Picture Books with Brains

Wild About Books, by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Marc Brown (Knopf, $16.95; ages 4-8). Finally, a paean to literacy and libraries that won't put kids to sleep. Folklorist Judy Sierra proves she is adept at light verse, too, in this joyous Seussian fantasy about what happened "in the summer of 2002/ When the Springfield librarian, Molly McGrew,/ By mistake drove her bookmobile into the zoo." Skeptical at first, the animals warm to "this new something called reading" once Molly breaks out her librarian skills, assigning tall books to the giraffes (Basketball; Skyscrapers), Chinese-language books to the pandas and joke books to the hyenas. Pretty soon she has everyone writing and critiquing: "Roll a ball of dung -- / Any kind of poo will do -- / Baby beetle bed" goes the dung beetle's novice effort at haiku. "Stinks" is the scorpion's stinging verdict. In his first non-Arthur book in a decade, Marc Brown paints a lush, Rousseau-esque Eden in paradisiacal colors and plants a bookish allusion under every leaf.

Monkey Business, by Wallace Edwards (Kids Can Press, $16.95; ages 4-8). Edwards, a Canadian artist, clearly loves words as much as pictures. He had trouble balancing the two in his first picture book, Alphabeasts (2002), which was a bit cerebral and cluttered for people still learning their ABCs. But Monkey Business works much better. Edwards defines an idiom as "an expression, peculiar to a specific language, that cannot be translated literally" and then proceeds to "prove" it by attempting to do just that in extremely literal-minded visual interpretations of 26 sayings, all accompanied by mock-serious example sentences. The results, besides being beautifully painted, are genuinely amusing. "Eloise had a craving for snails, but she accidentally opened a can of worms" shows a distraught fish in a bathrobe, with worms slithering all over her kitchen. Phil the basset hound learning to "play by ear" and Quentin the penguin "rising to the occasion" are funnier still. Think if it as high-art "The Far Side" for third-graders.

Children who like Monkey Business will obviously also enjoy Even More Parts: Idioms From Head to Toe, by Tedd Arnold (Dial, $15.99; ages 4-8), a sequel to the popular Parts and More Parts that offers scary riffs on scores of sayings involving bits and pieces of the body ("I lost my head"; "I sang my heart out"; "It cost an arm and a leg"). There's no resisting the hapless, google-eyed cast and Arnold's inventive wit.

Science Verse, by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith (Viking, $16.99; ages 8-12). In Math Curse (1995), Scieszka and Smith spun magic out of the notion that nearly anything can be viewed as a math problem. Here, a nerdish teacher's admonition to hear "the poetry of science in everything" zaps one student with an even worse curse: Not only is science suddenly everywhere -- in the rain, in his lunch, in a light bulb -- but the poor kid experiences each phenomenon poetically. What follows is a string of very funny science-oriented parodies of famous verse, lowbrow and high-, from Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" ("I think that I ain't never seen/ A poem ugly as a spleen") to Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" (" 'Twas fructose, and the vitamins/ Did zinc and dye (red #8)./ All poly were the thiamins,/ And the carbohydrate."). Lane Smith's dynamic graphics incorporate some spoofs of their own; look for his nods to 19th-century nursery-rhyme art, anatomy textbook illustrations and antique celestial maps.

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean (HarperCollins, $16.99; ages 5-up). Gaiman reveals in an afterword the seed of this deliciously subversive book (first issued in 1997 by the fantasy publishers White Wolf). His son, galled by some paternal cliche he had just delivered, told him one night: "I wish I didn't have a dad! I wish I had . . . goldfish!" "I was awed by the idea," Gaiman says. Hence this tale of a boy who swaps his boring, newspaper-reading father for his friend Nathan's very nice goldfish (" 'Oh-oh,' said my little sister") even though Nathan objects that it's hardly a fair trade: "I've got two goldfish, and you've only got one dad." In fact, dad proves such a dud that the trade triggers a chain reaction of increasingly outlandish new swaps as the neighborhood kids hasten to unload him. McKean, Gaiman's collaborator on the best-selling Coraline and The Wolves in the Walls, is in peak form here, with dark, spiky graphics that somehow manage to convey both sweetness and menace. A winning touch: The parents' faces are always out of the picture. *

-- Elizabeth Ward