Alison Lurie, . . Penguin, $13 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-14-200252-0

A perceptive critic, Lurie (Don't Tell the Grown-Ups) has long been a close observer of children's literature. This welcome volume collects a number of her essays on the subject, most of which appeared in other versions in the New York Review of Books. As she wittily deconstructs the lives and works of authors as varied as Louisa May Alcott ("she was the daughter of what would now be described as vegetarian hippie intellectuals, with fringe religious and social beliefs, and spent nearly a year of her childhood in an unsuccessful commune"), Hans Christian Andersen, J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss, a common theme emerges, for Lurie contends that those who write best for children are "in some essential way... children themselves." James Barrie liked to play pirates and Indians; Babar author Laurent deBrunhoff climbed trees into his 70s and John Masefield's daughter described him as "a wonderful playmate – essentially, another child." Children's book authors may bristle at this assertion, as well as at Lurie's somewhat offhand dismissal of the art of children's literature. Speaking of "established authors" who try their hand at writing for children, for instance, she notes "they are as it were on vacation, and under no pressure to produce a Great Work." Still, the essays are consistently entertaining, enlightening and erudite, and Lurie's insights into a host of classic titles, including such topics as gender role reversal and social satire in the Oz books, the enduring power of symbolism in fairy tales and changing literary tastes over the past two centuries, bring clarity to an always-evolving form. (Jan.)