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American Odyssey

I recently made a very interesting trip across America. It took about an hour - longer, if you count the time spent revisiting several places. I ''journeyed'' through Anno's U.S.A. (Putnam) by Mitsumasa Anno, a Japanese illustrator of exceptional talent and whimsical bent.

Working in watercolor and ink, Anno creates exquisitely detailed landscapes, imaginatively and very actively inhabited by people and animals, as well as by characters from literature, music, and art.

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As in all his journey books, Anno's ''lone traveler,'' in garb reminiscent of Robin Hood's, rides horseback through farm and village, town and countryside. Apparently oblivious to the hustle and bustle around him, he calmly appears somewhere in each scene. (Finding him may require great patience and a persistent eye.)

The fun, of course, lies in one's own journey - in this case, through the United States, moving west to east, and back and forth in time. When the lone traveler finally departs from the East Coast, for instance, he encounters Columbus's crew arriving on the Santa Maria.

During my trip, I recognize Washington, D.C., by the Capitol in the foreground. People in horse-drawn buggies lag behind others in early Ford cars. A politician delivers a long-winded speech from a podium. In this deceptively simple scene, a keen-eyed observer notices pleasant anomalies: Little Orphan Annie with Daddy Warbucks and her dog, Sandy; Charlie Chaplin on roller skates; and, near the politican, Dorothy holding forth with the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow.

It took several ''visits'' to Boston before I noticed Hester Prynne, scarlet letter delicately painted on the bodice of her dress, standing among folks on the village green. In the distance, a man on horseback gallops, arm upraised, toward an inn: Paul Revere in the middle of his historic ride.

Elsewhere in Boston, mothers push baby carriages, children stroll the streets , vendors hawk their wares, and two men struggle to move a piano. Suddenly, I realize the two men are Laurel and Hardy.

Equally delightful surprises appear in other areas of the country: Whistler's Mother on her rocking chair in a cottonfield; the Wright Brothers and their plane somewhere in Arizona; characters from Sesame Street in the Deep South.

Anno obviously has a sharp eye. Through illustrations alone, he depicts the vastness, history, and culture of America. And he allows us to make our own journeys: to make our own discoveries as we will, and to see different things each time we travel through the book. He wisely shows us that his ''lone traveler'' is really each one of us.

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