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Books every Santa Claus should have in his sack

Carrying on his own version of a Christmas tradition, Senior Editor Ross Drake, aided by his daughter, Shana, 11, and son, Ross, 6, has conducted his annual survey of the year’s children’s books. Below, he describes some of the best.

Chris Van Allsburg’s territory as an illustrator, previously explored in the 1981 Caldecott Medal Honor book The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and last year’s award-winning Jumanji, is the uncertain boundary between dreams and reality. His moody pastels imbue The Wreck of the Zephyr (Houghton Mifflin, $14.95) with a vaguely unsettling, other-worldly tranquillity. Outside a small fishing hamlet, on a cliff high above the sea, a traveler encounters the remains of a sailboat. How did they get there? There is an explanation, but no end to the mystery. Van Allsburg’s world is a haunted one—a place of brooding thunderheads and implacable stillness, of lush, empty landscapes and too-peaceful villages, of shadows that pass in the night.

The themes of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic The Secret Garden—abandonment, loneliness and the redemptive powers of friendship and unselfish purpose—have been reverberating through children’s fiction for decades. Obviously they have not been exhausted. Janet Lunn’s The Root Cellar (Scribner’s, $12.95), the Canadian Library Association’s Children’s Book of the Year in 1981, is the story of Rose Larkin, orphaned and loveless, who is sent to live with her Aunt Nan’s family in Canada. Soon she discovers that the forgotten root cellar of their 19th-century farmhouse is, magically, a door to the past. Liberated from the sterile world of her childhood and the emotional confusion of her new life at Aunt Nan’s, she sets out on a daring adventure in the time of the U.S. Civil War. This intelligent, superior novel combines a persuasive vision of a fleeting moment in history with an eerie, touching sense of time’s mysteries.

More grievously neglected than Rose, and more troubled, is Maggie Turner, the unloved and unlovable heroine of Sylvia Cassedy’s Behind the Attic Wall (Crowell, $11.95). An emotionally battered refugee from a series of boarding schools, cast up on the doorstep of two madly repressive great-aunts, she begins to imagine herself hearing voices. Then she realizes she isn’t imagining. Prowling about the fortresslike house, summoned by the voices to join them, she finds a hidden world in which she is welcome. If there is a flaw in this beautifully realized first novel—the author teaches creative writing for the Manhasset, Long Island public school system—it is that Maggie’s eventual deliverance comes about from a stroke of good fortune that has nothing to do with what has gone on before. Still, the book provides a brilliantly observed portrait of an affection-starved child—sullen, secretive, preternaturally knowing—as well as a satisfying, original fantasy.

“Papa is a proud and frugal Irishman who always gets a good price for his cotton. Last summer…with $ 1,400 in his pocket, Papa was feeling pretty flush. He came back home in style in an almost new car. All of us were flabbergasted, for Papa couldn’t drive.” Such are the pithy, fond reminiscences of From the Hills of Georgia (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $14.95), an autobiography in paintings by the American folk artist Mattie Lou O’Kelley. Born and raised in rural Maysville, Ga., O’Kelley, now 75, began painting for a living at 60, when illness forced her to give up the various odd jobs she had worked at. Her memoir of the years from birth to young womanhood is presented with a primitivist’s perspective, a gorgeous sense of color and a loving regard for period detail.

The Frenchman Louis Blériot made his fortune through the invention of an automobile searchlight, then spent most of it learning to fly—a quixotic ambition that culminated in the first heavier-than-air flight across the English Channel, on July 25, 1909. Alice and Martin Provensen’s The Glorious Flight (Viking Press, $13.95) is an engaging picture-book portrait of the seven Blériots, père et famille, and the seriocomic risks and catastrophes that every early flier was heir to.

