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Gator, by Randy Cecil

Gator, by Randy Cecil

Gator is a brightly-painted wooden alligator, posed with a smile on the children’s carousel. “He loved the flashing lights,” writes Randy Cecil in Gator, along with “the sound of the calliope, and the feeling of wind on his face.” Unfortunately, the crowds grow smaller at the amusement park, and eventually the rides stop running, and the lights go dark. “The laughter was gone,” writes Cecil, and the book takes a dramatic turn. One day the wooden alligator “touched the hole in his heart where the pole had been, and looked over the empty park…where he had spent his entire life.

“It was time to leave.”

Randy Cecil also drew the book’s soft oil illustrations, and they give the book a strange grandeur. There’s a few quirky drawing of skinny children with big heads, but the rest of the book is about the carousel alligator, and how he ends up meeting some real animals at a zoo.  They seem just as unreal, thanks to Cecil’s eccentric sketches. The text takes some dramatic turns, but Cecil keeps it light with some funny drawings.

Before he can get to the zoo, the alligator has to wander through a hazy brown forest, and “A cold wind blew through the hole in Gator’s heart.” His best friend on the carousel was a giant wooden duck, so he’s surprised when he crosses an arching stone bridge, and sees real ducks swimming in the stream. He’s attracted to the zoo by the sound of the children laughing, and thinks it must be some kind of amusement park. “But where were the flashing lights?” Gator wonders.

Then he wanders into a pen that’s filled with real alligators, which Cecil describes as “big” and “scary.” He tiptoes away, then sits alone on a park bench, and covers his eyes as he cries. Soon he’s recognized by a child’s father, who remembered riding the carousel as a kid. Soon his son wants to ride the carousel, too, and so do more and more of the children at the zoo.

I thought this was a very original story with some clever touches. Keeping with the book’s merry-go-round theme, the story’s text always appears in ovals that are trimmed with fancy curlicues and golden paint. Together the children and the alligator cross the bridge and travel through the forest. “The calliope began to play, and the lights came back on.”

And “The hole in Gator’s heart was gone.”

Otter Play, by Nancy Luenn

Otter play book cover by Nancy Luenn
The author grew up in Oregon – and the illustrator grew up in Prague. But in 1998, they teamed up for Otter Play, capturing “the joyful magic of the river otters’ day” (according to the dust jacket), “and of the child who watches them.

The illustrations are simple – but effective. Yellow sunshine reflects off a river and tints the colors of the mountain, while the picture magically shows the inside of an otter burrow, where an otter family sleeps cozy in the straw. “They nip each others whiskers,” writes Luenn. A little boy stretches his arms to the sunlight – as inside the burrow, a waking otter stretches its paws.

The river is lit with morning colors – white rings around the otters who surface in the water. The otters slide through a cool, damp tunnel into the river – just as the boy’s family slides their boat into the river from the other bank. The book alternates between the otter’s viewpoint, and the family’s. The otters see the people, and the little boy watches “the otters watching me.” There’s even a drawing of the otters swimming under the water – and on the next page, each otter mouth holds a fish.

And while the otters eat their lunch, the little boy eats an apple…

Nancy Luenn is a talented children’s book writer, who picks colorful words that suggest the river wildlife (like “swish,” “chittering,” “loll,” and even “flapping trout”.) But in the book’s layout, the illustrator hides a special message. Each drawing is inset on the page, surrounded by a frame of the surrounding wilderness. When the sun rises, it’s colorful leaves in the dawn, and when the otters fish, there’s a fish-filled river surrounding the inset picture. It’s a pattern that continues throughout the book, building up to a remarkable image on the final page.

A stick in the apple has become a mast, and a leaf turns it into a sail – “a toy for playful otters.” Both the otter and the little boy are shown playing in the river and wrestling in the sand. And as the otters scramble back into their burrow, the boy’s mother calls him into their camp site’s tent. A star-lit sky frames the picture on two facing pages – the otters sleeping in their warm burrow, and the boy snuggling in a sleeping bag. But on the last page, the otters dream contently “of frogs and fish.” And it’s only through the hole of their burrow that the boy’s tent is seen. Almost as an after-thought, the author tells us what he’s dreaming about.

“Otter play.”

Badger’s Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley

Badger's Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley

It’s a sweet story about death. “Badger was so old that he knew he must die soon,” writes Susan Varley on the first page of Badger’s Parting Gifts. It was the first book that Varley both wrote and illustrated. And showing a first-timer’s ambition, she tackles the most important subject of all.

She writes Badger as a kind character — “dependable, reliable, and always ready to help when help was needed.” He’s enjoys watching the younger animals run races with their healthy young bodies, and he worries about their feelings after he’s gone. He’s told them that someday he’ll be taking a journey, and instead of death says he’ll be traveling through a tunnel. And he leaves behind a simple note for his friends: “Gone down the Long Tunnel. Bye Bye, Badger.”

