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Alphadoodler: The Activity Book That Brings Letters to Life

Jan Bajtlik. Tate (Abrams, dist.), $16.95 paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-84976-405-6

Handsome typography and striking graphic elements lend sophisticated flair to this activity book, which received a special mention for the 2015 BolognaRagazzi Award for nonfiction. With a decided focus on letters and fonts, Polish illustrator and graphic designer Bajtlik gives readers numerous opportunities to embellish the pages of the book with their own drawings and writing. Occasional dashes of neon colors invigorate the otherwise black-and-white pages. “A toothless crocodile? Impossible!” reads text accompanying a fluorescent green crocodile with a gaping (but empty) mouth. “Put in the teeth using the letters ‘M’ and ‘W.’ ” Elsewhere, skyscraper-skinny letters that spell metropolis become buildings for children to fill with activity; a collage experiment asks readers to “create portraits of your family using cuttings from newspapers”; and green question marks in various fonts accompany a photograph of a sea horse, whose shape they share. Stylish, thought provoking, and deeply creative. Ages 5–7. (May)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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How to Draw Animals

Elizabeth Golding, illus. by Hui Yuan Chang. Barron’s, $9.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-7641-6839-0

This encouraging spiral-bound guidebook suggests that the first step to drawing animals might be tracing them, as it invites readers to use 70 cardboard pieces to create lions, cats, elephants, birds, and other creatures. Following numbered directions, children can trace the labeled pieces—which include round and squarish bodies, rectangular legs, and curving tails—and then make the resulting drawings their own by coloring them in and adding details, such as a mane and rockers for a rocking horse. Excited comments (“Give your squirrel a tasty acorn in his paws!”) offer plenty of suggestions for customizing the pictures, and Chang’s completed animals, including an ice-skating elephant and a mouse that wears a jacket and bow tie, should give readers some ideas, too. Available simultaneously: How to Draw Dinosaurs. Ages 2–6. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Dog’s Day Out: A Drawing and Coloring Book

Surya Sajnani. Quarto/QEB, $12.95 paper (64p) ISBN 978-1-60992-917-6

Sajnani brings the chunky black-and-white illustration style of her Wee Gallery line of products to the pages of a charming activity book, following Dexter Dog as he enjoys an afternoon at the park. In interactive pages splashed with bright green accents, Dexter introduces his family and friends, describes some of his favorite things (“I like bacon, eggs, and strawberries for my breakfast. What do you like to eat for breakfast?”), and shares some of the places he visits, like the pond in the park. Throughout, readers can take part by drawing, doodling, solving puzzles and mazes, counting objects, and responding to a variety of questions and directives (“Draw lots of flowers, and some buzzing bees too”). It’s an effective blend of guided activity and open-ended play. Available simultaneously: Cat’s Playgroup. Ages 2–5. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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ABZZZ...: A Bedtime Alphabet

Isabel Minhós Martins and Yara Kono. Thames & Hudson, $14.95 (28p) ISBN 978-0-500-65077-6

Martins and Kono suggest that sleepy children won’t make it until the end of this well-conceived and sharply designed alphabet, first published in Portugal. A is for “awake,” represented by two round, black eyes that stare out at readers (“This is how you look now. It’s natural: our book is just beginning”). In the pages that follow, Martins and Kono offer subtle reminders that readers are in good company while sleeping (“Did you know that even the strongest bear purrs to sleep when winter comes,” they write for the H page, “hibernate”) and that they have nothing to fear (“Imagine you’re a leopard when you got to sleep. You don’t need to be afraid of anything!”). Angular, screenprintlike graphics in zingy reds, yellows, and blues aren’t exactly sleepy, but poring over the details may still quiet some young minds. Ages 4–up. (May)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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ABCs on Wheels

Ramon Olivera. S&S/Little Simon, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-4814-3244-3

In an excellent companion to 2015’s ABCs on Wings, Olivera introduces land-based vehicles large and small, old and new. Like its predecessor, the book is distinguished by smart word pairings and clean, crisp digital graphics, with details that amplify the ideas being introduced. A scene set in foggy London pairs a tiny Mini Cooper (“Cc is for compact”) and a large bus (“Dd is for double-decker”), the latter occupied by the queen, a punk rocker, and a bulldog with a monocle. Later on, a tow truck hauls a busted-up station wagon to the dump as Oliver cites “junkyard” and “kaput,” and a presidential “limousine” is surrounded, naturally, by a police “motorcade.” Like the “underdog” who wins a stock car race late in the book, this one deserves a victory lap. Ages 3–7. Agent: Jennifer Mattson, Andrea Brown Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Mousequerade Ball: A Counting Tale

