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Picture books for the very young

By Kristi Jemtegaard
Sunday, March 21, 2010; BW06

ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL

Based on the hymn by Cecil F. Alexander

Illustrated by Ashley Bryan

Atheneum. $16.99, ages 3-6

Reading this familiar hymn one line per page has the effect of slowing the pace and forcing attention to the meaning of each word and visual symbol. A pink, orange and red sunburst, its rays streaking out to pairs of children in a Ferris wheel-like formation, accompanies the first line. The first half of the phrase "All creatures great and small" rests on the back of a giant blue whale; the second half floats above a school of tiny fish. The flora and fauna for "All things wise and wonderful" rises from the pages of an open book. And though some may find the human figures a bit bland, the portraits of the natural world overflow with vitality, beauty and strength. Bright and beautiful, wise and wonderful, indeed.

HERE COMES THE GARBAGE BARGE!

By Jonah Winter

Illustrated by Red Nose Studio

Schwartz & Wade. $17.99, ages 5-8

This fable, based on an actual incident in 1987, has its plasticized tongue planted firmly in its polymer cheek. Red Nose Studio created each of these illustrations out of wire, cloth, clay and, to put it bluntly, trash. What better medium for a book about a barge that totes 3,168 tons of garbage from Islip, N.Y., to Belize and back again -- stopping along the way in North Carolina, New Orleans, Mexico, Texas and Florida. Did any place welcome the Break of Dawn and its stinky load? Not the police . . . the mayor . . . the coast guard . . . and especially not the Mexican Navy. Equal opportunity stereotyping abounds: Gino Stroffolino, the archetypical New York mobster, says "dis" and "dat"; the Mayor of New Orleans wears Mardi Gras beads; south of the border they pack pistols and sport handlebar mustaches; and Floridians are old and white and float around in rubber-ducky inner tubes. Cautionary? Yes. Hilarious? You betcha!

I AM A BACKHOE

By Anna Grossnickle Hines

Tricycle. $12.99, ages 2-4

Young truck-lovers (and truck-lovers' parents) rejoice! Here's the book you've always wanted: A neatly repetitive story, clear uncluttered illustrations and a small square size make this an ideal choice for very young readers. On the opening page, a small boy plays with a handful of sand. "I dig my hand into the sand, my scooper hand. Dig. Dig. Dig. Lift, turn, tip. I am. . . ." Turn the page, and the answer ("a backhoe") is revealed in the form of a big, blocky truck that cleverly mimics the child's motion. Each subsequent segment -- bulldozer, crane, dump truck, roller, flatbed -- has its own four-page layout and its own color backdrop, making it possible for toddlers to return again and again to their own particular passion. At story's end, Daddy (the flatbed) has transported his satisfied son to the couch where they share a story about -- what else? -- trucks.

MEANWHILE

By Jason Shiga

Amulet. $15.95, ages 5-10

The front cover of this graphic puzzle-tale boasts "3,856 story possibilities," which, for the frugal-minded, works out to less that half a penny per plot. Not bad, as entertainment goes, in these dire economic times. It all begins with the most innocent of choices: chocolate or vanilla . . . as in ice cream. Opt for one path and you may find yourself in a strange inventor's laboratory choosing between a doomsday machine, a squid or the chance to do a little time traveling. Go another way and you may find yourself in dark corridors and dead ends. Shiny plastic-coated paper means that the colored tabs that guide readers won't rip off, and fingers (even chocolaty ones) won't leave discernible marks as they travel along the intricate tubes that propel the tale. A stop sign at the very beginning cautions against skipping around to find the secret codes, which would only cheat young readers out of hours of fun.

MY GARDEN

Written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes

Greenwillow. $17.99, ages 2-5

Kevin Henkes tells a simple but lyrical story of a child who imagines a garden in which the flowers change color "just by my thinking about it." The rabbits don't eat the lettuce because they're all chocolate rabbits. And planting jelly beans gets you "a great big jelly bean bush." The story moves from the clear light of morning to a firefly lit night in which the young gardener plants a seashell in the earth. "Who knows what might happen?" On the final page, sharp eyes will find not only the answer to that question but a gentle reminder of how imagination flourishes in fertile soil.

WAITING OUT THE STORM

By JoAnn Early Macken

Illustrated by Susan Gaber

Candlewick. $15.99, ages 3-5

Endpapers brushed with raindrops introduce this story of a mother and child coming in from a sudden storm to the cozy comfort of their living room. Each one of the little girl's fearful questions ("Mama? What's that I hear?) is met with a comforting, low-key response ("That's just the rumble of thunder, my dear"). Once convinced of her own safety, the child begins to fret about the animals still outside in the wind and wet. "What about chipmunks?" she asks, and mother again soothes her worries: "They snuggle together, deep in their burrows in wet, windy weather." The graceful rhythm of these rhyming lines aptly mimics the steady patter of rain on the roof, and Susan Gaber's textured acrylic illustrations evoke the roiling movement of the clouds, the supple motion of branches bending to the wind, and the pungent smell of rain-soaked earth.

A BOY HAD A MOTHER WHO BOUGHT HIM A HAT

By Karia Kuskin

Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

Harper. $16.99, ages 4-8

This boisterous poem, first published as a picture book in 1976 with illustrations by Marc Simont, reappears here in a new larger format that gives plenty of scope for Kevin Hawkes's exuberantly goofy illustrations. Hawkes's style is the perfect match for the escalating mayhem of Karla Kuskin's madcap text. A mother buys her son a wooly hat, "red as a rose/and it kept off the snows." Into the billowy drifts goes the lad in his stocking feet, short pants, T-shirt and, of course, out-sized chapeau. What started out as a simple purchase ends up with the young recipient toting a mouse ("in its house of sky blue") and wearing shoes ("shiny and new"), boots ("which were pretty new too"), skis ("polished and bright"), a Halloween mask ("very scary and yellow") and playing -- to the amusement of "some rabbits, five birds and a bear" -- an "elegant cello." And that's before the elephant ("not just a small one -- a heavy, grey, tall one") shows up. Jolly good galumphing fun.

Kristi Jemtegaard is a library manager for Arlington County.

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