He dreams of a tunnel on the night he dies — it makes his legs strong and youthful, and by the end he’s floated out of his body altogether. It’s fascinating to watch Susan Varley dismiss the mysteries of the afterlife with the conventions of a fairy tale. It’s a “strange and wonderful dream,” one that badger has never experienced before. And magically, “He no longer needed his walking stick, so he left it lying on the floor of the tunnel.”

The animals feel lost and alone, and the Mole cries the most, drenching his blanket with tears. But as the winter turns to spring, the animals began sharing their memories of Badger. Mole remembers how Badger had taught him how to make a chain of paper dolls shaped like moles. And in the illustration, the badger is back, kindly demonstrating the technique with spectacles on his nose.

Varley is a British artist, and her drawings remind me of “The Wind in the Willows.” There’s a smiling frog who remembers when Badger taught him how to glide on the frozen lake. And like “The Wind in the Willows,” the animals wear fine jackets. In fact, the Fox remembers how it was Badger who’d shown him how to knot his tie!

There’s charming details throughout the story, which make it feel more engaging. Mrs. Rabbit remembers the “wonderful fragrance of gingerbread fresh from the oven” after Badger had given her a cooking lesson. And one illustration shows the animals passing on the skills they’ve learned to other younger animals. The animals’ sadness melts along with the snow, but Mole stands on the hillside where he’d seen Badger for the last time. He says “Thank you, Badger,” believing that somehow his friend would hear him.

And thanks to the magic of children’s book, Susan Varley writes that “somehow…Badger did.”

Charlie and Tess, by Martin Hall and Catherine Walters

Charlie and Tess

Both the author and illustrator live in England, but the story comes straight from the animal kingdom. A farmer finds a lost lamb in a snowstorm, and his children adopt it as a pet… Soon it’s the farmer’s dog Tess who’s watching over the baby sheep, and the two animals become great friends. They share a doghouse and keep each other warm – and Charlie and Tess tells the charming stories about their life together.

The two animals look very cozy, curled up together on a red flannel blanket. The illustrations by Catherine Walters are bright and colorful, and they offer everything you’d want in a children’s book – a happy dog, sunny days, and the excitement of new friends. There’s some fun drawings of pair in a flowery field (with mice poking their noses through stalks in the foreground). And when the farmer tosses a beach ball, both Tess and the lamb Charlie take turns chasing after it!

It was Martin Hall’s first book, but there’s no need for a complicated plot. The lamb-as-a-pet angle is already enough, with the added warmth of his friendship with the farmer’s loyal dog. While Hall savors these details, he slips in an extra plot point. Charlie carries a newspaper proudly in his mouth, and the lamb even gets his own leash. “Sometimes I wonder if Charlie is turning into a dog, the children’s mother admits. And when Charlie joins the farmer’s flock of sheep, Charlie thinks it’s his job to herd them!

The daughter laughs while the farmer worries, but the flowery fields keep the story colorful. “Tess was lonely without her friend, and whined every night be her doghouse,” and soon there’s an even stranger twist ultimately leads the book to a surprisingly satisfying climax. Soon there’s a big snowstorm which threatens the farmer’s entire flock of sheep. “If they didn’t move into the valley quickly it would be too late,” Charlie realizes. “He ran ahead of the flock, baaing loudly. He turned back and butted the other sheep, pulling at their wooly coats with his teeth.

“He raced backward and forward, until finally the flock began to move….”

There’s a happy ending, since the farmer’s sheep are saved after all – and it’s Tess the dog who gets to deliver the good news. (She tugs on the farmer’s trousers and barks, then leads him to a sheltered hollow.) The farmer’s entire flock had weathered the night safely. And in the final drawing, the dog proudly licks the sheep’s fur.

A Regular Rolling Noah by George Ella Lyon

A Regular Rolling Noah by George Ella Lyon

“Now I’d never seen a train before today, but I’ve heard its whistle down at the mouth of the hollow…”

A farmhand walks with the animals, wearing patched jeans and a cowboy hat. He’s wearing red suspenders and a blue shirt, and he’s carrying a bed roll, since he’s helping neighbors move their farm to Canada . They ask him to walk along behind their wagon, and eventually they reach the train. “Bedding and seeds and plows, pot vessels and young’ uns – we load them into the train and it shrieking and steaming.”

“A Regular Rolling Noah” was one of the first books written by George Ella Lyon, at the age of 37. But she’d just published her first collection of poetry, and she applies the same skills to her narration.

There’s simple sentences, like “Hay and feed in the boxcar…” but they reveal so much about the character. Each item suggests the farm and its animals, and they’re listed as though they were afterthoughts, remembering a long day of loading up a train…

Illustrator Stephen Gammell keeps the story intriguing with some simple but realistic watercolors. The train’s engine has a red smokestack and its front is a big yellow circle. The skies are pastel blue, with white clouds, and the train’s tracks are surrounded by the soft green of a grassy field. There’s darker greens for the mountains when the train travels on its journey – and of course, there’s also red and yellow boxcars.

