Two simple-minded books "written" by literary lions might have made acceptable little toys if they had been printed on sturdy boards for infants who chew their reading matter.
Taking librarians and the public for fools, however, their publishers have issued them in shamelessly expensive editions. If they offered meat to grow on, the price wouldn't matter so much. But they don't, and the parents who read them once will never want to do it again."It's Spring," by Else Holmeland Minarik, author of "Little Bear," illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham (Greenwillow), is a bragging contest between a couple of cats expressing their joy about spring with dialogue that goes like this: "I could jump over a tulip," said Pit. "I could jump over a bush," said Pat. "I could jump over a tree . . . a house . . . an island . . . a mountain . . . the moon . . . the sun. . . ." In the end, they decide to jump over one another instead. That's about it, folks. $11.95.
"The Little Red House," by Norma Jean Sawicki, well-known editor and publisher of children's books, illustrated by Toni Goffe (Lothrop, $9.95), is even worse.
"There was a little red house And in the little red house There was a little green house And in the little green house There was a little yellow house. . . ." The text continues thus, six more houses worth, without punctuation, until "There was you. . . . Kiss kiss" - and the toddler who has been exploring the concepts of color and size discovers a teddy bear.
Simple books for toddlers and even infants needn't be so simple-minded.
In the good old "Rosie's Walk" by Pat Hutchins (MacMillan) and "Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown (Harper), the words are very simple. The illustrations by Hutchins and Clement Hurd, however, are sophisticated art that engages the reader with wit and intelligence.
"Changes, Changes" by Pat Hutchins (Macmillan) has no words at all, but the illustrations are delightful, with colored blocks evolving from fire truck to boat to truck to locomotive to house, as the needs of the wooden hero and heroine change. Look for paperback editions.
Three new picture books would suit 2-year-olds and kindergarteners, but parents could also adapt them for infants. In Charlotte Voake's "Mrs.
Goose's Baby" (Joy Street, $12.95), a goose hatches out and raises a chick, thinking the gawky child her own, despite its inability to learn elementary goose tricks such as swimming. The text and the ink-and-watercolor pictures point out all the differences between the two birds, which escape the doting Mrs. Goose. This funny book offers a child the concept of difference and the opportunity to be smarter than the characters. More than that, Mrs. Goose, for all her dim wit, is a model of fidelity.
"Tell Me a Story," by Angela Johnson and illustrated by David Soman (Orchard, $13.95) is a lovely, subtle bedtime dialogue between a mother and a small girl who begs for stories. She wants the familiar recitation of her mother's girlhood, stories that the child herself tells in the asking, while her mother murmurs understanding in italics.
Johnson's deft storytelling reveals a family whose treasure is love. Mama and daughter remember the time Mama went to St. Louis on the train with her little sister, where the children stayed with their aunt for months because their parents' work necessitated the separation. "Did your mama and daddy miss you?" "Like you'd miss the sun, baby." "Would you cry if I moved away, Mama?" "Yes, I will. . . ."
Without trying, this simple story implicitly teaches profound, complex ideas - a vision of time and personal history in the arms of a loving family, and the expectation of a child's future adulthood.
Soman's watercolors depict a black family, like the soft ink, wash and colored-pencil pictures Susan Jeffers has made for "Baby Animals" (Random House, $10.95), a new edition of Margaret Wise Brown's text, which has been out of print for more than 40 years.
This book describes the shape of a day from morning and noon to night and makes connections between the routine regularity of a child's life and the habits of other animal babies. Brown calls attention to little things like the familiar rattle of the supper dishes, and Jeffers fleshes out the human family's life in details the author hasn't mentioned. Both artists depict puppies and a colt nursing - pretty racy stuff for 1941, the original copyright date. This vision is so soft and pastel that it verges on sentimental blandness, but it also offers reassurance.
Babies' books are a valuable investment in literacy, sensibility, intellectual development and spiritual growth. What's more, they're fun. Parents ought to look for books that will merit rereading for years, as a child grows.