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A new Oxford 'companion'By Selma K. Richardson; The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, by Humphrey Carpenter and Mary Prichard, compilers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. 588 pp. $35.

In 1958 Iona and Peter Opie, respected and meticulous scholars of childhood rhymes and early children's books, proposed to compile for their publisher a reference work that would be ''a true companion to children's literature,'' one that would be wide in scope and thereby ''an interesting and entertaining book in itself.'' The publisher decided not to nurture their idea, and the Opies pursued other research.

In the decades that followed, the study of stories for the young matured considerably, and children's books became the subject of scholarly articles and conferences. The time was now ripe for reversing the earlier decision. The Opies , alas, were engrossed in other projects and turned this one over to Mary Prichard and Humphrey Carpenter, a husband-and-wife team with two children. Their other pertinent qualification is that he has published studies of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien.

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The territory included in the study of children's books has become so vast that very few on this globe would set out to cover the historical and modern, the popular and literary, British and American (other countries, too), as well as the mass media. The compilers are to be commended for their daring.

The volume possesses particular strength in its coverage of pre-20th-century English books. Living English authors come in second. Carpenter and Prichard have been able to draw upon reliable secondary sources about early and recent writing for children in England. Comparable publications have yet to be written in the United States, which might account for some of the errors and omissions in the treatment of the American scene in this book.

Nearly 2,000 entries, most less than one-fourth a page in length (but a few exceeding a page), are arranged alphabetically. The coverage extends from traditional literature and early publications to living authors and their works.

Illustrators are included; 136 black-and-white reproductions enliven the pages.

Almost half of the entries are sketches about authors. Major writers are reasonably well represented. The entries for titles of books are primarily plot summaries. When characters are listed, they are merely placed in their appropriate books. Certain types of books (the penny dreadful, science fiction) are discussed.

An attempt is made to survey the development and current status of publishing for children in various countries of the world.

The reference book might be of unusual value on the United States side of the Atlantic for introducing certain living English writers to Americans.

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For example, in the substantial entry about Alan Garner, who is unquestionably worthy of being read by adults, the compilers incisively discuss the body of his work, comment on his growth as a writer, and direct the reader to a major critical study.

US authors, however, do not fare so well. The brief entry for Katherine Paterson, whose name was misspelled, offers little more than a few lines about her two Newbery Medal winners. (On the other hand, European authors Meindert DeJong and Walter de la Mare receive full columns.)

A short entry for Judy Blume precedes the lengthy one about Enid Blyton. Of Nancy Drew we learn only that she is ''a blonde teen-age detective in novels by Carolyn Keene (USA, published during the 1970s).'' Since Miss Drew first appeared in 1930, the date of the series is off by more than 40 years.

The world of children's books lost a diligent scholar with the untimely death of Peter Opie in 1982. The compilers note that ''his eye for minute detail would have found much that was unsatisfactory'' in this ''Companion.'' Their observation, unfortunately, is unerroneous.

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