 The farmhand rides along with the animals, and it’s a journey into the unknown. Black smoke puffs fro the engine, as the train travels farther and farther. The boxcar door is open a crack, and hay spills out while the farmhand milks a cow. The next morning, when they reach a new railyard, the farmhand trades eggs for coffee with the hoboes.

“A regular rolling Noah,” one of them suggests, and the boy with the cowboy hat smiles. He has to rush after the train as it leaves the station, and then sweep out the boxcar to put down fresh hay. My favorite picture shows the boxcar from the inside, crowded with cows, a horse, and chickens. There’s a pitchfork in the hay, and the boy feeds the mare a green apple. And in the next picture, they’re all peacefully lying on their side to sleep – the horse, the cow, the calf, and the farmhand.

A Traveling Cat, by George Ella Lyon

A Traveling Cat by George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon was approaching 50 when she set down her childhood memories of a cat she’d found in a small mining town in Kentucky. The cat’s name is Boulevard. You see her silhouette on a trestle bridge over a grassy, tree-lined river – with blue mountains in the background. “I found her at the drive-in movie,” writes George Ella Lyon, “on the playground in front of the screen.” The cat on the playground sits attentively, bravely studying a little girl with its ears perked up – but in the background are classic cars from the 1950s. It’s not only a cat’s perspective – it’s a cat’s perspective from the distant past.

Each page in A Traveling Cat shows beautiful, moody illustrations that show the world in colored chalk – the shades of color in the sky, the bright green of a field – and they make the familiar seem special and magic. When autumn comes, the trees turn orange and yellow. And ironically, one of the most beautiful drawings is on the page with the copyright notice. It’s a two-page spread showing dawn’s light over dark and purple hills. The traveling cat’s road is streaks of yellow, orange, purple, and blue. It’s as though the whole world was being seen through the eyes of a cat.

A little girl named Ruth discovers the cat at a drive-in. Relaxing on the wide upholstery of the car is the girl’s father, who seems friendly – and the whole family seems to enjoy the cat. The drawings capture everyone’s personality. The father lifts the cat proudly, Ruth cradles the cat affectionately, and the text also seems to add to the personalities as well. (“‘Ruth’s found a hitcher!’ he said, picking Bouvie up. ‘Now whose little cat could you be?'”) She watches squirrels, dances in the snow, and catches a ride on the family’s beagle, Roscoe. “Bouvie DID swing from the curtains,” Johnson remembers, “but even Mom said she was graceful.”)

But the text reads like poetry. (“Bouvie had a night-colored coat splattered with gold, like stars.”) And it captures the mystery of life with a cat. The cat disappears for a week, then surprises the family with kittens. On a stormy night she walks through the door, and drops the tiny kitten at their feet. Then does it four my times, depositing five kittens.

Two pages later they’re all given away. And when a flood swamps the town, all the neighborhood’s pets disappear. The animals fled to high ground in the hills – but they never came back. There’s an empty drive-in theatre, with two sad people in the foreground.”All summer I’ve looked for my cat, especially at the drive-in.”

The cat’s gone for good. The book imagines her wandering up a shadowy road with the sunlight through the leaves. But the book finds a positive philosophical note to end on. “Dad says Boulevard stayed a long time for such a traveling cat.

“Maybe, but not long enough.”

The Turkey Mystery Rhyme by Moe Zilla

A funny turkey ebook

Yes, it’s that once-a-year tradition, sharing this funny free ebook about turkeys — mine! It’s a fun short mystery that’s written entirely in rhyme, with 12 cartoon-y illustrations that tell the story of four turkeys on Thanksgiving Day waiting for the farmer’s axe. (“But one of the turkeys has a plan to escape!” read’s the book’s description at Amazon. “Can the farmer figure out which one? And can you?”)

For a shortcut to this free Thanksgiving ebook, just point your browser to
tinyurl.com/TurkeyBook

It’s called “The Turkey Mystery Rhyme,” and it was a real labor of love. (For five days every November, I make it available for free in Amazon’s Kindle Store.) Over the years the ebook has even had some strange adventures of its own. The day after I published it, I’d discovered that my turkeys had snuck onto Amazon’s list of the best-selling children’s ebooks about animals – and stolen the #73 spot from a book about Curious George!

And my friends surprised me one year by insisting that we all read the whole ebook out loud on Thanksgiving Day. They’d connected their widescreen TV to their computer, so it was mirroring whatever appeared on its desktop, and then they’d pulled up Amazon’s Kindle app on that computer, and led it to The Turkey Mystery Rhyme. It was a great way to get some real reactions to the story, especially since most authors never get to actually be in the room while their ebook is being read! And then we all took turns reading the rhyming story out loud.

“For Thanksgiving, try this game. Find the guilty turkey’s name…”

I remember we had a teenager in the room, and his mother asked if he knew which turkey had launched the daring plan for escape. But that mother was a sharp cookie, and she challenged one of the book’s important fictional premises.

Fearing folks on every street
hungering for turkey meat,
In the farmer’s yard’s a spread
where Thanksgiving turkeys bred.

