Il Sung Na’s illustrative art is so joyous, so jubilantly colorful, it feels celebratory and poetic even when the story is simple and spare. “A Book of Babies’’ begins: “When the flowers begin to bloom, and the world starts turning green, animals everywhere are born.”
We open with newly hatched “noisy ducklings” and move along to schools of baby fish, only-child zebras, half-hidden joeys, seahorses, and more.
Each image earns a double-page spread, adding eye-popping expansiveness to what already feels like a big, beautiful world of animal families in their natural habitats.
Il Sung Na uses color boldly, from zinging golden oranges to pale watery blues, brilliant lime greens and muted browns.
“A Book of Babies’’ needed an animal appendix at the back to help identify the sometimes exotic baby and parent animals here. Beyond that, it’s quite perfect.
Tatyana Feeney’s board book, “Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket,” is as deft and simple as one of those marvelous picture books from the 1940s and 1950s, the era of classics like “The Color Kittens’’ or “The Carrot Seed.’’
Small Bunny adores Blue Blanket — which looks like a small slice of sky. He “needed Blue Blanket to help him go even higher on the swings.” He clings to it for comfort, for company, and to “help him paint his best pictures.”
But one day in the sandbox, Mommy decides that Small Bunny and Blue Blanket need a bath.
It takes 107 minutes to wash the blanket. “And Small Bunny watched Blue Blanket for every single one.” (My favorite sequence of small pictures shows our young hero watching the washing machine with expressive ears moving all the way from anxiety to eagerness to exhaustion.)
But when Mommy declares the blanket “Good as new!” Small Bunny has his doubts.
Feeney’s artistic abilities far outshine her prose at the moment, but she achieves more with a few scribbled lines and a wash of blue than many others do with elaborate full-color palettes.
“Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies’’ recalls Abigail Adams’s famous letter to her president-husband, John: “In the new code of laws,” she pleaded with him, “remember the ladies.”
The “ladies” have too long been forgotten, and as journalist Cokie Roberts points out in her introduction, far more attention goes to our country’s Founding Fathers.
But here happily, we meet women whose lives were intimately bound up in the creation of their country, starting with Eliza Lucas Pinckney, left in charge of her father’s three South Carolina plantations at the age of 16, and closing with Dolley Madison, or “Queen Dolley,” as the popular first lady was known.
Eliza revolutionized farming in America, and Dolley changed forever the public role of the president’s wife.
In between, young readers will learn about “women warriors,” women writers, first ladies, and more.
Roberts’s text is neither as lively nor as inclusive as one would expect. Luckily, award-winning artist Diane Goode leavens and brightens the book with her dynamic, light-handed images — some in old-fashioned ink and sepia, others in a wash of watercolor.
“Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies’’ provides a long-needed addition to our American history shelves.
Not since Beverly Cleary’s spot-on Ramona books has anyone captured childhood as aptly as Kevin Henkes. Of course, Henkes has given us such picture-book classics as “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse,’’ “Chrysanthemum,’’ and “Kitten’s First Moon’’ (for which he won the Caldecott Medal).
It makes sense that he would bring this same sense of “the fitness of things,” as L.M. Montgomery put it, to middle-grade fiction.
The real trick of “The Year of Billy Miller’’ is that it’s about the life of a second-grader, written with enough sophistication and humor to entertain even the most jaded fifth grader.
Billy wonders whether there’s something seriously wrong with him. He worries that his nice new second-grade teacher thinks he’s a mean kid.
Emma Sparks, his new classmate, drives him up a tree. And maybe he needs to start calling his stay-at-home artist Papa “dad,” like the other kids.
Henkes never writes down to his young readers. When Billy contemplates his home-made diorama: “The illusion that his bat was hovering in midair was what gave him a small thrill and a little shot of pride.”
There are no enormous adventures here, no flights into fantasy, no gruesome tragedies — just the stuff of everyday life, as homely and bright as a firefly in a jar.
Not for nothing was J. Patrick Lewis named a US children’s poet laureate. He and celebrated fellow poet Douglas Florian blend qualities of other children’s favorites — the goofy playfulness of Michael Rosen, the wit of Shel Silverstein.
“Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems’’ presents poems that go, including a grass taxi, Dragonwagon, and Caterpillar Cab, “A fifty-foot-long limousine/ With wheels instead of feet./ From time to time it wraps itself/ Inside a silk cocoon,/ Then turns into a butterfly/ That takes us to the moon.”
It’s moments like these that elevate the book from whimsy to flights of poetry. Jeremy Holmes’s pictures are wildly energetic, expressive, surreal and bold. Some children think poetry is boring. They won’t be bored by “Poem-Mobiles.’’
A BOOK OF BABIES
By Il Sung Na
Knopf, 24 pp., $15.99,
infants to age 6
SMALL BUNNY’S BLUE BLANKET
By Tatyana Feeney
Knopf, 24 pp., board book, $6.99, ages 2-5
Remembering the Ladies
By Cokie Roberts
Illustrated by Diane Goode
HarperCollins, 40 pp., $17.99,
THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER
By Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow, 240 pp., $16.99,
Crazy Car Poems
By J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian
Illustrated by Jeremy Holmes
Schwartz & Wade, 40 pp., $17.99, ages 4-8
Liz Rosenberg is the author of the best-selling novel, “The Laws of Gravity’’ and a forthcoming young-adult biography of the author L.M. Montgomery. She teaches at Binghamton University.