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Picture Books

Shark vs. Train
Chris Barton, illus. by Tom Lichtenheld (Little, Brown)
This is one of those elementally brilliant ideas that evokes a "Why didn't I think of that?" response. By pitting a cartoon train and shark against each other in a series of increasingly ludicrous challenges (the train's heft is a liability in a hot air balloon race, but very effective on a seesaw), Barton and Lichtenheld tap into kids' innate ability to turn anything, anything into a competition.

There's Going to Be a Baby
John Burningham, illus. by Helen Oxenbury (Candlewick)
Though they're married, this is the first collaboration between these two children's book icons, and it's a marvelous one: a dynamic and realistic exchange between a mother and her son as they await the arrival of a new family member. The soon-to-be big brother's insecurities and nervousness emerge through their conversations, yet Oxenbury's crisp ink vignettes make it clear that their tender bond will be in no way threatened by the imminent addition.

Farm
Elisha Cooper (Scholastic/Orchard)
At a time when the farm-to-table movement has never been stronger, Cooper's understated and unromantic portrait of farm life is especially resonant. He pairs breathtaking watercolor panoramas, which portray endless expanses of farmland, with matter-of-fact prose that takes readers through a year of planting, caring for crops and animals, harvesting, and preparing to begin the cycle once again.

The Boss Baby


Marla Frazee (S&S/Beach Lane)
"From the moment the baby arrived, it was obvious he was the boss." Frazee takes a sublime metaphor for the havoc that a baby can wreak, and runs with it; new parents and siblings will be laughing every step of the way (most likely through exhausted tears). Those who question whether child care is a full-time job, "with no time off," will quickly have their answer.

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illus. by Brian Floca (Roaring Brook/Flash Point/Porter)
An inspired vehicle to demonstrate the dividends that collaboration can pay, this story of the making of the classic American ballet, Appalachian Spring, is both accessible and fascinating. Greenberg, Jordan, and Floca are as in synch as were their subjects—Graham, Copland, and Noguchi—building on each other's contributions to craft a memorable tribute to creative power.

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)
Barbara Kerley, illus. by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic Press)
Based on the 130-page biography of Twain that his 13-year-old daughter Susy wrote, Kerley's superb study of Twain's life presents aspects of the writer seldom seen, as Susy describes his "fine" and "not-so-fine" qualities alike ("Papa uses very strong language"). Fotheringham's visual flourishes, as well as the inclusion of "journal" booklets of Susy's writing, complete this entertaining behind-the-scenes account.

Bunny Days
Tao Nyeu (Dial)
This trio of stories is as silly as it is subversive, as a group of hapless bunnies have unfortunate run-ins with mud, a vacuum cleaner, and a pair of scissors. Despite the shock of seeing "bunnies without tails and tails without bunnies," Nyeu's cartoon world is always comforting and warm. In each instance, Bear is able to set things right thanks to a washing machine, fan, and sewing machine, so that in the end, "Everyone is happy."

The Chicken Thief


Béatrice Rodriguez (Enchanted Lion)
Wordless books are all about the details, and so it is with Rodriguez's debut, a story that appears straightforward (fox steals chicken; rooster and co. give chase), yet is anything but. Rodriguez's cartoons convey much emotion, and in so doing reveal that the fox's intentions are in no way malicious. Unexpected moments of romance, humor, and heartbreak add to a story that could be told in 1,000 words, but doesn't even need one.

Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature's Survivors
Joyce Sidman, illus. by Beckie Prange (Harcourt)
While many animal books try to top each other by highlighting progressively obscure creatures, Sidman and Prange take another tack with this absorbing study of species that have stood the test of time (think millennia). Covering bacteria, mollusks, and (much) later humans, Sidman writes affectionate poems about the various animals; paired with factual information and Prange's graceful linocuts, it's an expert fusion of art and science.

Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse
Marilyn Singer, illus. by Josée Masse (Dutton)
Singer and Masse are in perfect step with this clever and highly original collection of "reverso" poems (a form Singer developed), which can be read forward or backward—with significant impact on the fairy tale featured in each one. Masse plays with symmetry and dueling perspectives just as much as Singer does, giving the project a thematic cohesiveness and challenging readers to look at classic stories in an entirely new way.

It's a Book
Lane Smith (Roaring Brook)
Via a hilarious conversation between a technophile and a booklover, Smith delivers a pitch-perfect and timely ode to the tenuous relationship between printed words and those that appear on-screen. Smith's message is as much for parents as it is for kids, yet children will readily recognize the absurdity of, say, trying to translate Treasure Island to textspeak. And in case Smith's stance isn't clear: this one's not available as an e-book.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee
Philip C. Stead, illus. by Erin E. Stead (Roaring Brook/Porter)
What goes around comes around, in the best possible way, in this story of a zookeeper who gently tends to the animals in his care (playing chess with the elephant, reading stories to an owl), then gets similar treatment when he falls ill. As depicted in Erin Stead's delicate and precise illustrations, the friendship is made all the more poignant by inclusion of an elderly protagonist, an underrepresented demographic in picture books.

The Quiet Book
Deborah Underwood, illus. by Renata Liwska (Houghton Mifflin)
To turn a concept as intangible as "quiet" into a full-length picture book is ambitious, but Underwood and Liwska nail it with a collaboration that has an overall muted quality yet finds surprising depth in its nearly silent subject matter. From the solitary mystery of "swimming underwater quiet" to the uneasiness of "top of the roller coaster quiet," the book conveys a wealth of emotion in life's less in-your-face moments.

City Dog, Country Frog


Mo Willems, illus. by Jon J Muth (Hyperion)
Expectations are understandably high for a superstar pairing like this, and Willems and Muth more than deliver with an understated story of friendship between a dog and a frog that unfolds across the four seasons. The idea that the seasons (and life) inevitably end is counterbalanced by the subtle humor evident in both text and paintings, as well as the promise of a new friendship when spring returns.

Knuffle Bunny Free
Mo Willems (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
Willems's conclusion to his Knuffle Bunny trio is as heartfelt and emotionally true as its predecessors, bringing Trixie's relationship with her stuffed rabbit to a moving conclusion that feels inevitable in the best of ways. Willems writes with respect, honesty, and empathy for Trixie, as her inner confidence (very) gradually takes the place of the external comfort Knuffle Bunny has unfailingly provided.

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