“What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms and Blessings”

by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99)

This slim, elegant book, with its elongated format and red-ribbon bookmark, isn’t your conventional kids’ book by any stretch. The “chants, charms and blessings” are Wayzata poet Joyce Sidman’s lovely verses, which span diverse themes from bravery to invisibility to a “Blessing on the Smell of Dog.” Accompanying the words is poetry of another sort: Pamela Zagarenski’s gorgeous, sophisticated visual compositions. As she did in Mary Logue’s “Sleep Like a Tiger,” Zagarenski plays off the writer’s work, creating a kind of symbiotic hybrid of unique beauty. Read this book to someone, let someone read it to you and enjoy the loveliness at your fingertips.

“Lion vs. Rabbit”

by Alex Latimer

(Peachtree, $15.95)

Alex Latimer’s Lion is a big bully (he’s King of the Jungle, etc.), giving wedgies to Buffalo, stealing Hyena’s “lunch monkey” — and worse. Miserable and fed up, the victims post an ad on the jungle version of Craigs­list, seeking animals to challenge the tormenter. A veritable menagerie shows up, all predictably left in the dust. That is until sly Rabbit appears with a set of crazy challenges that bring puzzled Lion to ignominious defeat. Latimer’s critters are much fun, leaping, running and stumbling through the pages of this bright, colorful and very funny book.

“Big Little Mother”

by Kevin Kling, illustrated by Chris Monroe

(Borealis Books, $17.95)

Following up on their “Big Little Brother” collaboration, Kling and Monroe bring us another hilarious trip into childhood. Big Sister’s cat, Kittywumpus, is fed up with dressing up, playing the piano and other indignities, so she disappears in a spectacular break. Consequently, Little Brother is subjected to Big Sister’s tiresome makeovers until, worn down, he stomps off in a snit. Big sibling trouble. But a dance recital saves the day; that’s when Little Brother displays his Big Sister dancing skills. Universal praise for all ensues.

Kling and Monroe share the gift of rich childhood memories anchored in loving, telling detail. Never cloying or sentimental, their work is infused with a winsome humor that often verges on the surreal. The skillful Kling’s gentle, sensitive recollections are sweetly edgy, and Monroe’s equally sensitive illustrations add richness and feeling to this collaboration, making it appealing to kids and adults alike.

“The First Drawing”

by Mordicai Gerstein (Little Brown, $17)

In a story set in the dim reaches of human history, Mordicai Gerstein makes an imaginative leap to show how the magnificent cave art (discovered in 1994) at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in France came to be. Inspired by a child’s footprint on the cave floor, Gerstein weaves a story of a boy, his encounter with a woolly mammoth, and the making of this 30,000-year-old art. Our boy artist fixates on his encounter with the mammoth, whose image he draws on the wall of the cave. He’s followed by other “artists,” making the menagerie of remarkable animals, some long extinct, that fill Chauvet’s walls. Some might doubt that a child could make such art, but the notion makes for a compelling story, which Gerstein tells with great imagination. (Note: Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” shows the spectacular Chauvet art as it appears today; a perfect followup.)

“Looking at Lincoln”

by Maira Kalman (Penguin, $17.99)

In this lovely book, Maira Kalman turns her painterly magic to a brief, colorful biography of our 16th president. Most children know of Abraham Lincoln’s life; Kalman gives it a new slant with her idiosyncratic images and text. She touches on the familiar highlights, including Lincoln’s anti-slavery efforts and the Civil War. Her treatment of the president’s assassination and its consequences is especially moving, as is her closing at the Lincoln Memorial, one of our great public monuments. There are myriad books — more than 16,000, according to Kalman — about Lincoln, none more artfully done than this one.

“The Beginner’s Guide to Running Away from Home”

by Jennifer LaRue Huget, with illustrations by Red Nose Studio (Schwartz and Wade, $17.99)

If you’ve been thinking lately of running away from home, here’s the book for you. Jennifer LaRue Huget provides everything you need to know: A reason (baby sister gets all the attention); what to take (a wagon is recommended); sound advice (DO NOT LOOK BACK). Aided by Chris Sickels’ detailed, skillfully photographed 3-D sets, Huget’s guide is a winner. One more thing: As you’d expect, there’s a gentle lesson to be learned, of course; however, it doesn’t diminish the fun, high drama and exhilaration of fleeing home, even if it’s only for a couple of hours.

“Peck, Peck, Peck”

by Lucy Cousins (Candlewick, $15.99)

When a woodpecker (remember Woody?) stars in a story, you know that high jinks are inevitable. That’s definitely the case in this hole-filled tale of a young woodpecker flying off to exercise his newfound pecking capabilities. The simple, bold illustrations are terrific, as is the text, done in juicy hand-lettering. The pecking spree — an outdoor-indoor affair — is hilarious destruction, and kids will have fun counting and poking fingers in the umpteen holes that riddle the pages of this engaging book.

“Journey”

by Aaron Becker (Candlewick, $15.99)

It’s clear that words aren’t needed when you have gorgeous line and watercolor illustrations like those filling Aaron Becker’s exquisite book. The story is lovely, too: A bored young girl draws a door on the wall of her room and then, like Alice, discovers a wonderland beyond. Armed with a piece of red chalk, she boats, balloons and flies (on a red carpet) through an array of breathtaking landscapes. To add dramatic tension to his visuals, Becker has our heroine rescue a lavender bird-of-paradise from captivity; and then she, in turn, is rescued by the bird. It’s imaginative, magical and, most of all, wordlessly beautiful.

“The Big Wet Balloon”

by Liniers (Candlewick, $12.95)

A rainy Saturday can be a big bummer for any kid. Not for Matilda and her little sister, Clemmie. With an umbrella and a balloon, they have their own excellent back-yard adventure in a downpour. Presented in sequential comic-book style, Liniers’ line and watercolor (naturally!) drawings, done in a muted rainy-day palette, tell a little story that kids will enjoy any day, rain, shine or somewhere in between.

“Maps”

by Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizielińska (Big Picture Press, $35)

This big book might easily be called “Let’s Take a Trip.” It’s not an atlas by any stretch, and not, as purists will note, comprehensive. What is it? It’s really an old-fashioned picture book of more than 100 pages of illustrated maps, hearkening back to pictorial maps produced in the 16th century in the Age of Discovery. These maps are much more accurate, of course. The waters aren’t teeming with sea monsters, and faraway places aren’t inhabited by 12-foot humans with two heads. Plunk this down in the laps of inquisitive kids, and joy will be theirs. And they might learn a thing or two, as well.

 

L.K. Hanson is a Minneapolis artist and writer.