WHO'S KNOCKING AT THE DOOR?
Part mystery, part shaggy dog story, this long-winded picture book features a companionable old man and woman whose kindness to a horse, cow and two chickens result in their mutual good fortune. Not only do these animals talk, but they also cook breakfast, clean and, conveniently, capture a pair of robbers. Unfortunately, Stevens's (Anna, Grandpa, and the Big Storm ) convoluted plot, clunky dialogue and weak character development weigh down the book, despite the whimsical illustrations. Chapman's (Doggie Dreams ) oil paintings convey the optimism of the good guys (the old couple; the animals), while the villains (the farmer who tracks down the animals; the robbers) seem cast from a Snidely Whiplash cartoon. Their frozen, toothy smiles and their blustery or mean-spirited actions contrast well with the wide-eyed innocence of the other characters. The inept sheriff's language ("Hands—hands—oh, I almost forgot. Handcuffs!") sounds awkward. On the other hand, children may enjoy the repeated sound effects—the horse walks "clippity clop, clippity clop ," the hens fly "flippity flappity ," and the cow moves "clumpity clump, clumpity clump ." Ultimately, however, the drawn-out storytelling dilutes the comedy. Ages 4-8. (Mar.)