This season's crop of children's picture books ranges from nature to poetry -- and sometimes both at once.
Ever since he was introduced to Harry Potter, one of my sons has made yearly petitions to Santa, begging for a snowy owl of his own. It's possible his persistence will someday wear down St. Nick's resolve, but until then there's "Twelve Owls" (University of Minnesota Press, $19.95), a gift-worthy field guide that may persuade young readers that these rare birds are more magical in real life than in the world of J.K. Rowling.
Consider the tiny boreal owl, which casts such a spell that a single 4-ounce specimen can start cellphone apps buzzing as the birding world's GPS coordinates all point toward Two Harbors, Minn., where one or two are usually glimpsed every season. Author Laura Erickson captures the scene in cinematic detail, noting the clever way the owl uses its beak to snap the spines of unlucky field mice.
The 11 other owl species native to Minnesota get equal star treatment in this lovingly researched book, which brings barn, barred and burrowing owls to life in actual-sized portraits painted by artist Betsy Bowen, Grand Marais' gift to Minnesota.
Bottom line: If you can't get your kids a snowy owl this season, this book will teach them where to look for one. From what we read, Duluth seems like a good place to start. (Bowen and Erickson will be at Common Good Books in St. Paul at 5 p.m. Dec. 4. Erickson will be at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis at 1 p.m. Dec. 10.)
"Monkey With a Tool Belt and the Seaside Shenanigans" written and illustrated by Chris Monroe (Carolrhoda Books, $16.95)
Duluth also happens to be the home of comic illustrator Chris Monroe, creator of the ridiculously clever "Monkey With a Tool Belt" series. In this third installment, the tenacious and well-tooled repair-monkey Chico Bon Bon travels to a tropical resort to help his elephant friend Clark figure out which guest has reduced the rushing water slide to a trickle. Monroe's images are great fun for observant pre-readers to unpack, while Chico's tool-kit packing list ("plumber's putty, putty buddy, monkey putty, goo ... ") is even more entertaining for little readers to recite aloud. Adult readers will enjoy this pleasant fantasy, too, in which a major plumbing disaster is solved in plenty of time to go surfing.
"I Want My Hat Back" written and illustrated by Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press, $15.99)
Everyone loves a mystery -- even kids just learning to read. In this archly illustrated preschool procedural, an anxious bear confronts a series of likely suspects in the forest, making inquiries about the whereabouts of his missing red hat. Told entirely in dialogue, this funny tale hints at a hard -- and hilarious -- punishment for hat-stealing rodents.
"Perfect Square" written and illustrated by Michael Hall (Greenwillow Books, $16.99)
Minnesota graphic designer Michael Hall has a gift for seeing new worlds in the simplest shapes, conjuring a whole animal menagerie out of nothing but hearts in his winning debut, "My Heart Is Like a Zoo." For his second picture book, Hall reconsiders an even less romantic muse -- the square. By tearing, punching and ripping the four right angles, Hall's simple square begins to reveal rivers and flowers and flowing fountains. Perfect for preschoolers learning the shape of the world. Older kids will also be amazed by the world Hall can create with a little scrap of paper and a lot of imagination.
"Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature" by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommers (Houghton Mifflin, $16.99)
Moving on to more complicated geometric shapes, Wayzata poet Joyce Sidman finds whole worlds of inspiration inside the spiral, from snail shells to ocean waves, from fiddleheads to the Fibonacci sequence. One of the pleasures of Sidman's nature-themed books for children (such as "Ubiquitous" and the 2011 Newbery Honor Book "Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night") is the way she can combine head-in-the-clouds poetry with frost-hard facts about the natural world. Illustrator Beth Krommes, whose distinctive scratchboard illustrations for Minnesota writer Susan Marie Swanson's "The House in the Night" earned the Caldecott, links Sidman's simple words to more complex worlds by tracing the arc of a leaping dolphin, colliding rams' horns and curling hedgehogs. After reading this book, you, too, will be seeing spirals everywhere you look.
"Bumble-Ardy" written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Michael di Capua Books, $17.95)
The protagonist's family is finished off in the prologue of this picture book, but they had it coming. The swine-hearted fools "frowned on fun," never throwing a single birthday party for their little piglet, Bumble-Ardy. Now adopted by his aunt Adeline, Bumble-Ardy is determined to make up for the eight years of fun he missed by throwing himself a blow-out on his ninth birthday -- a wild rumpus of a celebration that flies out of control. Maurice Sendak is now in his 80s, and this is his first book in nearly 30 years. Though his line drawings look a little softer than they used to, his worldview is just as edgy as ever, and includes a party guest dressed like the Grim Reaper who stands uncomfortably close to our hero. Today's parenting bloggers seem as troubled by this book as their parents were about "In the Night Kitchen." Consider it excellent discussion material for your next parenting class.
"Chirchir Is Singing" written by Kelly Cunnane and illustrated by Jude Daly (Schwartz & Wade Books, $17.99)
Little hands who just want to help, but keep making everything worse, will find something very familiar in this story, set on a farm in Kenya. Chirchir and her family are members of the Kalenjin tribe, living on a modern-day compound in the western highlands where author Cunnane once lived and taught. Chirchir wanders from house to house, helping to build a fire, trying to hoe potatoes, only to be told "this work is not for you." Eventually, Chirchir lands upon the perfect role, one that keeps the family farm humming along happily.
"Marshall Armstrong Is New to Our School" written and illustrated by David Mackintosh (Abrams Books for Young Readers, $16.95)
New kids have it rough, which is why there's such a rich tradition of children's books told from the outsider's point of view. But in this clever debut, David Mackintosh turns that convention on its head by handing the narration over to an insider -- a kid who can't get over why Marshall Armstrong doesn't see that coming to school with a straw boater, slide rule and freeze-dried space food simply isn't done. His rising anxiety about this clueless new kid reaches a fever pitch when Marshall invites the whole class over for a party -- which turns out to be a little bit weird, and a whole lot of fun.
"BookSpeak! Poems About Books" by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon (Clarion Books, $16.99)
Falling in love with your first book is the beginning of a lifelong romance, a feeling that Minneapolis writer Laura Purdie Salas captures beautifully in this inventive collection of poems perfect for kids who have already worn out their first library cards. With odes to everything from the cliffhanger to the index, Purdie Salas celebrates the young reader "who browses the shelf / and looks for new worlds / but finds herself." Bisaillon's lovely and tactile illustrations also show why children's books have little to fear from the Kindle Fire.
"Big Little Brother," by Kevin Kling, illustrated by Chris Monroe (Borealis Books, $17.95 for book, $9.99 for app)
It's bad enough having a little brother -- they play with your toys, follow you around and won't do your bidding. But having a little brother who is bigger than you are is a particular pain, says the narrator of "Big Little Brother." That is, it's a pain until he bails you out of a jam. Kevin Kling's deadpan story is funny and sweet, and Chris "Monkey With a Tool Belt" Monroe's bright illustrations vividly capture the angst of the narrator, and the accoutrements of the 1970s. (Kling and Monroe will be at the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul at 2 p.m. Sunday and at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis at noon Dec. 17.)