Four great picture books for young readers

Books that please young readers even as they teach.

We Planted a Tree By Bob Staake Golden Books 40 pp., $17.99

How do little readers learn to tangle with big ideas? It’s not always easy to make worthy content mesh with engaging art. But 2010 already offers several examples of picture books that neatly blend the two.

Even the most fervent admirers of Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai wouldn’t attempt to share her memoir with first graders. That’s why longtime children’s author Diane Muldrow gives us We Planted a Tree (Golden Books, 40 pp., $17.99). Muldrow’s simple poem – paired with winsome illustrations by New Yorker cover artist Bob Staake – takes its inspiration from Maathai’s vision of using trees to help heal the earth. “We Planted a Tree” tells a story that is as simple as it is profound. A young family in Brooklyn plants a tree in their yard, even as a family in Kenya does the same. The book then traverses the world – Tokyo, Paris, New England – and the seasons, demonstrating the many benefits – shade, clean air, fruit, and even sap – that we derive from trees.

But how about relationships between people? Can they be healed as well? Jordan’s Queen Rania Al Abdullah believes that they can and has written The Sandwich Swap (Hyperion, 32 pp., $16.99) to prove it. The queen, who lives in a famously troubled part of the world, explains in an author’s note that this book is inspired by an incident in her own girlhood. “The Sandwich Swap” tells the story of Lily and Salma – best friends forever who love to play, create, and eat together. (Their joy of their togetherness radiates throughout veteran illustrator Tricia Tusa’s sunny drawings.) At least, that is, until the day that Lily tells Salma that her hummus sandwich is yucky. And Salma responds that Lily’s peanut butter sandwich smells funny. It all escalates from there and the girls must – and do – find a way to bring peace not only to their friendship but to their entire lunchroom.

For young readers who are also eager to learn their numbers, Cats’ Night Out (Simon & Schuster, 32 pp., $15.99) by Caroline Stutson offers a charming opportunity to count a stylish group of urban felines as they cut the rug in a back alley. First there are two, then there are four, six, eight, and so on up to 20. “How many cats will dance tonight?” asks the refrain as more and more nattily attired tabbies appear in each frame. The very hip retro illustrations by artist/animator J. Klassen are a particular pleasure here, and you are bound to know at least one child – or adult – who will thrill to the sight of a very suave group of cats doing the fox trot by moonlight while clad in top hats and tails.

Of all the lessons to be learned, however, none is more important than the power of unconditional love as demonstrated by Maryann Cusimano Love’s You Are My Wish (Philomel, 32 pp., $16.99). Lovely watercolors by Satomi Ichikawa follow a tender grandma bear and her happy, snuggly grand-cub throughout the course of their day as they picnic, stroll, nap al fresco, and shower each other with love and sweet attention. The little bear’s four favorite stuffed animals go
everywhere with them as well, giving the youngest readers an additional and very charming focal point.

For readers young and old, it’s a story to remember.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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