Reviews of four picture books

Four illustrated stories to delight early readers.

Katie Loves the Kittens By John Himmelman Henry Holt and Co., 32 pp., $16.95

Younger readers may not be ready for big blocks of text. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t every bit as eager as older kids for tales of friendship, families, animals, and adventure.

Here’s a crop of picture books that lets both prereaders and beginning readers enjoy good stories that practically tell themselves through their appealing artwork. All of them deliver narratives rich enough to bear repeating and should stand up to an enjoyable series of multiple readings.

In Katie Loves the Kittens by author and illustrator John Himmelman, the title tells the tale.

Katie loves the kittens. Oh, so she loves them so much! Unfortunately, she shows her love by barking and chasing them around the room – not the kind of attention a kitten generally craves.

Nor is her tendency to gobble up all their food appreciated by the tiny cats – or anyone else in Katie’s family.

Himmelman’s delightful illustrations record the ways in which Katie, an earnest, stubby Jack Russell terrier, must learn to control herself around the objects of her affection when Sara Ann, her beloved person, adds three baby animals to their family group.

Himmelman knows how to tell an animal story (earlier books include “Chickens to the Rescue”  and “The Animal Rescue Club”) and his drawings perfectly convey both Katie’s frenzied adoration and her kindly heart.

But it’s that kindly heart that carries the day and readers of all ages will enjoy seeing Katie finally learn how to be the kind of friend a kitten can appreciate.

The Card­board Piano by Lynne Rae Perkins also offers a gentle lesson on being the right kind of friend.

In 2005, Perkins won a Newbery award for “Criss Cross,” her inventive novel aimed at adolescents. Here she translates those talents as both author and illustrator into a story for younger readers.

In “The Cardboard Piano,” Debbie wants to share her joy in piano lessons with her best friend Tina. So she makes a cardboard keyboard for her buddy, imagining the fun they’ll have as Tina pretends to practice with her.

But Tina isn’t interested in make-believe and Debbie must find a way to forge a more down-to-earth bond with her friend.

The story of the two girls is sweet. And as their story unravels, Perkins’s drawings burst with the energy of two happy young girls on a summer day.

Fellow Newbery winner Karen Hesse (“Out of the Dust” in 1998) unfolds a more poignant but equally tender tale in Spuds, illustrated by Wendy Watson.

In muted mixed-media illustrations that hint at the Great Depression, “Spuds” tells the story of three hungry siblings – the narrator, Jack, his big sister, Maybelle, and their wide-eyed little brother, Eddie – who don’t have enough food on their table and are tempted to steal a neighbor’s potatoes. They know it’s wrong but they are worried about their mother and how hard she works to keep them fed.

The theft fails dramatically. But as it does, the three young siblings succeed in discovering how much love is already theirs for the taking.

Not everyone, however, is hungry for potatoes. There are those who crave adventure instead. In Louise: The Adventures of a Chicken, readers will meet a chicken who longs to see the world.

Here, Kate DiCamillo (winner of multiple awards for books including “The Tale of Despereaux,” “Because of Winn-Dixie,” and “The Marvelous Adventures of Edward Tulane”) uses her talent to entertain younger readers.

Louise loves her henhouse but leaves it in her quest for something more. The sly drawings of New Yorker cartoonist Harry Bliss illustrate Louise’s encounters with pirates, circus performers, and unscrupulous strangers.

And then, of course, there’s her happy homecoming – return to a friendly barnyard where her sister hens can’t wait to hear her tales before they all settle down to a peaceful sleep.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. 

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