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FOR CHILDREN

Wolf in a bad rug knocks on the door...

Russell Ayto's rendering of an unconvincing wolf hoping to get into Sam's house, from "One More Sheep."

One More Sheep
Written by Mij Kelly
Illustrated by Russell Ayto
Peachtree, 30 pp., ages 3-7, $16.95

The Big Bad Wolf and Me
By Delphine Perret
Sterling, 64 pp., ages 6-10, $9.95

March, the month usually reserved for lions coming in and lambs going out, might newly be dedicated to wolves and sheep. "One More Sheep," written by Mij Kelly, with illustrations by Russell Ayto, is the literary equivalent of vaudeville for the picture book set. It charmingly tells the story, in rhyme, of "a wild, windy night, in a fierce thunderstorm," when a knock at Sam's door reveals an extra creature -- is it a sheep? -- begging admittance. Sam is eager to let this stray in out of the weather, but his 10 sheep aren't as easily fooled. They know all are already safely inside. This guy's a wolf looking for mutton chops. The trick is how to get Sam to see that all are present and accounted for without his falling asleep as he usually does while he's counting sheep. Clearly it's time to put on a razzle-dazzle chorus line of a rousing performance -- which is exactly what the sheep accomplish, in the fold-out extra-long center page and showstopper of the book.

Ayto provides great comic bravado, working in pen and ink, watercolor, "and a little bit of pencil crayon for the hats and socks." In many ways "One More Sheep" is an artist's tour de force. Ayto has sprinkled visual gags throughout the book, from the howling wolf up on tiptoe out in the "wet, windy moor" to the lousy toupé atop the wolf's head in his dime-store sheep's costume. Best of all are the varied expressions on the sheep, ranging from surprise to dismay to irritation, as they try to get Sam's attention, leading to peaceful sleep, of course, which comes at last to Sam and the whole fold safely snug in bed by book's end. Ayto's color palette is an interesting, slightly hip 1960s-ish saturated range of colors: violet, forest green, pale yellows. There's even a Mondrian hanging on a wall, to signal his homage to the era. It all plays against a background strongly engaged with shades of gray. There's the gray of the sheep, the gray stormy sky, and of course the gray wolf who comes to call.

There's something weird and artfully fresh about the whole book. It's rare to find such a happy marriage between author and illustrator, but the makers of "One More Sheep" got this one just right. Each member of the team compounds the comedy of the other. And as a nice bonus, the book provides not only a happy way to settle little ones down for the night, but also a counting book from one to 10.

"The Big Bad Wolf and Me" will appeal to that tricky crowd, young readers who have pretty well outgrown their picture books but are not quite ready for long, wordy chapter books. There are not nearly enough good offerings of this kind for this age bracket. Delphine Perret has created an irresistible almost-graphic novel without boxes for the very junior set, replete with the kind of ironic-cool humor and subtlety that made the "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoons so beloved. (I still miss the series to this day.) I can even imagine some reluctant-reader teenagers taking pleasure in this book.

It begins with that perennially engaging premise: boredom. Adults forget how dull childhood can sometimes feel to the small people stuck inside it. "Usually when I get home from school, nothing exciting happens." On this day, however, the not-so-big and not-so-bad wolf is hunkered down on the floor of our young hero's bare-bones room, obviously depressed. The boy further demoralizes the wolf by thinking he's a cute dog: "Coochy-coo. Good dog. Nice doggy. Good doggy."

It's practically the last straw. "Nobody believes in me anymore. I don't scare anyone. I'm done for," mourns the wolf. It's up to our young hero to give him a hand. ("Come on. Let's go get a snack" -- a good start to any friendship.)

It's not easy work, retraining a wolf to be big and bad. "Some days were really hard. He was one stubborn wolf." For instance, the wolf insists on being called Bernard, even when offered the much-cooler name Zorro. He prefers cookies to meat. Together the new friends practice making scary faces, have weigh-in days, play at cowboys, eat large quantities of chocolate chip cookies, and one happy day finally manage, with a lot of coaxing and coaching, to terrify all the kids on the playground. The schoolchildren don't look terrified, but they do look pleased to have an excuse to run around with their hands up. The whole story is accomplished in 12 very short, very fast-paced chapters.

"The Big Bad Wolf and Me" takes simplicity and the art of the drawn line to admirable heights, relying almost entirely on two-color drawings in brown, black, or blue, with an occasional sparing dash of red, yellow, and green. Perret brilliantly controls her blank spaces, and is not afraid of letting her two characters hang around in them. It's nice to imagine there may be further adventures of "The Big Bad Wolf and Me" and -- who knows? -- maybe, one day, even a weekly syndicated cartoon. There seems to be an open place in my newspaper where Bill Watterson used to rule.

Liz Rosenberg reviews children's books monthly for the Globe. She teaches English and creative writing at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

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