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for children

A trio of lessons in seeing things plain

TWO SPECKLED EGGS—Jennifer Mann, THREE BIRD SUMMER -- Sara St. Antoine

Jennifer Mann from “Two Speckled Eggs”

Michael Hall’s “It’s an Orange Aardvark!’’ not only offers a colorful, peek-through, cut-out picture-book world, it’s in fact a book about peeking at the world, and the dangers of drawing hasty conclusions.

Here, five hard-hatted carpenter ants are stuck inside an old tree stump on a gray rainy day. They could just sit it out in a monochromatic world. But one brave ant decides to drill a hole (“Wrrrr . . . ’’) and see what’s going outside.

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Each hole reveals a new slice of color — first orange, then blue, then red, and so on. The other ants are ready to celebrate this bright new world, but one nervous ant fears enemy aardvarks may be lurking everywhere.

Orange? It must be a hungry orange aardvark. Bright blue? That has to be a hungry aardvark wearing blue pajamas. How many holes does it take to change a neurotic’s mind? And what’s really going on outside the tree stump, anyway?

Hall uses every inch of space available. On the left hand page, we see the gray stump filling up with holes. The facing page dances back and forth between pure colors and terrifying visions of deadly aardvarks. The nervous ant stands out from the crowd — so too does his brave counterpart.

All of Hall’s images are big and bold, and I suspect the antics will especially delight toddlers, who’ll want to shout out their own guesses about what’s beyond all the peepholes.

Not all lift-the-flap peek-a-boo books are worth re-reading. More than a few just plod. Michael Hall’s “It’s an Orange Aardvark!’’ dances from one surprise to the next.

Anyone who thinks children’s birthday parties are easy has never had one, thrown one, or attended one. In “Two Speckled Eggs’’ Ginger’s mother rightly decrees that either all the girls in Ginger’s class must be invited to hers or none.

That includes even weird, unpopular Lyla Browning who “smelled like old leaves . . . didn’t talk much, and she even brought a tarantula in a pickle jar for Show-and-Tell.”

Needless to say, Lyla is the first guest to arrive.

Ginger isn’t exactly thrilled to see her new guest at first. Slowly but surely the “nice” girls begin acting not so nice. They cheat at party games, make fussy demands, refuse to eat the special birthday cake that Ginger and her mom have so carefully prepared.

Lyla stays off in a corner studying something through a magnifiying glass.

Her steadfast calm, good humor, and her gift of “two speckled eggs” proves she has the makings of a truly great friend.

“Two Speckled Eggs’’ gives us the flavor of childhood as we actually live it — that high-tension mix of sweet and the sour, terrific and the terrible. Author-illustrator Jennifer K. Mann conveys all this almost telegraphically in the sparest language, the most off-hand images. No picture book pyrotechnics here, but plenty of soul.

“Two Speckled Eggs’’ is not so much old-fashioned as it is ageless and timeless. Mann’s soft color illustrations bring the birthday party alive with gentle humor and self-deprecation.

More than a birthday book, “Two Speckled Eggs’’ is about the gift of friendship. Without fanfare or fantasy, Mann has made her debut as writer-and-artist with a genuine picture book classic.

And speaking of classics, Cambridge author Sara St. Antoine’s “Three Bird Summer’’ almost defines the genre of classic summer middle-grade reading. It’s a sub-genre of literature unique to itself — the summer vacation house, new friends, pastoral settings, and old rules suspended.

This novel’s cantankerous 12-year-old hero, Adam, has paid his grandmother summer visits at her remote lake-side cabin all his life. He knows that she will make pancakes for breakfast; he knows every book on her shelves.

This summer, however, his parents are newly divorced, his bossy cousins absent. As he approaches, “even in the near-darkness, I could see the familiar silhouette of the pines as we drove up the two-lane highway . . . I rolled my window all the way down and let the night air rush against my face. Warm, then cool; sweet, then skunky.”

“Three Bird Summer’' is filled with perfect moments of description like this. The writing is graceful and fluid.

Adam himself is a likeable, thoroughly believable introvert, the kind of boy who would rather sit on the porch or play old-fashioned card games than race across the lake.

He’s impatient with his bossy mom, worried about his grandmother, who seems to be slipping, and shy around the new girl, Alice, in the next cabin.

When his grandmother starts leaving love notes to some mysterious ancient love around the cabin, it turns out that brave and noisy Alice is best equipped to help him unravel the riddle of his grandmother’s past.

Partly a hymn to summer, part mystery, part coming-of-age story, “Three Bird Summer’’ contains a satisfying number of plot twists and turns and a wonderful not-overly-neat resolution.

Summer is indeed for many of us a world apart. Many New England kids and visitors will be able to relate to Adam’s love for a remote and pastoral kingdom by the water. “This,” he thinks, “this is when freedom begins.”

More information:

IT’S AN ORANGE AARDVARK!

By Michael Hall

Greenwillow, 40 pp., $17.99,

ages 4-8

TWO SPECKLED EGGS

By Jennifer K. Mann

Candlewick, 32 pp., $14.99,

ages 5-8

THREE BIRD SUMMER

By Sara St. Antoine

Candlewick, 256 pp., $16.99,

ages 10 and up

Liz Rosenberg is the author of the best-selling novel, “The Laws of Gravity,’’ and the forthcoming novel set in 1920s Singapore, “The Moonlight Palace,” slated for release this fall. She teaches at Binghamton University
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