When the daylight brightly broke
all the farmer’s birds awoke.
And, since it’s a holiday,
all turkeys can talk today…


“What?!!” she said, to laughter from the room. “Since when can turkeys talk on Thanksgiving Day?”

Everyone knows that,” I joked. “You’ve just never been on a farm…” And then we laughed some more, and continued reading…


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Read the free rhyming Thanksgiving turkey mystery at
tinyurl.com/TurkeyBook

The Great Pig Escape by Eileen Christelow

The Great Pig Escape by Christelow

It’s based on a true story – just like Steve McQueen’s “Great Escape” – but with pigs! According to the book’s jacket, the author of The Great Pig Escape read a story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette about a farmer who was taking his pigs to a livestock auction, and discovered they’d all escaped from the back of his truck. (“After the farmer discovered his loss, he retraced his trip and found all of his pigs in various parts of town, miraculously unhurt.”) Author Eileen Christlelow saw potential for a good children’s book, but she also decided to make a few changes in the story.

Bert and Ethel live together on a farm, and one day Bert suggests that they raise pigs.  “Sounds like trouble to me,” says Ethel, but Bert buys six piglets anyways, and even Ethel admits that they’re cute. After a while, she’s the one who’s warning Bert not to hurt their feelings. She even shushes Bert when he says “Eight months from now they’ll be pork chops, so don’t go falling in love with them…”

And when Bert announces to Ethel that he’ll sell the pigs at the market the next day, she warns, “Sh-h-h! They’ll hear you!” Sure enough, all the pigs immediately stop slurping, and that night there’s some extra oinking in the pigpen. (“Sounds like they’re planning something,” warns Ethel…) Because Christlelow wrote and illustrated the book, she can hide extra jokes in the pictures. The next day Bert complains that he can’t find the bolt to lock his truck’s tailgate – but in the bottom corner of a picture, there’s a smiling pig prancing off with the bolt in his mouth!

It’s genuinely exciting when their big break-out comes. The pigs chew through the rope that Bert uses to tie the tailgate, and “As they bumped and rattled down the road toward town, the rope snapped… But Bert and Ethel didn’t notice.” When the couple stops for gas, two pigs scoot out and under a nearby fence. At each stop, more pigs scoot off into the scenery – and it seems like every pig has a smile on its face.

Christlelow’s simple, cartoon-like illustrations keep the story light, with just enough realism to make you root for the escaping pigs. Using watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings, she shows the farmer’s red truck, stopping for the blur of a speeding locomotive rushing past. At the edge of the drawing, two little pigs hop eagerly onto the road, and head off onto another farm. But by the end of the book, they’ve done something even more clever.

They’ve stolen clothes and disguised themselves – and then caught a bus for Florida!

New Dr. Seuss Book Released!

Dr Seuss cover - What Pet Should I GetThis is exciting! Amazon just announced on Twitter that a never-before-seen picture book by Dr. Seuss has just been released! “Told in Dr. Seuss’s signature rhyming style, this is a must-have for Seuss fans and book collectors,” according to the book’s description at Amazon, “and a perfect choice for the holidays, birthdays, and happy occasions of all kinds.”

It’s called What Pet Should I Get?, and it’s just as fun and imaginative as all the other familiar Dr. Seuss classics, according to reviewers on Amazon. “The book seems a bit more fulfilling then a few other Dr. Seuss stories,” wrote one reader, “as it takes the reader through a full scale trip through the pet shop.” They pointed out that it’s illustrated in the same instantly-recognizable style as other Dr. Seuss books — and that it even uses the same two children from One Fish, Two Fish. (Although I thought it was amusing that instead of buying the Kindle edition, the reviewer rushed to their local Walmart so they’d have a hardcover edition!)

What’s interesting is the book has a warm message for children — this one about how hard it is to make a decision. “The tale captures a classic childhood moment — choosing a pet — and uses it to illuminate a life lesson,” according to the book’s description at Amazon. “[T]hat it is hard to make up your mind, but sometimes you just have to do it! ” And you can tell the publisher is excited about the release of a new Dr. Seuss book. They’re calling What Pet Should I Get? “the literary equivalent of buried treasure!”

There’s a true tale at the end of the book — about how this lost Dr. Seuss manuscript was finally recovered (including the illustrations). And it also discusses which pets were adopted by Dr. Seuss himself! There’s even a description of his creative process — which should be inspiring to future children’s book authors. But most of all, the book just looks like it’s a lot of fun.

“Wonderful rhymes and delightful creatures,” promises another reviewer on Amazon, “that are sure to entertain the little ones in your family.”

Weaving the Rainbow, by George Ella Lyon

Weaving the Rainbow, by George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon is my favorite children’s author, and in “Weaving the Rainbow” she almost hides a riddle. She describes sheep in a pasture, and follows them through the seasons. They lead ordinary sheep lives, “But they were getting closer to the rainbow,” Lyon writes. The next page describes fall, and it features colorful leaves. But it’s only on the final page that the real rainbow is revealed.

