books are, more often than not, selected, purchased, and presented by some kindly adult. This may help to account for the often instantaneous, and sometimes intemperate, nature of my reactions to these books. After all, the preliterate id in search of ocular and aural gratification heeds neither publishers' blurbs nor educators' endorsements, and is highly intolerant of both condescension and attempts at moral improvement disguised as fun.
A case in point is Katherine and the Garbage Dump (Second Story, 24 pages, $5.95 paper), by Martha Morris, with illustrations by Yvonne Cathcart, which traces the radicalization of its eponymous tot as a result of an accumulation Of waste material in her yard. To me, this story has all the excitement (but none of the durability) of a discarded drink box, despite the author's attempts to inject some drama by pitting her feisty heroine against a few predictably arrogant and boneheaded adults, and allowing her, briefly, to behave like a veritable Munschkin, yelling "at the top of her lungs" and longing to sink her teeth into an authority figure's accusing finger.
Then there's Precious and Oliver (Greey de Pencier, 32 pages, $14.95 cloth), by Patti Farmer, which fearlessly tackles, in the words of its press blurb, "junk food and couch potatoism." In it, a mouse couple, marital status unknown, finds that the increasing obesity of one of them inhibits effective "snuggling"; the offender is placed on a diet-and-exercise regime, with salutary results. It must be said that Fanner's text is as sprightly as could be expected, given the dispiriting material, and Laurie Stem's multimedia illustrations are quite lively and expressive. Of course books offering moral instruction have been the rule, rather than the exception, in literature intended for children from its beginnings until quite recently; nor would anyone wish to argue in favour of either garbage or ill health. Still, the trendy banality of so many contemporary "issue" books for children seems unlikely to win many converts either to their messages or to the habit of reading itself.
Another venerable tradition in juvenile literature is the practice of adapting artefacts of high adult culture for impressionable young minds, and there are two such efforts in the current crop. The Magic Flute (Porcupine's Quill, 36 pages, $14.95 cloth) is a careful retelling of Mozarts opera by Linda Rogers, a poet and songwriter. Rogers's decision to place her version in the present tense no doubt reflects her love and respect for her source, as well as a desire to convey some of the immediacy of a performance, but it also gives the book something of the aura of a programme note. For a storybook intended to stand on its own, a past-tense, once-upon-a-time approach might have been more effective, and allowed the author to make the narrative more vividly her own. Catherine Marcogliese's softly coloured, intricately designed watercolour illustrations are, so the book jacket tells us, "in the High Renaissance style." Indeed, they quote liberally from Italian painting: the lovers' first meeting is essentially a secular Annunciation (he on bended knee, she turning gently from her fate) and their marriage tableau is firmly based on Raphael's "Marriage of the Virgin," even down to the wizard's costume. Yet for all her historicism, the artist seems ill at ease with the human face and figure, and despite their prettiness the pictures have a blurred, tentative quality.
It's clear that Michael Bedard's Emily (Lester/Key Porter, 40 pages, $18.95 cloth) also grew out of its author's fondness for its inspiration. Narrated by a young girl who happens to be a neighbour of the poet and recluse Emily Dickinson, this story is simply told in calm, melodious language. Bedard wisely limits himself to what little is known of Dickinson's personal life, sometimes drawing on her own words, for instance in the description of her eyes, which she herself wrote were "like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves." Rather, he concentrates on the perceptions of the young neighbour, creating -- with such lines as "the road was full of mud and mirrors where the sky peeked at itself'- a sense of observant wonder that embraces the essential mysteriousness of life. Barbara Cooney's gentle and rather naive illustrations are also well researched (even Emily's sister Lavinia's cat and shawl are drawn from a 19th-century photograph), and reflect the quiet solemnity of the text.
