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Brave boys and grandmas. Picture-book fantasies

A COUPLE of unusual grandmothers and two brave boys star in new picture books that will entice the fantasies of young readers. The books range from simple tales to musical narratives, and the diverse illustration styles complement the mood of each story. The small green buttons on Gran's cap look rather common and unassuming. Until they sprout into antennae, that is. And her short, plump body looks pretty normal as grandmothers go - until it turns green and hairy, with a spiky tail and a nose somewhat like a showerhead.

In The Trouble with Gran, written and illustrated by Babette Cole (G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, $12.95, 32 pages, ages 4 to 8), Gran is definitely not a typical grandmother who knits socks for the grandkids.

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Instead, she knits long, tubular sweaters with lots of holes for the 30-legged green creature in her living room. The trouble with Gran, you see, is that ... she's secretly an alien!

No one seems to notice Gran's peculiarities until she goes on a trip to a seaside amusement park with a group of schoolchildren and senior citizens. She sets the carousel horses free, wins big at the arcade games, and treats some fellow aliens from one of the rides to lunch. And then the kids and seniors miss the bus home. The zany things that happen next will delight children.

This is a picture book full of fun and fantasy. The watercolors are beautifully done, with soft, satiny texture and bright colors to match the mood of the book. Particularly nice are the expressions of the characters and the subtlety with which Gran's ``alienness'' is depicted.

The Zabajaba Jungle, by William Steig (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, $13.95, unpaged, age 3 and up), is like a strange dream you might have after eating late at night. But it's not a nightmare! Rather, it's an adventure tale about a little boy who bravely meets the many challenges of the unconquered Zabajaba Jungle.

On his jungle journey, Leonard is confronted by a man-eating plant, a petrified monster, a mass of snakes, and some evil mandrils. He handles them all masterfully, with the help of a few of the jungle's more pleasant creatures.

Steig, who has won a number of awards for previous books, captures the attention of young readers with his drawings of colorful and exotic characters. There are, however, some frightening images, as well as scenes that seem in questionable taste. While the book may be enjoyed by children as a simple tale of Leonard's adventures, its sophisticated vocabulary and dreamlike illustrations suggest a double entendre that is inappropriate for the intended age group.

The rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of I Like the Music, written by Leah Komaiko and illustrated by Barbara Westman (Harper & Row, New York, $12.95, ages 4 to 8), is delightful. The meter of the rhyming verses changes from page to page, and this unevenness lends a lyrical quality to the book. This is a story about a little girl whose grandmother takes her to the symphony.

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But how dull it is - she can't clap her hands or tap her feet! This, after all, is a girl of the '80s, with permed hair and a jacket that yells ``FLASH'' with hearts and stars. She likes the bebop-shebop of street music: I like the beat of my feet When my shoes hit the street And I rapa-tapa-tapa On the hot concrete.

When Grandma suggests another symphony, the little girl says she'd run away first. But it's an outdoor concert at night in the park. The girl's interest is piqued, and a lesson is learned in the appreciation of different types of music.

The vibrant illustrations are full of action and details, similar to the murals found on inner-city buildings and freeway underpasses. And the trendy look of the characters (Grandma has red beehived hair, blue eye shadow, and dangle earrings) is in tune with the snappy writing style.

Bill and the Google-Eyed Goblins, written by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Patricia Coombs (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, New York, $11.75, 32 pp., ages 5 to 8), is an old-fashioned tale. Bill hears music in everything around him - the rattle of dry leaves, the clop of plow horses, the clang of pie tins - and it sets his feet to dancing, regardless of the work to be done.

His neighbors, nice though they are, shake their heads and call him a dancing fool who will never amount to anything.

One night Bill is awakened by the most beautiful music he's ever heard. When he follows it to its source, a fairy ring high atop a hill, his feet can't help dancing him into the center. The hill splits apart, and he finds himself surrounded by hundreds of google-eyed goblins, lighted by the glow of jack-o'-lanterns.

In order to gain his freedom from the wily group, Bill challenges them to a dancing contest. What follows is an ingenious, exciting escape with a satisfying ending.

The beautifully textured, colored pencil illustrations evoke the gentle charm of days past when fairy tales were more commonly read and appreciated. The drawings of the dancing goblins are sweet and whimsical, rather than frightening in any way. And the glow of their cavern has an iridescent quality difficult to accomplish with colored pencils.

Heidi Mack is on the Monitor's art staff.

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