Lori Mortensen, illus. by Betsy Lewin. Bloomsbury, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-61963-422-0

Mortensen (Chicken Lily) and Lewin (the Click, Clack, Moo series) envision a grand ball in a palace, attended entirely by mice—until a cat shows up. In gently cadenced rhymes, Mortensen counts up to 10: when it’s time for music, “Three fine mice in black-tie suits/ tighten up the strings of their thumb-strum lutes,” and the costumed guests that arrive include seven jesters, eight “grand lords,” and 10 “splendid ladies.” All scurry to hide after the dashingly dressed cat arrives, looking a bit like Puss in Boots, but one mouse wisely realizes he’s there to dance, not dine, and the festivities resume. Lewin’s loose, breezy watercolors tap into the blend of elegance and comedy in this diverting animal fantasy. Ages 3–6. Author’s agent: Liza Pulitzer Voges, Eden Street Literary. Illustrator’s agent: Holly McGhee, Pippin Properties. (May)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Near, Far

Silvia Borando. Candlewick, $14 (48p) ISBN 978-0-7636-8783-0

Originally published by Italy’s Minibombo, this wordless picture book is both a playful exploration of perspective and a goofily amusing animal guessing game. In a series of three-spread sequences, readers are confronted with crisp-edged, abstract shapes rendered in bold mustard, lime, magenta, and other saturated colors; with each page turn, the image seems to zoom out. In the first sequence, two green lumps stand like hills against a yellow background; turning the page reveals more spiky lumps, now looking a bit like grass, and another page turn reveals them as the spiky back of a startled-looking alligator. Elsewhere, pink blobs resembling cake frosting are actually a wide-eyed rabbit’s feet, and an all-teal spread becomes the body of a sizeable hippo. Stylish, charming, and lots of fun. A camouflage-centric book, Now You See Me, Now You Don’t, is available simultaneously. Ages 2–5. (June)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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1 Big Salad: A Delicious Counting Book

Juana Medina. Viking, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-101-99974-5

When is a counting book not just a counting book? When it’s a recipe, too. Taking readers from one to 10, Medina (Smick) uses loose black lines to transform various photographed vegetables (from a Washington, D.C., farmer’s market, no less, as an art note reveals) into wonderfully expressive animals. The reedy roots of two oblong radishes make perfect mouse tails after Medina draws on ears, legs, and snouts; leafy red lettuce transforms into the manes of “seven radicchio lions”; and in what’s perhaps the best scene, citrus wedges become the bodies of “ten clementine kitties,” shown stretching, leaping, licking themselves, and napping. Adding in avocado, peppers, walnuts, and a few other items, Medina leaves readers with “one big delicious salad”—with no animals harmed in the making. Up to age 3. Agent: Gillian MacKenzie, Gillian MacKenzie Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen

Jazz Jennings. Crown, $17.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-399-55464-3

Coming out as transgender, especially as a child or teen, often means declaring oneself in two arenas. The first is the intimate world of one's family; next comes the broader world of school, teams, and other institutions. Fifteen-year-old Jazz Jennings, a transgender activist and reality-show star who transitioned at age five, knows firsthand how much the first world matters: it makes it possible to take on the second. Her memoir doesn't downplay the teasing, the pain of being forbidden to play on the girls' soccer team, or the difficulty of finding romance, but it always circles back to her family's support. Jennings's account of how they listened to her, educated themselves, let her choose her clothes and toys, formed a nonprofit to support trans kids, and let her become a public face of trans life is both touching and inspiring. The upbeat and sometimes humorous narrative moves swiftly through the details of Jennings's upbringing; for readers looking for a candid introduction to some of the issues facing trans children and teens, this book is an excellent start. Ages 12–up. Agent: Joseph Veltre, Gersh Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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True Letters from a Fictional Life

Kenneth Logan. HarperTeen, $17.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-238025-8

Debut author Logan gives voice to a confused, closeted teen from a small Vermont town. James Liddel, 17, is a perfectly happy star athlete with a "sort-of girlfriend," Theresa, who adores him, and a crew of close friends. But James has a secret that he's sure will destroy his life: he is gay. Certain that his friends and family will reject him once they find out—not an entirely unfounded fear, as most of his friends regularly lob "homo" and "faggot" as insults—James is only truthful about his feelings in the letters he writes but never intends to send. These diary-like letters (which get out, naturally) reveal the pains James goes to in order to hide from those around him. A series of events, including an attack on the only openly gay boy in school, sets James on a course to disclose his sexuality. Logan tackles the complexities of coming out thoughtfully, presenting realistic (and not always fully supportive) responses to James's revelation, as well as his own sometimes-uncharitable attitudes. Ages 13–up. Agent: Rebecca Podos, Rees Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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