Picture Books to Think About

Four Hens and a Rooster, by Lena and Olof Landstrom, translated from the Swedish by Joan Sandin (R&S, $16; age 4-8). This tale of a farmyard revolt is about as good as a picture book can get. Four large, docile hens -- Brown, Beige, Blond and Red -- share a yard with a puny but big-headed rooster. "The rooster paid no attention whatsoever to the hens. He was much too busy with his own important project." But one day, the ladies dare to wonder why their places at the food trough are so much smaller than his. Apoplectic at this hint of unrest, the rooster calls in a pair of bullyboy "booster roosters." Before long, Brown, Beige, Blond and Red are sharing a mere fifth of the trough. It's time to shed the pearls and purses and get serious. "We'll take a course in self-esteem," decrees Blond. It turns out that a little strength training and solidarity go a long way. The art is as delicious as the gently satirical text. Don't miss the sequence in which the hens practice relaxation, voice training, "feather fluffing" and "working together in small groups," fortified by Power Bars and sport drinks. Chick lit just doesn't come any better.

The Great Voyages of Zheng He, in English and Chinese, by Song Nan Zhang and Hao Yu Zhang (Pan Asian Publications, $16.95; ages 10-up). China's new ascendancy is all over the news, so the longer perspective offered here by the Zhangs, a father-and-son team, is a useful one for kids: "It was the beginning of the monsoon season nearly 600 years ago in southern China. . . . At the mouth of the Yangtze River, the biggest naval fleet the world had ever seen was ready to launch an epic voyage." If China looms large now, consider its reach back in 1405, when 32-year-old admiral Zheng He set out on the first of seven expeditions that would take him all over Asia and as far west as Arabia and Africa. Decades before Columbus launched his fragile flotilla, He's fleets comprised hundreds of huge ships, depicted by Song Nan Zhang in brilliant double-page spreads. The English text can be stodgy and glaringly ungrammatical ("Accompanied by academia and scholars on each of Zheng He's voyages, there was no shortage of cultural exchange"), but He's amazing story outshines the rough telling. It ends on a plaintive but accurate note: "All the accolade [sic] went to those European explorers."

Memories of Survival, by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz and Bernice Steinhardt (Hyperion, $15.99; ages 8-up). Esther Krinitz died in America in 2001, at 74. She could well have died in her native Poland in 1942, at 15. In October of that year, the Nazis ordered all the Jews in her village to report to the local train station. Esther and her 13-year-old sister hid instead. Turned away by neighbors, the two survived the war by passing themselves off as Catholic farm girls. Their family, whom they never saw again, presumably perished at Majdanek, a death camp. Esther married and emigrated to New York, where years later she undertook a remarkable project: telling her story -- from childhood through the three-year Nazi occupation and war to her first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty in 1949 -- in a series of meticulously hand-sewn panels of embroidery and collage. Nearly three dozen of the panels are reproduced here, with Esther's stitched captions expanded on in a commentary by her daughter, Bernice Steinhardt. As one might imagine, the result is much more than a children's book, though it is being marketed as such, probably because of the childlike, folk-art quality of the pictures and the directness and simplicity of the narrative. In fact, the pastoral prettiness yields image after image of utter horror: Jewish boys being whipped at a labor camp as the sisters graze their cows nearby, giant cabbages growing out of human ashes at Majdanek, the bodies of Nazi officers hanging like gray fruit from trees on the road to Berlin. A searing work, to be shared with care.

The Stars Will Still Shine, by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 3-8). There's a nod to the darkness in the very title of this beautiful book. To say the stars will still shine means somebody needs reassuring. Even small children far from harm's way learned this year that the world is a scary place. Rylant, a Newbery medalist, never mentions Iraq or Hurricane Katrina or bird flu, but shadows cast by those and other calamities are implicit in her syntax: "this new year . . . the sky will still be there/ the stars will still shine/ birds will fly over us/ church bells will chime." Calves, kittens and flowers remain, come what may, along with peaches, pie and ice cream three scoops high. One lovely couplet promises that "there will be goodness, there will be grace/ there will be light in every dark place." The book itself offers light: Tiphanie Beeke's watercolors virtually pulsate with it.

-- Elizabeth Ward