A sampler of books on the ladder of literacy
This winter there's a loverly bunch of language books on library and bookstore shelves to help readers learn to write, edit, or teach children how to read - and do it all well.
For the early rungs toward literacy, Games for Reading, by Peggy Kaye (Pantheon Books, New York, $15.95, with illustrations by the author), offers 76 ''Playful Ways to Help Your Child Read.'' It's a kind of do-it-yourself Head Start II, based on easily prepared games Ms. Kaye has used in public and private schools in New York City. It is almost sure to usher a youngster into language with a smile - and a zest for learning and life. The reading stumbler can learn to walk, the breezer to cavort.
''Games'' is fun, but it's not pablum. It is meant to bring out the ability to reason and act without daunting a child. A parent using it can see readily which games offer a certain needed strength.
The rusty but reviving art of phonics (sounding out letters) is part of Kaye's method. And the fare for parent-child companionship includes a list of fine books for reading aloud, nonfiction and poetry among them, to flesh out basics with solid culture.
One mini-chapter, ''TV Talk,'' suggests that since TV is here to stay, children could be groomed as ''critics,'' learning early to use judgment and share opinions.
''Games'' is a wise vista-opener for use by parents and teachers both.
Here's a gem of a purposefully playful book for learning grammar without tears, too - unless they be tears of laughter, or of relief to find that grammar is your friend. The Transitive Vampire, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon (Times Books, New York, $9.95), is ''A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed'' (but not for the young child). This fanciful creature works in light vein to get to the heart of placing words and structure at the service of a spirited humanity.
''Vampire'' animates classic conventions with snappy, snippy, often irreverent sentences to show that no one need fear the beast. It may be too sophisticated for some. And the droll old woodcuts include a nude or two, perhaps used to illustrate virtues of getting at basics.
But the light on grammar shines sound and delectable. Dig this example of adverbs: ''We waltzed Lisztlessly''!
Gordon, a former college English teacher and author of ''The Well-Tempered Sentence,'' a punctuation guide, is now co-author of a novel, too. It could hardly be more novel than ''Vampire.''
A new book on writing gets to grammar only after stressing content. Write to the Point: And Feel Better About Your Writing (Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., $7.95) is a super-enriched how-to book by Bill Stott, a widely experienced teacher and writer. Stott reveals himself in a lucid, fairly casual style. This paperback is an astonishing stew of critical observations and pep talk, practical and pithy. It's designed to get the beginner or the pro, the putterer or the scholar, past the struggles of writing to the rewards of sharing something useful.
Stott wants heartfelt writing rather than snazzy, soulless draftsmanship. He eschews formulas. But he attends to the function of forms.
He brings in a world of help from other teachers and writers, taking issue with many. Over a blue-ribbon reading list of nonfiction, he writes that ''it is inspiration that counts first and last . . . .'' George Orwell ranks as his model writer, especially for his powers of observation.
At some point, to some degree, the writer must step in as his or her own self-critic. But Arthur Plotnik, author of The Elements of Editing, notes that, if nothing else, there need be an editor to lend an ear for knowing the market: the market for content and for the form it will appear in.
Plotnik's 1982 book, subtitled ''A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists, '' is now out in paperback (Macmillan, New York, $4.95).
The working model here is ''The Compleat Editor,'' one equipped to see to a wholeness of written work that would pass muster even at The New Yorker.
In practical terms Plotnik, an editor and librarian, says: ''Consummate editing requires a team of at least two: an in-depth editor, and what might be called a 'quality-control' editor to provide a check on the collaborative effort of author (or reporter) and first editor.''
This twosome serves all types of publications, even good newspapers. Yet Plotnik despairs that daily-deadline journalism cannot meet high standards. Is he perhaps playing down the role of the front-line writer who can observe and refine alike? For surely newspapering in the William Allen White tradition, or broadcasting in the echo of Edward R. Murrow, has brought a high finish to reporting on the fleeting world.
''Jacques Barzun on Writing, Editing, and Publishing'' notes a loss from the dual approach to writing and editing. Barzun, the Columbia University historian, wrote back in 1946 of the threat to fresh ideas from highly processed writing. He said that ''hardly anywhere in this mass (of books) can we find Emerson's scholar, man thinking. . . . the living speech of a true witness is absent.''
Plotnik's precepts, however, would gird editors as handmaids for the Essential Writer. His book has been likened as an editing tool to Strunk and White's classic ''Elements of Style'' for writers. His view of the triumph one can feel beyond an anguish in editing strikes home.
Training in general literacy is the subject of The Leaning Tower of Babel and Other Affronts by the Underground Grammarian (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, $14. 95). This is another sally aboveground by Prof. Richard Mitchell in his battle against Organized Mediocrity.
Mitchell's jabs at the pomp and circumlocution of pedagogical jargonauts - this is the third book from his grammar newsletter - do not let up. His notion that a pebble of illiteracy has a rippling moral effect on thought and action is something to ponder. Or especially his point that a psychology of conditioned response, a kind of Pavlov's animality, is at the root of teaching that exalts feeling at the expense of knowing. Yet Mitchell chastises those who would seem to delete ''all thy mind'' from the Biblical behest to ''love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy soul, and all thy mind.''
Yet there seems to be a need for more balance here. Are language and knowledge such closed or static systems? And despite due regard for accuracy - without which sound building cannot happen - must we insist that the full weight of our affairs rest on letter-perfect language?
How about less sarcasm and more balm, a climate of expectancy of workable wording without which no words, even from the most gifted of tongues, can bridge people.
Now comes I Stand Corrected: More ''On Language'' from William Safire (Times Books, $19.95), the latest collection of Safire's New York Times columns.
In the absence of a thoughtful but unthinkable French Academy to tell Americans how they must express themselves, Safire may be the closest we have to a clearinghouse for hearing, seeing, and testing how we're doing with the language. He offers himself as a go-between for purists and permissivists.
Readers who write in about usage put their best feats forward. The range and quality of this collection are heady. And how good to see a guru take correction. Safire's columns play out how language is pulsing in mainstream America in relation to other currents, past and foreign.
It's a fascinating discourse the amiable Safire presides over. On point after point he gives us grist to work through our own language mills, the place where the language lives.
David Thomas is a Monitor copy editor for business and features.