It’s another children’s book with lavish watercolor illustrations. Even on the book’s inside cover, there’s four shades of green in a spectacular field, plus a white picket fence and blue skies in the distance. “The weaver” looks proudly on the sheep in her pasture. And fall brings red leaves – and shaggy fur for the sheep.

But it’s easy to see how the illustrator was inspired by Lyons’ text. “It is spring now. It is shearing time,” she writes simply – but those words suggest rich illustrations. And when the sheep were born, their coats were white, Lyon writes. They’re turned out into “April fields”, and they even win ribbons at the state fair. The sheep’s lives pass by quickly, because the book is not about the sheep – it’s about their wool!

Lyon describes the sheared wool coming off in one piece, “white and springy,” and it’s brushed and then twisted into yarn. The weaver dyes the yarn, and hangs loose coils of color on the branches of a blossoming tree. When describing her dyes, Lyon uses colorful words that are also the names of plants – like indigo and goldenrod – simply listing them on the page, like lines of a poem. And then she adds a poetic line of her own. “She is cooking up a rainbow.”

Ultimately, there’s beautiful illustrations of the colored yarn, stretched for the weaving shuttles, “back and forth, back and forth.” And in the text, the words about nature seem to also be words about colors. “From the wool of her white sheep she weaves Kentucky pastures, grass green, evergreen, willow yellow, redbud, purple shadow, shy sky blue.”

She’s “doing with wool what a painter does with paint,” Lyon adds wisely. In a wonderful irony, the artist weaves little lambs into her tapestry – using the white wool that she’d sheared from real lambs.

Only then can the reader understand the strange drawing on the book’s copyright page. It’s another view of the field from the book’s inside cover – now including sheep. But as the drawing moves to the page’s right side, the drawing suddenly starts to fade into a faint grid. At the end of the, its meaning is clear: it represents the crisscrossed crocheting in the weaver’s final tapestry.

Charlie Anderson, by Barbara Abercrombie

Charlie Anderson, by Barbara Abercrombie

The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. Moon glow lights the back of a cat, and turns the backyard a soft green. Though it’s a grey foggy night with a dark blue sky, there’s a warm yellow light coming from the open back door. It’s the house where “Elizabeth and Sarah lived,” and on a cold night, a stray cat walks out of the woods and up their steps.

Charlie Anderson is one of those children’s stories with enough warmth to touch readers of all ages. The cat “curled up next to their fireplace to get warm,” then tasted their dinner and tested their beds. With a perfect watercolor illustration for each action, the book makes the cat seems real. Every morning he disappears into the woods – but at night while he sleeps on her bed, Elizabeth can hear the cat purring in the dark.

Author Barbara Abercrombie found the perfect details to suggest the cat’s life with the two little girls. (“When it snowed, Elizabeth and Sarah’s mother heated Charlie’s milk before he left for the woods.”) And on the next page, Abercrombie shares the most crucial detail of all. “He grew fatter and fatter, and every day he purred louder and louder.”

One drawing shows the girls making a soft bed for the cat in their suitcase. They don’t want to leave him behind when they visit “their father and stepmother.” Abercrombie manages to suggest so much with these single-page moments. One stormy night, Charlie didn’t come to visit, and the girls sat on their steps in raincoats calling the cat’s name.

It’s a classic picture-with-stories, since the children’s faces say just as much as the story’s text. Elizabeth looks sad and distracted, while the rest of drawing shows her bedroom window filled with the dark night outside. “All night long Elizabeth listened to the rain beating on the roof and the wind rattling the windows.” And the next day, when their neighbor offers them cookies to cheer her up, the little girls turn them down.

The book has a twist at the end – and it’s a very funny surprise. The children ask a neighbor if he’s seen their gray cat, while the man says he has a gray cat of his own. Charlie comes strolling down the stairs, and purrs at his owner – and at the two girls. The man assumed that his cat was hunting at night, when he was really just sleeping in the girls’ warm house. On the last page, the author tucks her message – that the cat has “two families who love him,” just like the girls do with their now-divorced parents.

And meanwhile, the cat “sat at their feet, very happy and very fat.”

Pig Pig Gets a Job by David McPhail


I was fascinated by this book – Pig Pig Gets a Job. I mean, it’s always tough to find a good job – especially in this economy – but in this case, the job-seeker is a small, talking pig!  He wears red overalls, and he’s very enthusiastic, but he also seems young and inexperienced. I’m getting paid to write this review – but who’s ever going to pay poor little Pig Pig?