Rinko Tsujimura, an 11-year-old Japanese-American girl from Berkeley, Calif., is bright, generous and full of youthful high spirits—qualities that are put to the acid test when she is asked to spend a month with her parents’ widowed friend, Mrs. Hata, in the rural nether reaches of Oakland. The year is 1935, and Rinko can think of better things to do with her summer. But when the weeks that follow bring a string of disasters, threatening Mrs. Hata’s grip on her home and her dignity, Rinko understands that she’s needed. An irony of Yoshiko Uchida’s The Best Bad Thing (Atheneum, $9.95), though the author doesn’t push it, is that Rinko is as thoroughly American as the Tarzan movies she pines for, but still considers herself an outsider. It is a useful reminder, should children forget, that one of bigotry’s penalties is the loss of good company.

Artist Susan Jeffers is sometimes accused of providing pictures too sentimentally pretty for the fairy tales she usually illustrates. It is, no doubt, a criticism of little interest to most of her readers. Her muted pastel paintings for Hiawatha (Dial Books for Young Readers, $11.95) evoke the poem’s mythic intensity less than its beauty, but few illustrators could match their pastoral loveliness. Rippling waters, spring-dappled forests, haughty owls in black, wintry branches—these are the images that captivate Jeffers, and no one does them better than she. The text, unfortunately, is only a brief excerpt from the Longfellow epic.

Prim but appealing, the product of a strongly principled upbringing by the woman she knows as Aunt Constance, 12-year-old Jean Wainwright is dispatched, in the summer of 1894, on a strange and unpromising mission: to sort through the family papers of a sternly reclusive middle-aged artist, with an eye to discarding the chaff. As the summer wears on, she realizes that the search has a deeper, more troubling purpose and that the companion of this knowledge is danger. Though the mystery cannot be sustained for as long as the author intends, Cynthia Voigt’s The Callender Papers (Atheneum, $11.95) is an engaging Gothic thriller, rich in characterization and Victorian atmosphere.

Especially for very young children: Most picture books, for better or worse, can be sped through in a matter of minutes. A happy exception is Monika Beisner’s Book of Riddles (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $11.95), which poses 101 rhyming puzzlers, then asks readers to find the solutions in the elegant full-page illustrations…. In medieval times, a meal fit for a king meant plenty of work for his lordly hosts and their vassals. Aliki’s A Medieval Feast (Crowell, $9.95) is a colorful, handsomely illuminated account of every aspect of the royal nosh, from the gathering of provisions to the cooking and serving. As the gourmandizing draws to a close, His Highness looks unmistakably queasy…. There is a lot going on in Peter Spier’s Christmas! (Doubleday, $10.95), a wordless picture book depicting all the loving excess of a traditional holiday. The ambience here is suburban; the watercolored drawings, without exception, are cheery…. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier (Little, Brown, $14.95) is meant to break hearts, and succeeds. Alain Vaës’ illustrations are bold, clear and stylish, avoiding the pitfall of sentimentality that can turn Andersen’s stories from touching to maudlin…. The handsome heroine of Tattie’s River Journey (Dial Books for Young Readers, $11.95) lives alone on the bank of a river until flooding rains make her small house an ark. Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s story is serviceable, but it is Tomie de Paola’s tempera paintings that give the book its rich folkart resonance.

And for kids slightly older: Of the many fine illustrators who have turned their talents to The Wind in the Willows, none has proved better suited to the task than Ernest H. Shepard, creator of the original drawings for Winnie the Pooh. The 75th-anniversary edition of Kenneth Grahame’s classic (Scribner’s, $17.95), including the Shepard drawings, first published in 1933, as well as the paintings he did later on, is a volume for Toad’s admirers to live with…. Only 150 years ago the existence of dinosaurs was almost unknown. Since then they’ve starred in various movies, found spacious accommodations in the finest museums and kept paleontologists hopping worldwide. Now comes Helen Roney Sattler’s The Illustrated Dinosaur Dictionary (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, $17.50), an imposing, authoritative tome that covers the prehistoric-lizard front from acanthopholises to zigongosauruses…. The Random House Book of Poetry for Children ($13.95) marks the felicitous marriage of 572 poems, many the very soul of brevity, with Arnold Lobel’s cheerful, humorous drawings. Editor of the collection is Jack Prelutsky, no mean poet himself, who has included several works of his own.

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