Phyllis Root may be the best-loved and most overlooked writer in Minnesota. Although this inventive Minneapolis author has written more than 20 books, her work gets little attention from critics -- unless the critics in your house need help turning the pages, in which case you may know most of her books by heart.
Our copies of "Rattletrap Car," Root's 2001 classic about a family of persevering problem-solvers trying to make it to a swimming hole, lies in shreds from near-nightly readings, while the board book "One Duck Stuck" is still a favorite in spite of frequent dunkings in the bathtub.
With three new releases this spring, now is a great time to restock the kids' shelves with the latest from Root, a gifted read-aloud writer who has an obvious kinship with the great outdoors, and a riotous and rule-breaking way with language.
In "Flip, Flap, Fly!" (illustrated by David Walker, ages infant to preschool, Candlewick Press, $14.99), nature's newborns are each given a little nudge from their nests under the watchful eyes of their mothers. Although the illustrations in picture books are often more winning than the text, that's never the case in Root's world, where little otters "sloop" down the riverbank, tiny snakes "ziggle" across the sand, and baby fish "blurp" in excitement.
There's plenty more onomatopoeiac wordplay in "Toot Toot Zoom!" (illustrated by Matthew Cordell, ages 4-8, Candlewick, $15.99) in which Pierre, a lonely red fox with a racy red sports car, sets out over a mountain in search of a friend -- winding up with far more than he'd bargained for on the other side of the switchbacks.
Those of us raised in the shadow of Paul Bunyan may be especially pleased to meet Root's "Paula Bunyan" (illustrated by Kevin O'Malley, ages 4-8, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16.95), that legendary ax-handler's "little" sister, who stands as tall as a pine tree and whose parents send 253 loaves of bread in her pack for snack time.
O'Malley's woodcuts and the book's oversized format give the tall tale an old-timey feel, but Paula's forest-saving eco-consciousness feels very of-the-moment. Minnesotans, in particular, may appreciate the sheer size of the mosquitoes that Root's heroine sets onto a lumber camp of loggers.
Root's new releases round out a fresh crop of picture books created by Midwestern writers and illustrators this season. Always on the top of that list is Kevin Henkes of Madison, Wis. -- a triple threat in children's literature who can write for little kids ("Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse"), see the world through the eyes of older ones ("Olive's Ocean") and illustrate it all with his own hand ("Kitten's First Full Moon" won the Caldecott in 2005).
In his latest, "Birds" (ages 2-5, Greenwillow Books, $17.99), Henkes leaves the pictures to artist wife Laura Dronzek, whose rich pastels perfectly capture the dreamy, musing quality of the text. One especially inspired and chaotic panel imagines what the sky would look like if birds made contrails as they flew.
A white duck leaves a telltale trail of a different sort in St. Paul writer Dara Dokas' "Muriel's Red Sweater" (illustrations by Bernadette Pons, infant to preschool, Dutton Children's Books, $16.99). This pleasant preschool yarn unravels as Muriel spends the day handing out invitations to her birthday party, and returns home to find her red sweater is mysteriously missing. (Fortunately, her friends know just what she needs for a gift.)
More sophisticated readers, who are still too young for Audubon, might prefer "The Cuckoo's Haiku and Other Birding Poems" (by Michael J. Rosen, ages 6-10, Candlewick, $17.99). Rosen's spare poems, arranged according to the season, give enough details to read like a field guide and are gorgeously illustrated by Iowa-based artist Stan Fellows, a graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Watercolor renderings of such birds as the common grackle and the pileated woodpecker are so lovely you may notice this volume migrating from the children's shelf to your coffee table.
There's no mistaking the intended audience of "Monkey With a Tool Belt and the Noisy Problem," (ages 4-8, Carolrhoda books, $16.95), the second in what one hopes is a long and lucrative series from Duluth's Chris Monroe, creator of the comic strip "Violet Days." In this installment, Chico Bon Bon, the aforementioned monkey, is vexed by a troubling sound that (attention: spoiler alert!) turns out to involve an elephant trapped in a laundry chute.
Observant little people will enjoy the ingenious ways that banana peels are applied to the problem, although more reality-based young readers may prefer "Alfred Nobel: The Man Behind the Peace Prize" (illustrated by Zachary Pullen, ages 6-10, Sleeping Bear Press, $17.95). Minnesota writer Kathy-jo Wargin offers an insightful biography of the Swedish inventor whose experiments with nitroglycerin opened a Pandora's box of possibilities and problems. Elementary school readers may be especially interested in Nobel's ambivalence about dynamite's use, and the lesson that discoveries can't always be contained.
Schoolkids also can be difficult to contain once the weather turns springy, some of the inspiration behind "Stampede! Poems to Celebrate the Wild Side of School" (illustrated by Steven Salerno, ages 5-8, Clarion Books, $16), a collection of poems by Minnesota writer Laura Purdie Salas that capture the anarchy of the jungle gym, the first blush of the first crush, and the universal horror of finding out tomorrow is picture day. ("I'm missing three teeth, there's a scratch by my eye./I trimmed my own bangs -- and I cut way too high. ... ")
Laura Billings is a St. Paul-based writer.