The animals in David McPhail’s books always remind me of Beatrix Potter’s characters. They lead simple human lives, in cozy houses, facing problems with a mix of confidence and confusion. So I genuinely enjoyed the idea of a children’s book studying a problem we live with every day – the stress of earning a living. Maybe “Pig Pig Gets a Job” would be a good gift for father’s day, I thought…

“I want some money. I want to buy something,” Pig Pig tells his mother.  When she asks him what, he replies. “I don’t know yet. But something.” Behind the ambitious pig character is a grown-up author who’s probably smiling slyly at our whole society. And when his mother suggests that he can earn money by getting a job, the pig puts his paw to his chin and starts to consider it…

The pig never gets a job – he is too young and inexperienced – but each page shows the pig imagining himself in new possible careers. The pig sees himself as a chef – since he’s so good at making mud pies – and as a builder (using the hammer he’s just received for his birthday). One illustration shows the pig working as an auto repairman – by wielding a sledgehammer –  and another shows him driving a bulldozer at the dump. In one picture the pig’s dressed as the ringleader at the circus. But turn the page and he’s back in his living room talking excitedly to his mother. “I have a great idea! You could give me a job!”

This book reminds me of the episode of “Seinfeld” where George tries to find his way to a new job by being hopelessly unrealistic, saying “I like sports… I could be a sports announcer….” But as I understand it, there’s a whole series of books about this daydreaming pig. David McPhail also wrote Edward and the Pirates, which my friend Richard swears is one of his favorite children’s books. But Pig Pig adds a charming simplicity to McPhail’s stories – which is at least a starting point for funny adventures.

The Bear Who Wanted to Fly by Carol Shaver

The Bear Who Wanted to Fly by Carol Shaver

There’s something magical about a picture book that’s 14 inches tall. (There’s that friendly bear peeping back at you from the inside front cover.) And there’s also an appropriate quote from Jacqueline Kennedy. “There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all…”

And as the magic begins, you can tell that author Carol Shaver spent time telling stories to children. The Bear Who Wanted to Fly is always packed with warm enthusiasm — along with lots of extra adjectives. Right from the first page, I also liked the bright illustrations by Rachel Smith. Their clean, simple style suggests a sunny day with some friendly animals.

“The bear was sitting high up in the pine tree,” the book begins — with a lovely picture of the bear gazing out at a blue mountain sky. He’s perched on branch overlooking a dark blue river, and the simple drawing of his tree even includes a bird’s nest! For weeks, Cubby the bear had watched as the birds “swoop and dive and frolic in the air.” And then suddenly the bear reaches a conclusion. It must be the feathers….

I hoped that kids wouldn’t get the wrong idea, because that’s never going to work. But the book makes that clear, and I really loved all this book’s colorful details, and the way it still found its way to a warm and happy ending. It’s fun that the bear is watched by “the inquisitive squirrel twins,” Chatter and Crunch. They see him scurrying around to collect feathers — beautiful feathers — and storing them in a “saving place” in the forest’s Grand Pine Tree.

And then that bear starts collecting pine cones — sticky pinecones. (The author hints that it’s “nature’s glue”…) Then suddenly the bear disappears. The squirrels and all the animals in the woods start to talk about him, and search, and worry. There’s a wonderful drawing of the bear, covered with colorful feathers, smiling a silly bear smile as he walks toward the end of his branch…

There’s real children’s-story drama — and amazingly, a very happy ending, as all his forest friends rush a pile of autumn leaves under the branch where the bear will inevitably fall. “Friends help friends…” the squirrels say at the end of the book.

And they even arrange a special ride for him on the back of some eagles, so he gets to fly after all.

Dropped-Off Dog by Catherine Lagorio

Dropped-Off Dog (A Mostly True Tail)

The book’s cover even looks like a dog, with a background illustration showing fur in sunlight. This sets a doggy theme for the book’s realistic watercolor sketches, and it’s based on a real dog who came to live in a rural town in California. Author Catherine Lagorio was inspired to write Dropped-Off Dog by the real problem of animals who are abandoned out in the countryside. You have been warned: there some parts of this book which are actually very sad…

A little tiger-striped dog lives in a cozy house with Abuelita — an old woman drawn walking with a cane. Then one day Abuelita is whisked away in a wheelchair, after a day when “many strangers came and went” — and the dog hides under the bed. “No one noticed him. No one remembered he was there. That night, after everyone left, the little tiger-striped dog was all-alone…”

Brace yourself, because here comes the sad part. “Though he had his bed to sleep in, he had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and no one to take care of him.” The dog eats crumbs he finds around the house, until he’s driven into the countryside and abandoned. “He ran after the car for a few minutes as fast as his little legs could carry him…but it was no use.” The dog remains abandoned for several days, and eventually “quit hoping someone would come back to get him.

“He was now very hungry and the little puddles of water he had been drinking from at the side of the road had dried up…”

The last page of the book shares a note from the author — that this happens all too frequently. She acknowledges that some people mistakenly think that an animal can survive in the woods — it can’t — and she wrote this book to raise awareness. Lagorio once worked as an elementary school teacher, and she even has a Master’s in Language Development. I wish her nothing but success in her ongoing campaign to keep dogs from being left behind alone in the woods…

I was actually really excited when this story’s dog finally discovered a bowl of dog food at a home near the woods. There was a bigger dog growling nearby — it was his food, after all. But that dog’s kindly owner later discovered the little tiger-striped dog hiding in the woods. Instinctively the little dog runs away, but the farmer lures it back with a handful of tasty hot dogs. “You are a cute little guy,” the farmer says, and though the dialogue is a bit wooden, the farmer explains to his wife that “he needs us.” The book ends with a picture of the two dogs happily curled up together on pillows — and I misted up at the book’s final sentence.

