Books: A Rainbow of Colorful Reading

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Grasshopper on the Road (Harper & Row; $4.95), by Arnold Lobel, is a picaresque for kids. On his trek, the restless insect meets beetles who carry signs (KISS ME IT'S MORNING), neurotically clean houseflies, worms who bathe in apples, and mosquitoes who follow rules even when they are nonsensical. Like all individualists (and most children), the hero marches to a different summer. Lobel's drawings accompany him with a jaunty cast who have as many legs as a chorus line, and a lot more fun.

Karla Kuskin's A Space Story (Harper & Row; $6.95) mixes the wandering spirit of science fiction with the unalterable facts of astronomy. Gazing at a night full of stars. Sam asks his mother what kind of people could possibly live out there. Galaxies away, another boy gazes out at a different sky and wonders what kind of people could possibly live out there.

Meantime, the planets silently whirl and the stars blaze and die . . . Marc Simont's lithographlike drawings subtly evoke a dreamscape, and Karla Kuskin's poetic narrative has the concentration of an odyssey compressed to the size of a parable.

For American children, the Renaissance is as remote as the Stone Age.

Matteo (Oxford; $8.95) provides a

corrective education disguised as comedy. Fiona French's timing is not exactly Henny Youngman's. and the practical joke that a nobleman plays on a sculptor is somewhat short of hilarious. But her illustrations make shrewd use of the quattrocento palette and the faces on old coins. If Dante had ever written a children's book, these are the paintings he would have wanted in the middle of the journey.

"Once upon a time there was a piece of wood." So begins The Adventures of Pinocchio (Macmillan; $17.50 hardcover, $9.95 paperback), by C. Collodi, translated by Carol della Chiesa. But as this intriguing volume shows, the story has no true ending. The marionette whose nose grows with each lie is almost a century old, and Attilio Mussino's paintings were first printed in 1911. Yet this version —somewhat redesigned for modern consumption—is as ageless as all great fables. The paper clothes, the bread hat, the saintly carpenter Geppetto, the Cat and the Fox, the Azure Fairy are creations of genius, and those who know only the Disney version can now see where the animators got their ideas, and by how much they fell short of the original conception.

Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (Dutton; $7.95) is one of the last poems Americans learned by heart. ''The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep" has resonances that go far beyond the ice-glazed trees and horse-drawn carriage of this nostalgic volume. With a minimum of color and some gentle line drawings, Susan Jeffers gives her suite of illustrations a tactile quality: the driver's flannel seems as warm as cloth, and the swirling flakes bring a wintry chill and a welcome Frost to every page.

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