“Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold,” by Joyce Sidman; illustrated by Rick Allen. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $17.99.) This exquisite book from gifted Minnesota artists Joyce Sidman and Rick Allen is one of those near-perfect collaborations where words and pictures seem just right. (Their previous collaboration, “Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night,” was a Newbery Honor book.) Sidman’s verses are lovely, whether she’s describing moose or bees or chickadees. Allen’s bold and complex color linocuts are breathtaking — the massed garter snakes are particularly stunning. (And don’t miss the ubiquitous red fox!) There are informative lines to accompany the illustrations, and a helpful glossary of terms. This is more than a children’s picture book: This kind of enjoyment needs to be spread around for everyone.
“Plant a Pocket of Prairie,” by Phyllis Root; illustrated by Betsy Bowen. (University of Minnesota Press; $14.95.) It’s difficult to imagine what a sea of prairie grass, taller than a person on horseback, must have looked like 150 years ago. Phyllis Root and Betsy Bowen want to help us imagine more deeply what a prairie is all about. There’s also a practical aspect to this lovely book, which is to encourage people — children especially — to plant “a pocket of prairie” and to sustain, on a small scale, the flora and fauna found there. The book is a combination of history and how-to. Bowen’s illustrations stand out dramatically against white backgrounds, whether depicting monarch butterflies on purple coneflowers, or a Great Plains toad among goldenrod. The back of the book contains useful information, including descriptions of birds, plants, animals and insects native to the prairie, as well as where to visit pieces of prairie in Minnesota.
“Little Melba and Her Big Trombone,” by Katheryn Russell-Brown; illustrated by Frank Morrison. (Lee and Low Books; $18.95.) The story of the African-American jazz trombonist Melba Liston (1926-1999) is fascinating, getting fine treatment in this colorful biography by writer Katheryn Russell-Brown and illustration collaborator Frank Morrison. Liston, a child prodigy, went on to a career as one of American jazz’s premier trombonists, performing with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Randy Weston. The book is beautifully done in all respects. Russell-Brown interweaves the facts of Liston’s life with a colorful narrative of this gifted artist’s development; Morrison’s painted illustrations are warm and imaginatively composed. In addition, there’s an informative afterword that includes a compact chronology of Liston’s life, as well as a discography and bibliography.
“The Great Thanksgiving Escape,” by Mark Fearing. (Candlewick Press; $15.99.) Mark Fearing, collaborator with writer David LaRochelle in last year’s terrific “How Martha Saved Her Parents From Green Beans,” goes solo with a wonderful kid’s-eye view of Thanksgiving. Arriving at Grandma’s, young Gavin is ordered to go play “with the rest of the kids” — drooling babies, crawling and clawing tots, and worse. Rescue arrives in the form of feisty Cousin Rhonda, who devises a plan to escape to the back-yard swing set. This mission includes the dangerous negotiating of “The Hall of Aunts” and “The Great Wall of Butts.” Fearing’s work has an appealing edginess that resonates with kids, and he’s a careful observer of telling detail, which adds to the enjoyment.
“While You Were Napping,” by Jenny Offill; illustrated by Barry Blitt. (Schwartz and Wade Books; $16.99.) Dreaded, enforced nap time for Little Brother turns into a crazy romp for Big Sister and the neighborhood kids in this hilarious, nutty story. While Little Brother sleeps, a bulldozer demolishes back yards, a dinosaur skeleton is unearthed, candy-bearing robots show up, and there’s a fireworks extravaganza. And pirates. Oh, and did we mention there’s a trip to outer space and a visit to the moon? Jenny Offill strikes just the right tone in this uproarious tale, and master illustrator Barry Blitt is the perfect collaborator in the mayhem.
“Flashlight,” by Lizi Boyd. (Chronicle Books; $16.99.) For the young back-yard camper in this wordless tale, a flashlight’s triangular beam is a key unlocking a world of wonders in a landscape fallen under darkness. There’s more mystery here than scariness as our kid explorer moves through this dark universe. Lizi Boyd’s story glides silently as darkness itself, carried along by wonderful illustrations that include die-cut openings, revealing where we’ve been and where we’re going with our explorer. A truly engaging adventure, and one with a message that the dark really isn’t so scary after all.
“In This Book,” by Fani Marceau; illustrated by Joëlle Jolivet. (Chronicle Books; $17.99.) With its big, colorful, poster-style illustrations, this is a picture book in the truest sense, and a lovely one at that. The organizing phrase is the simple “I am in the (blank),” said the (blank). So we have “I am in the ocean,” said the whale. Or “I am in the dark,” said the child. The phrase is repeated in page after engaging page of bright color and simple shapes. The straightforward words and strong illustrations will appeal to preschoolers and early readers, as well as to anyone who appreciates lovely art and beautiful design.
“Bug on a Bike,” by Chris Monroe. (Carolrhoda Books; $16.95.) Many of us have been taught that there are essentially two stories: Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. In the case of Chris Monroe’s charming, rhyming tale, that someone is a bug, and the journey is a bike trip. It’s a bike trip like no other, since it includes not only a bug, but a lizard and a toad, as well. The gifted Monroe, best known for her Chico Bon Bon books, as well as her collaborations with writer Kevin Kling, goes solo here with a wonderful read-aloud story and pages packed with whimsical and delightfully odd illustrations. I especially enjoy her big “party scenes,” which are full of marvelous things to discover. Much fun for readers and lookers.
“Chik Chak Shabbat,” by Mara Rockliff; illustrated by Kyrsten Brookner. (Candlewick Press; $15.99.) This charming story is set in an apartment building where inhabitants of all types observe Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, with Goldie Simcha, the lady in 5-A. Every Saturday Goldie cooks up a pot of cholent, the traditional Shabbat stew, and sits down to enjoy it with her neighbors. Then, one Friday, Goldie gets sick. No cholent for Shabbat! Neighbors come to the rescue, and an international Shabbat feast ensues. Rockliff’s appealing story is sweet, and Brookner’s paint-and-collage illustrations carry it along beautifully, most especially in her portrayals of Goldie’s diverse neighbors. Add to this a recipe for cholent on the last page, and you’ve got a delicious winner of a book.
“Very Little Red Riding Hood,” by Teresa Heapy; illustrated by Sue Heap. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $16.99.) This update of the classic tale still includes Red Riding Hood, the Wolf and Grandma, but that’s pretty much where the similarity ends in this delightful retelling by Teresa Heapy and Sue Heap. In this version, Red dons the hood; the Wolf wears a topcoat and scarf; and Grandma is stylish in yellow pants and a sweater. Wolf and Red show up at Grandma’s and, after a couple of brief, upsetting episodes (no blood, no gore, no one eaten), everyone gets along swimmingly. Heapy’s story, told with Brit élan, is charming, and Heap’s illustrations are entertaining accompaniment, indeed.
L.K. Hanson is a Twin Cities artist and writer and a former artist for the Star Tribune.