“…the Little Tiger-Striped Dog became Steve, and he really, truly lived happily ever after.”

The North Pole Penguin by Christopher Payne

The North Pole Penguin by Christopher Payne

I love Christmas! And so does the author of this new book, The North Pole Penguin. “I began thinking about writing a story when my niece was born because I thought it would be a great gift for her,” Christopher Payne told me in a letter. And now it’s become a shiny new book that’s ready just in time for Christmas….

The bright, festive cover introduces you to smiley Parker the penguin, and for an extra Christmas-y feeling, its title is in red and green letters. (That penguin is even wearing green mittens, and making red X’s on a calendar!) The illustrations (by Lorena Soriano) have a colorful, cartoon-y feel which set a holiday tone for the book from its very first page. “December in the South Pole world was filled with Christmas cheer. And Parker Preston led the way in winter every year…”

Yes, this story even rhymes. (It’s like the book wants to be read out loud…) And every picture lets you follow its smiley penguin as he travels the world with a snowman. The snowman’s a gift for Santa Claus — so Preston probably should’ve avoided South America altogether. Ah, but he couldn’t, the author points out — because penguins live in the south pole!

“I grew tired of seeing penguins in Christmas decorations and movies,” Payne told me. “As many of us learned in school (and apparently forgot), penguins are native to the South Pole area, not the North Pole…!” But there was another more important idea that was inspiring him. “We always hear the phrase, ‘It’s better to give than to receive’ around the holidays, and then forget the meaning behind the words… I wanted to create a character who could actually step back and think for a second and realize that if it truly is better to give than to receive, and if Santa Claus is the ultimate giver, who gives gifts to him?”

I really liked the message of the book. (I still get a warm feeling when I remember that Christmas is about the giving…) Even a prologue on the book’s first page reminds us that “Santa Claus is real, and if you believe in him and are brave enough to look for him, you might just get to meet him!” And I believe that’s actually true, if you read between the lines. Everyone knows that Santa is the spirit of giving itself — and in this story, it’s a little penguin who understands that best of all.

The book traces the penguin’s long journey to deliver his gift to Santa, across the world — and even through New York City. I liked how the penguin shared a pizza with river rats “under urban stars”, and that all the animals he meets on his trip seem friendly and helpful. Maybe it’s a reminder that Christmas is celebrated internationally, or that generous people are everywhere. There’s even a campfire in Canada, and all the animals he meets contribute more gifts for Santa.

The story might be a bit long for younger children, since Santa doesn’t appear until page 24. (And it might’ve been fun to have some dialogue between the penguin and his friends — if only so kids could hear their parents trying to imitate a penguin!) But there’s a nice Christmas feeling to the whole project, with Christmas lights surrounding the text on many of the pages. Even pages with just text have a different-colored background, like a Christmas-y green, a wintry blue, or a fireplace yellow… And most importantly, Payne wrote a story that “captures everything right about the true spirit of the holiday.”

“I just hope others feel the same way!”

Timmy’s New Friend by Andreas Dierssen

Timmy's New Friend by Andreas Dierssen

Timmy’s New Friend was first published in Switzerland, with the name “Toddels tollster Freund.” Even the English version at my public library was printed in Belgium, according to the title page, though it doesn’t say who translated the text. So “Toddels” became “Timmy”, though he’s still a little rabbit wearing a sweater and playing happily with a red ball. He’s playing with another rabbit friend — “Rocket” in this version — when they hear twigs cracking in the forest behind them.

It’s a cute little bear cub named Bruno standing in the sunlight and wearing a football jersey. He wants to play with the two rabbits, and he can throw their red ball even higher. Unfortunately, it gets stuck in a tree, and the three animals have trouble getting it out. They try standing on each other’s shoulders, with Timmy reaching up with a long stick, but Timmy slips and falls to the ground.

The funny illustrations by Felix Scheinbergerare what make this book so entertaining. For example, Timmy’s got a frazzled expression as he hits the ground, with his ears laying flat, sticking out in both directions. But he’s got a hopeful, friendly smile when he first meets the bear cub. Besides the funny caricatures, the illustrator also uses lots of interesting perspectives to create a sense of depth for the peaceful forest where the animals are playing.

The bear has another idea for dislodging the ball from the tree — catapulting the two animals into the sky by jumping on one end of a seesaw. The bear smiles confidently, and closes his eyes with pride as he leaps. But it only results in a very funny drawing of the animals hurtling through the dark blue sky, with one rabbit grimacing in fear and the other tilting their head back and screaming. In the ensuing chaos, the bear even squashes the rabbit’s red ball accidentally. The bear meant well with everything he’d done, but each time it ended in catastrophe.

