If you are ever at a loss for a children's book in a store or library, you could do worse than to select at random any title illustrated by Garth Williams. His wonderful drawings are inseparable from the characters that generations of readers have come to love in "Charlotte's Web," "The Little House on the Prairie," "The Cricket in Times Square" -- the list goes on and on.
A recent reissue of the unjustly eclipsed classic, "The Rescuers," by British author Margery Sharp (New York Review Books, $14.95; ages 9-12), reminded me that Williams was a genius in the expressive possibilities of -- don't laugh -- fur. The dishevelment of the sly Templeton in "Charlotte's Web" is entirely different from the dishevelment of the rough but eminently trustworthy Bernard of "The Rescuers." And Bernard contrasts with the sleekness of the elegant Miss Bianca, a white mouse who travels by diplomatic pouch with her beloved master, the Ambassador's son. Mouse vs. rat, you may say; and yet these pelts are artistic cousins to the unruly hair and beard of Laura Ingalls' enthusiastic, fiddle-playing Pa in the "Little House" books.
"The Rescuers" introduces the international Prisoner's Aid Society of mice, which would figure in a series of books. "Everyone knows that the mice are the prisoner's friends -- sharing his dry bread crumbs even when they are not hungry, allowing themselves to be taught all manner of foolish tricks," Sharp writes. It has come to the attention of the Society that a Norwegian poet is being held prisoner in The Black Castle, and their audacious plan is not just to comfort but to rescue him. The prisoner's nationality was a symbol of bravery and pacifism at the time of the book's publication in the postwar world of 1959; reading it now, you can't help but think of recent events in Norway.
In "The Rescuers," as in all the best children's books, the terrific story presents a thrilling view of life: that loyalty, modesty, and the iron strength of good manners -- especially under pressure! -- can result in feats worthy of the greatest heroes.
Another book with the character, if not yet the history, of a classic is "Chike and the River," by the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (Anchor Books, $10 paper; ages 9-12). Although it was first published in South Africa in 1966, it has never been released here until now.
"Chike and the River" may at first seem exotic to young readers, with its story of 11-year-old Chike leaving his family and village to live with an uncle in a city on the Niger River. But as in his best-known adult novel, "Things Fall Apart," Achebe writes about how people think and act in a way that is universal. Chike is a familiar type of boy: He knows what he wants, but he's not sure how to get it; he suspects that others get easily what is not yet within his grasp; his friends lead him astray with their tempting schemes.
Chike's dream is simple: He needs sixpence for the ferry ride across the river. All the boys talk of the wonders of the world on the other side, and they all have ideas about how Chike should get the fare. In the course of the story, Chike's resourcefulness will be tested, as well as his courage and credulity. In the end, he discovers -- and shouldn't every man? -- that it's best to think for yourself, trust your instincts and come to your own conclusions.
Turning from the global to the local: In "My Baby Blue Jays" (Viking, $16.99; ages 5-8), John Berendt, author of the (adult) bestseller "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," turns his captivating storytelling powers to the family of blue jays that took up residence outside his New York City apartment window. He began photographing them when the blue jay and his wife brought in their first scrap of nesting material, and followed the family until the babies stepped out on their own. Berendt observes precisely, but allows himself a little anthropomorphizing. As the boldest baby prepares for flight, Berendt writes, "One of the birds looked at me as if to say, 'Well, it's been swell here, but I'm afraid it's time for me to go.' He looked a little nervous, I thought." When this fledgling steps off the balcony, Berendt offers a piercingly poetic description of adolescence: "As he fell, he fluttered his wings frantically. Not enough to fly, just enough to slow his fall a little." It's enough to make any parent's heart stop.