Margery Sharp's mouse-centric 1959 adventure, The Rescuers, has only been out of print for a decade, but it is well worth revisiting. For one thing, it has just been reissued in handsome hardback as part of the New York Review Children's Collection, with drawings by Garth Williams. For another, this new incarnation (149 pages, $14.95) prov des an excuse to rescue the story for a generation of children who might otherwise know only the animated 1977 Disney movie of the same name. As with most children's classics, Ms. Sharp's original work is much funnier and more interestingly textured than the high-fructose movie version.
It is not long before three dauntless characters are making their way to the prison: brave, Norwegian-speaking Nils; resourceful English-speaking Bernard; and the refined Miss Bianca, whose principal weapon is her devastating charm. Once in the castle they must outwit a terrible cat, Mamelouk "the Iron-tummed," and get hold of a key to the poet's cell. When the gaunt prisoner meets his polite and well-dressed rescuers, he is more delighted than surprised for, as the author observes: "It is the gift of all poets to find the commonplace astonishing, and the astonishing quite natural."
There is no shortage of picture books that introduce children to the rhythms of the school day. Often the main character is a mouse or a turtle, and the teacher a dragon or a dinosaur, and most such stories deal with the contemporary experience. Not so with Hornbooks and Inkwells (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 32 pages, $16.99), a low-key romp through a school year as 18th-century American children might have experienced it.
"One-room schoolhouse, / Ringing bell. / Chimney sparking. / Smoky smell," writes Verla Kay, on opening pages made almost fragrantly autumnal by S.D. Schindler's detailed illustrations. We follow two bickering brothers from their first encounter with the school's bewigged Master (who does not spare the rod) through their struggles with memorization and dripping quill pens. The book was inspired by the author's discovery of a rare volume detailing the practices of a Pennsylvania schoolmaster in the mid-1700s. Among these was his use of a wooden hook as a kind of pass for children who wanted to use the outhouse; if the hook was missing, so was a child. "I do wonder," Ms. Kay writes in an afterword, "if this 'hook on the wall' was somehow involved in our current use of the phrase 'playing hooky.' "
Sometimes a picture book is memorable not because it satisfies but because something ambiguous about it leaves us feeling disquieted. It is such a quality that imbues The Great Bear (Candlewick, 36 pages, $16.99). Libby Gleeson's story is not a conventional one: Halfway through, her words die away, and we are left with only Armin Greder's haunting charcoal and pastel drawings.
"Once there was a bear. A circus bear. A dancing circus bear," we read at the book's beginning, and succeeding pages show us a cluster of medieval entertainers approaching and entering a walled town. In their midst, in a cage on wheels, we see the shadowy bulk of a bear. Soon we see what happens night after night, as it is led out to perform for jeering, gawking crowds. We see the rows of stupid peasant faces, eager for the show to start. "Dance, bear, dance," they call. But this time, the bear does not move. The crowd grows restless: "Sticks poke. Sticks prod. Chains yank. Stones strike, strike, strike," we read, until, suddenly, pushed beyond endurance, the animal lets out a great "ROAR!" The townspeople cower and gape and then flee as the shadow of the bear moves across earth strewn with their shoes and possessions. There is no more text now, just the sight of the bear making its way through the terrified streets toward a flagpole that seems to touch the glowing heavens. Up the bear climbs, up and up into the sky and then—jumps. The final image shows the bear, pale under the dazzling constellations, as if suspended in flight—and we know, and will need to explain to the young child reading with us—that it has joined the stars themselves in the shape of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The child may well say, "I don't get it," but may not quickly forget it either.