No one knows the rigors of fatherhood like the male seahorse. When it's time for Mrs. Seahorse to lay her eggs, she deposits them safely into a pouch on Mr. Seahorse's belly. "I'll take good care of our eggs," he tells her. "I promise."
In Mister Seahorse (Philomel, $16.99; ages 4-up), a salty salute to devoted dads, beloved collage artist Eric Carle draws a warm-hearted story from the ocean's depths. As Mr. Seahorse cares for his young, he swims through a sea illustrated in lush layers of painted tissue paper. He encounters other animal fathers, all tending their babies-to-be, and offers them words of encouragement. There's Mr. Stickleback, who has just built a nest; Mr. Tilapia, who holds a cache of eggs in his mouth; and Mr. Kurtus, who keeps his mate's eggs safe on top of his head.
The beguiling cast of creatures includes some animals that Mr. Seahorse doesn't see: They are carefully camouflaged under clear overlay pages printed with vibrant seascapes. This interactive element is a delightful addition to the book. As in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which featured die-cut pages to peek through, Carle again offers young readers a chance to dive (as it were) into the story.
Mr. Seahorse sends his children into the world with a tender, reassuring message. "I do love you," he says. "But now you are ready to be on your own."
If this winsome tale whets your appetite for more stories, try pairing it with The Emperor's Egg, Martin Jenkins and Jane Chapman's story of how a father penguin incubates his own very special egg.
A Crusty Chronicle
What's the best thing since sliced bread? Un-sliced bread. At least that's the case in Monsieur Saguette and His Baguette (Kids Can, $14.95; ages 3-7) by Frank Asch, the charming account of a hungry Frenchman who overcomes a series of mishaps (francofoibles?) using just his imagination and the baguette that he is bringing home for dinner.
When a little girl's cat is stuck in a tree, it's not the firemen who come to the rescue but Monsieur Saguette, who plucks her pet from between the branches with his faithful loaf of bread. When an errant alligator tries to eat a baby, he cries, "Fear not!" and wedges his baguette between its jaws just long enough to save the day (but not so long that the alligator can eat his bread instead). "My hero!" says the mother; "Goo goo," says the baby -- and Monsieur Saguette continues his journey with a wave and a smile.
Soon the gutsy gourmand gets even more creative. His baguette replaces a bandleader's missing baton. It pins a robber to the ground. And when Monsieur Saguette tumbles into an open manhole, he ties his neckerchief to the baguette and waves this homemade flag until a good Samaritan comes to pull him from the sewer.
After Monsieur Saguette finally arrives at his home, he savors the reward of a hard day's work: a satisfying meal of hot carrot soup, accompanied by one well-traveled baguette. Asch's lively, loose-lined illustrations are full of humorous bravado. Kids will adore the endearing escapades, and adults may think twice before cutting down on carbohydrates.
Step aside, Superman: This spring, heroism has gone to the dogs. Dexter the dachshund may be the smallest pup in town, but he dreams of being "faster than a rolling ball, stronger than the toughest rawhide, able to leap tall fences in a single bound!" If only Dexter were a superhero, then even Cleevis the tomcat would stop teasing him about his size. In Superdog: The Heart of a Hero (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 4-8), husband-and-wife team Caralyn and Mark Buehner follow Dexter's entertaining journey from pipsqueak to power-pooch.
This dog has discipline. Dexter reads every comic book he can get his paws on. For exercise, he leaps over sidewalk cracks, scales the garbage heap and makes himself circle the rug five extra times before bed. Soon his hero suit, complete with a cape and spandex unitard, arrives in the mail. Dexter hits the streets, where he finds a lost kitten, puts out a trash can fire, and tackles a purse-snatcher. When Dexter completes his training, he stares into the mirror and flexes his muscles, which are as mountainous as those of a certain governor of California. Suddenly he doesn't seem so small after all.
Mark Buehner's energetic illustrations, some of which are designed to resemble comic book panels, are full of bright colors and humorous details. Readers will also enjoy finding a slew of tiny animal shapes hidden in the artwork.
In the end, Dexter saves Cleevis from a treetop, and the grateful cat asks if he can be a superhero too. A new friendship is forged, and a dynamic duo is born.
A Child Is Born
"Tell me the story about when I was inside you, Mama," a little girl asks. With warmth and wit, her mother gladly obliges. A sweet offering from Deb Lund and Hiroe Nakata, Tell Me My Story, Mama (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 3-5) handles a tricky subject with tenderness.
As Mama tells her daughter what it was like to be pregnant, her memories are illustrated in Nakata's lovely springtime palette, awash in hues of pale green, warm peach and sunny yellow. People rub Mama's big belly for luck. Daddy sings to her stomach. Mama is so big that she bumps into things and, when she goes out for a walk, Daddy has to push her up hills. She gorges herself on mashed potatoes and vanilla ice cream.
At the edge of each illustration, the little girl appears, chiming in on her story with enthusiasm. As Mama gives birth to a squalling baby, the girl adds gleefully, "And I was mad!"
When Mama trundles around, she is frequently in the company of the comically befuddled Daddy, who is so distracted by his wife that he can't hold a cup of tea without dropping it and is forever losing his glasses to the forces of gravity.
The story ends with a sweet surprise. Mama's expecting a second baby, and soon she will have another memory to share. Lund handles the news with kindness that will soothe any soon-to-be sibling. "The new baby will have its own story," Mama reassures her daughter. "You'll still have yours."
Creatures Great and Small
Imagine going eye to eye with a giant squid, or getting close enough to count the teeth of a man-eating saltwater crocodile. In Steve Jenkins's Actual Size, (Houghton Mifflin, $16; ages 4-8) animals are rendered in life-sized paper collages that push against the edge of the page.
Some of the animals are minuscule. The dwarf goby, smallest fish in the world, measures a mere third of an inch long. Other creatures are so large only a fraction of them can fit on the page. Of the elephant, we see just one enormous foot; of the gorilla, the palm of one leathery hand. The effect is a bit like having IMAX in your living room, particularly when a gatefold page at the center of the book unfurls to reveal a giant, jumping Goliath frog.
As in his earlier books (in the interest of disclosure, I worked on one of them, One Nighttime Sea, during my tenure at Scholastic), Jenkins builds richly textured images from torn and cut paper. Meticulously constructed, they capture details down to the last whisker of a Siberian tiger.
Some readers may find it difficult to extrapolate the whole from the parts of the larger animals. Fortunately, Jenkins supplies a detailed appendix at the end, complete with scaled down images and fascinating facts about each animal.
Young zoologists will enjoy seeing how they measure up with the creatures on each page. For example, the world's longest insect, the giant walking stick, is almost long enough to be real a walking stick -- it is, indeed, nearly as long as my arm. Actual Size offers revelations of scale, and a compellingly close look at the animal kingdom. *
Jessica Bruder is a writer and former children's book editor.