A Picture-Book Menagerie for Spring.

By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, March 2, 2008

Spring is in the wings, and Easter is just around the corner. Cue the bunny books!

A good bunny book can set just the right hopeful, larky mood, whether it alludes to the season or not. Take Anna Dewdney's Nobunny's Perfect (Viking, $12.99; ages 2-4), dedicated to Beatrix Potter, "who knew bad bunny behavior when she saw it." Three young rabbits "mostly do the things they should," but when sad or mad, they can, in a flash, turn seriously bad. While she strikes a preachy note now and then ("Bad bunnies grab. They do not share."), Dewdney appears to love the "rude rabbits" who slurp, burp, spit and fuss just as much she does the angelic ones who are "polite and kind and true." Which is as it should be, at Easter or any other time.

Then there's Franny Billingsley's Big Bad Bunny (Atheneum, $16.99; ages 4-8). First off, we meet the title character, a fearsome creature with long sharp claws and pointy yellow teeth who scratches and chomps his way through the left-hand pages. On the right-hand pages, meanwhile, a cozy bedtime ritual is unfolding. Over in the Mouse House, Mama Mouse tucks her babies in one by one -- until she reaches the last bed and finds Baby Boo-Boo missing. "Eek!" Not to give the ending away or anything, but if you were called Baby Boo-Boo, wouldn't you try to scrounge some respect by passing yourself off as a Big Bad Bunny? The versatile G. Brian Karas does a fine job balancing the super-scary and the soothingly sweet in his pictures.

For the last word on rabbit-related cuteness, look for Clare Turlay Newberry's Marshmallow, which won a Caldecott Honor in 1943 and was recently reissued in a revised edition by HarperCollins ($16.99; ages 4-6). It's based on two of Newberry's own pets -- Oliver, a fat, spoiled tabby cat, and Marshmallow, a newly arrived baby rabbit who manages to convince the hoity-toity Oliver that he's really a kitten, well worth adopting. The black-and-white drawings (with just a hint of peach pink) are exquisite.

But don't let rabbits monopolize the season. Consider Duck, by Randy Cecil (Candlewick, $15.99; ages 4-8). This is a sweet follow-up to the somewhat sour Gator, in which a carousel animal got down from his pole, leaving "a hole in his heart," and went off to join the real alligators at the zoo, with unsatisfactory results. Duck hails from the same carousel and has a similar hole and a similar yearning in his heart: He longs to join the real ducks soaring across the sky. But "one spring day, everything changed" with the arrival of a live and very lost duckling. Raising the tiny creature, Duck figures out her valuable place in the scheme of things, leading to a no-strings-attached happy ending. The golden-toned oil paintings are predictably poignant but also -- though you have to squint to spot it at times -- full of humor.

Thinking, not squinting, is needed for Monkey and Me (Simon & Schuster, $15.99; ages 2-6), by Britain's inventive Emily Gravett. Those who recall her Wolves or Orange Pear Apple Bear know Gravett is a rarity in the picture-book world: a genuinely concept-driven artist, whose pictures don't just illustrate her simple texts but advance them. A little girl and her pet stuffed monkey like to visit animals. On every other double-page spread, the two act out their anticipation. Waddling stiff-armed, they chant: "Monkey and me, Monkey and me, Monkey and me, We went to see, We went to see some . . . " Turn the page, and there's a bevy of penguins. Next thing you know, the pair is hanging upside down from the page's edge. Turn the page, and there are bats. And so on, in a nonstop, high-energy charade parade. As usual with Gravett, there's also a fun surprise ending.

Oddly enough, a pet stuffed monkey plays sidekick in another spring title from Britain: Viviane Schwarz's Timothy and the Strong Pajamas (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, $16.99; ages 4-8). This superhero adventure, probably my favorite book of the bunch, stars a cat named Timothy Smallbeast, who is neither big nor strong but "really, really wished he was." Fortified milk doesn't help, or exercise, or even thinking "strong thoughts." But one magical evening, after his mother mends his tattered favorite pajamas, Timothy suddenly finds himself endowed with awesome strength. It's Monkey who figures it out: "You are wearing the patches of power and the buttons of braveness," he declares in the best of his many memorable lines. No way you'll want to miss the action these two proceed to pack in before bedtime.

Elizabeth Ward can be reached at

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