There's mysteriousness -- or, more accurately, mysticism -- aplenty in The Moon and the Oyster (Orca, 32 pages, $17.95 cloth), which recounts an innocent young mollusc's fatal infatuation with the imperious lunar goddess. The oyster's painful but determined creation and expulsion of a pearl tribute to his distant love seem remarkably like childbirth, yet they also bring about his death; meanwhile, up on shore, a devoted daughter (who appears only on the opening and closing pages) awaits her fisherman father's safe return from the sea. Although Donia Blumenfeld Clenman's text is graceful and lucid, and Laszlo Gal's large-scale, dreamy pastel illustrations match its stately progress, I can't help feeling that this sacrificial fable may be too abstract, or too obscure, for children of picturebook age, and that it is likely to elicit a torrent of "whys" that 1, for one, Would be hard put to answer.
Mystifying is one word to describe Sara Nohair (Annick, 56 pages, $12.95 cloth), written and illustrated by Gillian Johnson. Slickly and strikingly designed (by Pol Turgeon) in black, white, and acid green, this arch little tale epitomizes the triumph of style over content. Its premise (it can't really be called a plot), which consists of sending two little girls with silly names and funny hair down a hole in the ground, where they encounter a number of female grotesques with funny names and silly hats, seems to owe a remote debt to Lewis Carroll. This impression is reinforced by Johnson's quirky hut inventive and skilful pen-and-ink drawings, which have faint echoes of Tenniel; it would be interesting to see what she Could do with a story with some meat - - perhaps even some genuine menace. I must confess, though, that it required a supreme effort of will even to finish reading this short but unpleasant book, and I was left with the conviction that certain kinds of fun can be even more tiresome than moral improvement.
The eponymous feline protagonist of Murphy (Scholastic, 32 pages, $4.95 paper), a book produced by the father- and-daughter team of Carlos Freire (pictures) and Tatiana Tonks (words), is no Cheshire Cat, but he's capable of stirring up lots of trouble for his young master, Patrick, by putting naughty ideas in his head. When the kid decides to go straight, Murphy transfers his attentions to another member of the family, with equally troublesome effects. This is an unpretentious, gently humorous book with cartoonlike illustrations, whose message, if any, seems to be the unarguable "nobody's perfect."
Some primates get seriously out of control in Sheree Fitch's There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen (Doubleday, 32 pages, $16.50 cloth), a raucous verse fantasy that sets several varieties of monkeys loose all over the house. Fitchs good-humoured text, presumably based on a performance piece, creates a sensation of cathartic chaos, while Marc Mongeau's frenzied, tropically coloured illustrations expand the fracas and add some subversive details.
Although the Cautionary notion that you can't tell a book by its cover may well hold true in general, the exterior of The Year of Fire (Groundwood/Douglas & McIntyre, 48 pages, $14.95 cloth) does offer a strong presentiment of the pleasures to he found within. Ian Wallace's arresting image of a bird in flight, pursued by a roiling wall of flame, is the first thing you see; but if you turn the book over, the flames leap the spine, and on the back cover are transformed into a delicate but breathtaking aerial view of a farm threatened by the inferno and of the tiny valiant figures trying to contain it. Inside the book, Wallace's meticulous, old-fashioned line and wash drawings continue to delight and surprise, sometimes shrinking to mere vignettes or swelling to double-page spreads, sometimes surrounding the text or even sliding underneath it to emerge on the other side, and sometimes spilling out of their frames. But for all their excellence, they complement rather than dominate Teddy Jamss engrossing story of a long- ago forest fire, told with authenticity and humour by a grandfather who was himself a boy when it occurred. The old man's reminiscences are framed by the voice of his young grand' daughter, who visits his farm each year to help him make maple syrup, and whose question sets his story in motion. In plain but powerful language, jams illuminates a vanished childhood and way of life and makes a moving but unsentimental plea for Continuity, as Grandfather Howard urges the girl to learn and pass on his memories. It's a mark of this beautiful book's subtlety and restraint that a passing mention of a plastic bag full of cookies from an old recipe can casually evoke both the persistence of the past and the vast distance we have travelled since The Year of Fire.