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PICTURE BOOKS BALANCE ART AND WORDS

SHARE PICTURE BOOKS BALANCE ART AND WORDS

The creation of a picture book is like a magic act: It is all misdirection and flourishes disguising many months of hard work. Surprisingly, often the author and the illustrator - if they are not one and the same - never meet. For example, I met John Schoenherr, who did the wonderful pictures for our Caldecott-winning "Owl Moon," some four months after the book had won its award. In fact I have yet to greet in person at least a dozen illustrators who have worked on my books.

So it is always amazing when text and pictures are so firmly wedded that one cannot be conceived without the other. The best picture books are seamless in this way; the mediocre ones are those in which either story or art overshadows the other.RAINBOW CROW, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal (Knopf; $12.95), is a retelling of an Indian tale in which the Rainbow Crow is the fire-bringer, the voice of storyteller Nancy Van Laan rings clearly. Van Laan's telling, based on oral accounts from Indians, has the powerful rhythms of the native storyteller. As the rainbow-colored bird brings down fire from the Great Sky Spirit, burning his feathers to coals, Vidal's stylized watercolor paintings detail the transformation. A strong and evocative book.

NORA'S STARS, written and illustrated by Satomi Ichikawa (Philomel; $13.95) is pastel compared to Vidal's vibrant "Rainbow Crow," but just right for a bedtime story about a little girl visiting her grandmother overnight who has a small adventure with talking dolls and a bedcover-cape that is decorated with stars from the sky. Ichikawa's paintings have a comfortable, old-fashioned feel to them, with homey details like a lamp made out of a wine bottle and a steamer trunk stuffed with toys. There is a quiet hush in this book, in both the simple text and the nighttime pictures.

BEYOND THE RIDGE (Bradbury Press; $13.95), like all of Paul Goble's work, is concerned with Native America. In this book he is exploring the Plains Indian's idea of death, where the spirit world or afterlife can be perceived "beyond the ridge." As an old woman lies dying, we watch her make the long and frightening trip to the spirit world and then see her family prepare her dead body in the customary manner. Goble's distinctly stylized pen-and-ink and watercolor drawings, which are seen in all his picture books, have never been so effective, creating a feeling of transcendence. Realistic drawings of the dying woman would make the reader uncomfortable, but these lift the straightforward text.

HERON STREET (Harper & Row; $12.95) is where Ann Turner, known for her historical fiction and picture books, turns her hand to a tone poem about a marsh that becomes - over the years - the great city of Boston. Sprinkled with onomatopoeic phrases like "Ca-thunk" and "Rang-a-clang" and "Whip-bop-de-be-bop," "Heron Street" is a song-poem about what we gain and lose from progress.