Chingis Khan's story is just as startling as he grows older. But equally astonishing are Demi's illustrations - tiny pictures clear as crystals, rich with gold paint, full of yurts (nomads' dwellings), camels, snow leopards, crowds of people, and marvelous feats of strength and courage. The small but exquisite pictures make Temujin seem as real as the toddler next door, and still larger than life. People of all ages will marvel at this book again and again.
Chris Van Allsburg, everybody's favorite author-illustrator, has a new book for the holiday season, The Wretched Stone (Houghton Mifflin, $17.95). Like many of Van Allsburg's best books, The Wretched Stone is enigmatic. The reader has to put a certain amount of effort into figuring out what Van Allsburg means. The crew of a sailing ship brings on board a mysterious glowing stone. The sailors spend all their time barricaded in the hold staring at the stone until they all turn into apes. A storm comes and rips the masts and rudder
from the ship and the stone turns dark. The captain reads to the crew of apes and plays his violin. Gradually, they become men again.
One reviewer has said that the story is an allegory of the clash between technology and the arts, with the stone representing technology. Perhaps the stone is television and only art and literature can redeem the watchers from ape-hood. Whatever the meaning, it's interesting and, as usual, beautifully illustrated. I particularly liked the picture of the captain, sitting beneath the broken mast reading to his crew of monkeys, who are neatly dressed up in storybook sailor suits and old-fashioned straw sailor hats with navy-blue ribbons.
Nancy Willard wrote Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $18.95), but the Dillons (an illustrator team of husband Leo, wife Diane and son Lee) are the ones who make it worth noticing. They have done wonderful pictures for Willard's rather silly poem about a woman who worked for artist Bosch, left and returned. Both text and illustrations have drawn on the strange creatures that Bosch put into his pictures and puffed them up in
alarming, amusing ways.
In Catskill Eagle (Philomel, $15.95), painter Thomas Locker has used a brief text by Herman Melville as an excuse to paint scenes of the Catskills in the neo-Hudson River School style. Locker explains that he and his family lived for a summer in the deep gorge called Kaaterskill Clove that cuts through the Catskill Mountains. Melville was one of the writers, poets and
artists who visited Kaaterskill Clove a century ago, and in Chapter 96 of Moby-Dick there is a reference to the "Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again." Locker loves that part of the country and paints it in pristine wilderness splendor.
Let me recommend some Old Testament storybooks for holiday presents. Climbing Jacob's Ladder, edited by John Langstaff (McElderry Books, $13.95), is subtitled Heroes of the Bible in African-American Spirituals, thus touching many ethnic bases. Here are Bible stories about the people (Moses, Jacob, Joshua, etc.) in the spirituals. Words and music for the spirituals are here, and colorful illustrations by Ashley Bryan feature black people in the starring roles.
Miriam's Well, by Alice Bach and J. Cheryl Exum (Delacorte, $16), has stories about women in the Old Testament, including Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Hannah, Naomi, Ruth, Abigail, Esther and Judith. The book, for children 10 and older, is "decorated," not illustrated but adorned with small, elegant line cuts, by Leo and Diane Dillon, who so beautifully did Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch.
Some of the best books this time of year are old books in new packages. Here comes, for instance, The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley (Random House, $15), with new illustrations by Domenick D'Andrea. I picked it up to look at it and couldn't put it down. And almost as gripping as the story of Alec and his wild stallion is the biographical information about Farley. Farley wrote a story in third grade with the germ of the idea for The Black Stallion. He began writing the book when he was a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn and later Mercersburg Academy. He finished when he was at Columbia University, and Random House published it in 1941. He wrote 34 novels, 21 of them about the black stallion. He also wrote about Little Black, a pony, for beginning readers.
The Scottish Chiefs, by Jane Porter with fabulous illustrations by N.C. Wyeth, is the latest of the Scribner Illustrated Classics to be reissued. It is $24.95. It first was published in England in 1809, then was published several times in the United States, with Scribner bringing out a version edited by Kate Douglas Wiggin and her sister, Nora Archibald Smith, in 1921.
It is the story of the heroic rebellion that William Wallace led against King Edward that sought to put Robert the Bruce on the throne of Scotland. ''Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled,/Scots wham Bruce hath often led,/Welcome to your gory bed,/Or to victory," goes the Scottish anthem.
Philadelphia's Charles Santore has done new illustrations for L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz (Jelly Bean Press, $15). The edition has an introduction by Michael Patrick Hearn, who did The Annotated Oz. The illustrations are opulent indeed. As Hearn says, others have treated Oz like a musical comedy, but Santore treats it like grand opera.
Little Red Riding Hood is probably the most reprinted, most commented-on folk tale. Here Beni Montressor (who won a Caldecott Medal for his pictures for May I Bring a Friend?) illustrates Charles Perrault's original version (Doubleday, $16). The illustrations are stupendous, harking back to the most-reproduced earlier ones. Caveat reader - in this version, the wolf devours Little Red Riding Hood and the text ends. The last picture, however, shows LRRH alive and well inside the wolf and a woodman arriving, ax in hand, doubtless to split open the wolf and rescue her.
A new edition of The Borrowers, by Mary Norton (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $22.95), is illustrated in full color by Michael Hague. It's a poor match. Hague always tends to overdo things, and the black-and-white illustrations by Philadelphians Beth and Joe Krush in the earlier editions were perfect. I suppose we have to bite the bullet and accept changes if it means a new edition of the wonderful book about the tiny people who live in hidden corners of our houses.
A priceless new version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Swineherd (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, $14.95) has illustrations by Deborah Hahn. Hahn also provides a frame for the story. In an introduction, she has Andersen writing the story as a play for children to perform. The children act out the story, but dislike his ending, so they make up a happier one. It's tampering, but graceful tampering, served up with the original intact.
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, by Edward Lear, a perennial favorite, here appears with new illustrations by Louise Voce (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, $13.95). Voce's illustrations are simple but comic. Do you remember how the owl and the pussy-cat "dined on mince,/and slices of quince/which they ate/ with a runcible spoon?" Finally, after years of bewilderment, I looked up runcible. The dictionary says a runcible spoon is a three-pronged fork, like a pickle fork. But it adds that runcible is "a nonsense word coined by Edward Lear." Voce illustrates the runcible spoon as a spoon with a bowl at each end of a long shaft, so two people can eat out of it at once.
Facsimiles of the 1876 first edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the 1884 first edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both, of course, by Mark Twain, can be had for an enormous price. (First Edition Library, $34.95 each). These books are charming, with chapter titles in that delightful old-fashioned rustic type that looks as though the letters were formed by sticks and twigs. T.W. Williams' original black-and-white drawings illustrate Tom, and E.W. Kemble's work shows us Huck. This time around, the paper is acid-free.