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For children

Pastel pals and a poetic ride

By Liz Rosenberg
August 21, 2011

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Mo Willems is to our era what Margaret Wise Brown was a half century ago. Brown once claimed she got a new idea for a picture book each time she turned over in bed. Since she wrote hundreds of children’s books before her untimely death at age 42, one may presume she was a restless sleeper.

Like Brown, Willems has his finger on the pulse of what interests children most. His books are simple, not simplistic; they are clever, witty, various, and surprising. A few are already classics - witness his award-winning, much adored “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus’’ and his “Knuffle Bunny’’ books. Enter his newest effort, divided into 6 1/2 short chapters for the learning-to-read set: “Hooray for Amanda & Her Alligator.’’ Amanda is a little girl. Alligator is a stuffed animal found in the bargain bin for 7 cents. This does not stop them from becoming the best of friends.

Sometimes Amanda startles Alligator by yelling “BOO!’’ Sometimes he surprises her right back, by chewing on her head or on one of her library books. Amanda is always reading (among other titles, “You Can Make It Yourself: Jet Packs!’’), while Alligator is always fooling around. They make the perfect twosome - at least till Panda shows up, with surprising results.

“Hooray for Amanda & Her Alligator’’ is rendered in Willems’s characteristic cheerful pastels: sky blue, mint green, yellow, teal, lilac, and pink. His cartoony faces are the most flexibly expressive seen since the age of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts.’’ But a closer look at the text shows that Willems also knows how to work a verb. “I do not like it when Amanda is gone, thought Alligator. I am no good at waiting. He paced around the room. He fiddled with his tail.’’ Amanda and Alligator join the ranks of other great children’s book best friends: Frog and Toad; George and Martha; Dog and Bear. Hooray for them, and for Mo Willems.

Admittedly, I am a sucker for alphabet books. I have seen some truly great ones over the years: Mitsumasa Anno’s “Anno’s Alphabet’’ and Mary Azarian’s “A Farmer’s Alphabet’’; more recently the stunning “ABC3D’’ by Marion Bataille. Leslie McGuirk’s “If Rocks Could Sing’’ is subtitled, “A Discovered Alphabet,’’ and indeed the book gives new meaning to found objects. McGuirk, who lives near the sea in Florida, has spent years collecting stones that suggest the letters of the alphabet. The result is witty, inspiring, and altogether dazzling. “C is for couch potato’’ - a potato-shaped stone lying on a small chaise lounge, above a rock curved just like the letter. F is for “footprint’’ (one flat rock and five toes); L is a rock that’s a dead ringer for a lemon; R is for a rabbity looking rock, and so on. My two personal favorites are the T for “toast’’ stone - perched on a plate beside a knife and pat of butter - and all the spooky “ghost’’ rocks gathered on one page. Yes, one stone looks like a whale. And on the facing page, clearly a rock inscribed with the letter X. You may never look at rocks quite the same way again - or the alphabet, for that matter.

“Along a Long Road’’ by Frank Viva takes readers on a bike journey that winds in and out of a small town, through a tunnel, past city skyscrapers, over a bridge, and back to the beginning of another journey - all in some of the most stunning graphics to have come along in years. Viva’s bold five-color design reminds one of the abstract art of the 1940s and 1950s, with a hint of vintage New Yorker cartoons and a dash of Picasso. He makes ingenious use of black, creating a feeling of wide open space, and then cleverly using a shiny taxi-yellow paper to contrast with the matte black. The only other colors in the book are cream, cool aqua, and bright red.

The text is as spare as the use of color, and as ingenious. Rhythmic and succinct, it reads like poetry: “Along a long road/ gaining speed/ Again/ and again and again/ Around a round bend/ near the end.’’

The double-spread “over/ a bridge’’ offers a breathtaking graphic image of a city by water - the bridge, a shining strip of glimmering yellow; the water, a wide swath of cream dashed by aqua waves. A curving boy on a curving bike rides around and around his town, “Along a long road/ gaining speed.’’ Viva plays recklessly with proportion and realism - the boy and his bike are larger than the passing cars, for instance - creating a jubilant sense of movement throughout: hats and birds flying; people waving; boats and planes sailing; laundry flapping; and, of course, the boy and his bike zipping along. “Along a Long Road’’ is the equivalent of visual jazz.

This is one of those rare picture books that deserves a place not only on a child’s bookshelf but in an art museum - and would be equally at home in both.

Liz Rosenberg, whose most recent book is “Tyrannosaurus Dad,’’ teaches at Binghamton University. She can be reached at liz _rosenberg@ymail.com.

HOORAY FOR AMANDA & HER ALLIGATOR!

By Mo Willems

Balzer & Bray, 72 pp., ages 4-8, $17.99

IF ROCKS COULD SING:

A Discovered Alphabet

By Leslie McGuirk

Tricycle, 48 pp., ages 4-8, $15.99

ALONG A LONG ROAD

By Frank Viva

Little Brown, 40 pp., ages 4-8, $16.99