The story was written by Andreas Dierssen, and he’s ultimately teaching a lesson about forgiveness. But it arrives subtly, and he seems to spend a lot more time showing just how angry the young rabbit is — and why. It’s only in the book’s last pages that the burly bear redeems himself by rescuing the rabbit from a bullying fox.

And it turns out on the last page that he’d brought a brand-new ball to make up for the mishap, and the book ends with the three animals friends playing happily together again.

Little Mouse’s Birthday Cake, by Thacher Hurd

Little Mouse's Birthday Cake by Thacher Hurd

“Today was Little Mouse’s birthday…”

But unfortunately, all his mouse friends have other plans for the day. So the story switches to a day in the life of a mouse – climbing Mouse Mountain, drinking hot chocolate at the top, and then skiing down the snowy hillside. It looks like fun, though there’s still festive thoughts in the head of the solitary mouse. When he reaches the top of the hill, he even imagines that he’s sitting on a giant birthday cake!

Thacher Hurd drew cheerful illustrations for Little Mouse’s Birthday Cake, and the book feature bright pastel colors filling simple sketches of the little mouse with the big, pointy nose. He comes from a family of illustrators, and his father (Clement Hurd) was the illustrator of Goodnight, Moon. Thacher’s mother, Edith Thacher Hurd, also wrote more than 75 children’s books, according to the Harper Collins web site. It’s hard not to wonder if their son Thacher absorbed their love of children’s literature, and was influenced by their work when he drew this book’s illustrations.

The story seems a little predictable, but its real appeal is Hurd’s funny drawings of the little mouse. The mouse takes a tumble on the ski slope, falling head first into a deep drift of snow. Soon the drawings turn more expressive, as the little mouse wanders off into the woods as the sun is setting. He gets lost, and climbs to the top of a tree, “But when he looked out from the tree, all he saw were more trees.”

It looks lonely, but it makes the story more effective, since it’s ultimately a book about friendship. Alone in the tree, the mouse dreams about a giant pink birthday cake that’s rolling after him down a hill. And when he wakes up, he sees bright yellow lights flickering through the trees in the distance. “Far away, Little Mouse heard someone calling his name.” It’s his friends, who’d come looking for him, and followed his ski tracks until they found him. And when they lead him back to his home, the mouse discovers it’s been decorated for a birthday surprise party.

Hurd wrote one other book about the character – “Little Mouse’s Big Valentine” – but it never really caught on with the book-buying public. Maybe the story was too generic, but I thought the illustrations were appropriately cheery. When the mice all arrive for the birthday party, the room is filled with a yellow light from the fire. And the book ends with the mouse’s face lit by the yellow glow of his birthday candles.

“‘Yum!’ said Little Mouse…”

Honey… Honey… Lion! A Story from Africa by Jan Brett

Cover Illustration from Honey Honey Lion by Jan Brett

I didn’t know this. In Africa, there’s a bird that will track a bee to its home, and then lead over a badger to crack open the hive, so that both of them can share the honey. “That is the way it has always been,” writes Jan Brett in a wonderful children’s picture book. But as always, the star of this story is her detailed illustrations of all the animals.

There’s a black badger gorging on eight different stolen honeycombs. (“Maybe this day Badger was hungrier than usual,” writes Brett.) You can tell that the Badger’s partner, the bird, is starting to feel peeved. Brett’s drawing shows the bird perched on the remnants of a tree trunk, with its head cocked to one side, and a scowl in its tiny brown bird eyes…

As with all her books, there’s a wealth of illustrations — including extra illustrations on either side of the page. There’s the giant tall trees on a grassy African Savannah. And she peeks in on all the story’s other animal characters, including the elephants and the hippopotamuses. But my favorite illustration shows the happy badger as he sleeps off his tremendous meal. He lies on his back — pointing his soft belly fur to the sky — while his pink-soled feet roll lazily to the side.

It’s wonderful to see the scenery of Africa as the bird plays a trick on the badger. It flies past his home in the baobab tree, and over the hippopotamuses in the water hole. It flies over the warthogs by the termite mound, and past the jackals near a long hollow log. There’s a stand of papyrus, and a field of golden bristle grass — but the puffing badger, following behind, only wants to get to the honey.

You have to lift a flap to see what’s hiding under the acacia tree. But there’s a big, yellow paw sticking out — and in a second set of illustrations at the sides of the page, two giraffes point their strange heads to watch with interest. “Honey… Honey… Lion!” reads the crucial line of dialogue.

“Lion, lion, lion!” screams the badger — as the lion emerges on the next page with a gloriously shaggy mane…

Then all the animals of the savanah start to run — the giraffes and the jacakals , and the elephants. And by the book’s last page, all the animals are now telling a different story — of how important it is to share your honey with the little bird who leads you there. “Be sure and reward her,” they say, over the “bush telegraph” that connects all the animals of Africa.

“Or next time, she will lead you to a lion!”