Books about writers and artists stimulate young minds

Books for children

April 17, 1991|By Molly Dunham | Molly Dunham,Evening Sun Staff

WHEN MAURICE Sendak was little, he and his brother collaborated on many books. His brother wrote stories and Maurice illustrated them with pictures drawn on shirt cardboards -- the only material available.

''It alarmed my father,'' Sendak has written, ''because he had three children, and two of them, my brother and I, only wrote stories and drew pictures. My sister was the regular one -- good looking, passing grades -- and then there were these two dud sons who stayed upstairs and had green complexions.''

There's no guarantee your child will be the next Maurice Sendak, the author of ''Where the Wild Things Are'' and many other classics. But there are some fine new books that can inspire and encourage creativity in kids who want to make their own books -- with or without shirt cardboards.

* ''In Your Own Words: A Beginner's Guide to Writing,'' by Sylvia Cassedy (Thomas Y. Crowell, $13.95; ages 10 and up). This is an excellent place to start for budding authors of any age -- from fifth grade to fiftysomething. Cassedy, who never writes down to her readers, opens with a common sense introduction to exercising the observation muscles.

She asks readers to write sentences describing, for instance, a rainy day. Instead of just relying on sight, readers are urged to use the other four senses to bring the scene to life: the sound of sneakers squishing down the hall, the smell of woolen gloves drying on a radiator, the taste of a rubbery raincoat collar against your lips, the feel of wet socks clinging to your toes.

Later chapters introduce the basics of character development, dialogue and plot, as well as different kinds of writing -- from myths and science fiction to essays, book reports and poetry. Throughout the book's 219 pages Cassedy includes examples of published prose and poetry that help spark the imagination. Her suggestions are more practical -- and a lot more fun -- than the stuff that's served up in most college freshman composition courses.

* ''To the Point: A Story about E.B. White,'' by David R. Collins, illustrations by Amy Johnson (Carolrhoda Books, $9.95, ages 8-12). Anyone who has been touched by ''Charlotte's Web'' and ''Stuart Little'' knows that the man who wrote those books had to be kind and caring and loyal. Indeed, E.B. White was all of those things, as this 56-page biography attempts to show.

Collins does an admirable job portraying White's love of the English language, which beckoned to him when he was 12 and led to a career as one of the country's freshest essayists. It's too bad, however, that more space isn't devoted to White's years on his Maine farm, where he wrote ''Charlotte's Web'' and ''Stuart Little.'' Sadly, there's not one mention of Fred, the dachshund who was such an integral member of the White family.

* ''Bill Peet: An Autobiography'' (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95, ages 9 and up). Bill Peet, who has written and illustrated more than 30 children's books, tells a great story. But his tales about ''Chester the Worldly Pig'' and ''Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventure'' have nothing on the story of Peet's life.

With black-and-white illustrations on every page, Peet captivates readers with details of his boyhood in Indianapolis in the 1920s, when his mother struggled to raise three sons while his father, a traveling salesman, came home only long enough to borrow money. Peet, who was always sketching and doodling, won a scholarship to art school during the Great Depression. He finally landed a job at Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles, although the work as an ''in-betweener'' meant he spent all his time ''adding hundreds of drawings in between hundreds of other drawings to move Donald or Mickey from here to there.''

Peet gradually moves up the ladder to play key roles in the creation of many movies, including ''Pinocchio,'' ''Dumbo,'' ''Song of the South'' and ''The Hundred and One Dalmations.'' The sketches of his work for Disney are fascinating, as is his not-very-flattering portrait of Walt Disney himself. This 1990 Caldecott Honor Book is a keeper.

* ''Woodsong,'' by Gary Paulsen (Bradbury Press, $12.95, ages 12 and up). This is an autobiographical account of one slice of Paulsen's life. The author of three Newbery Honor Books, ''Dogsong,'' ''Hatchet'' and ''The Winter Room,'' Paulsen does not describe the frustrations and rewards of writing in this book.

But it inspires in the way that all good writing inspires. With the crisp, descriptive prose that rushes readers through his novels, Paulsen chronicles his passion for dogsledding -- a fervor he acquired when he was 40, living with his wife and son in a small cabin in northern Minnesota. His real-life brushes with death in the wilderness will not surprise fans of Paulsen's survival stories.

The 132-page book ends with a harrowing account of Paulsen's first Iditarod sled race across Alaska. But you may carry one chapter with you far longer. It's the story of Storm, Paulsen's first dog -- ''one dog who taught me the most,'' he writes. The lessons Storm teaches about death will not soon be forgotten.

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