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Animals take the spotlight in this month's offerings

| Sunday, March 18, 2007

Animals, real and fanciful, figure into most of our selections this month, from stuffed teddy bears to make-believe alligators to a pair of crooning felines strutting their stuff in the Big Apple. It's all great fun, of course, especially when it's told with style and spirit, and illustrated with verve and vigor.

"The Perfect Nest," story by Catherine Friend, illustrations by John Manders; Candlewick, $16.99, 40 pages, ages 4-8.

Jack the cat is on the prowl for a delectable omelette, so he fluffs up a perfect nest to attract the finest fowl on the farm. He succeeds in luring not one, but three exotic birds to the barn: a strutting Spanish chicken, a refined French duck and a Western rootin'-tootin' goose.

The nest is so appealing, in fact, that the squatters squawk and ruffle each other's feathers, each one claiming it as their very own. When word comes along that there is another nest, just as nice, someplace else, the trio makes a hasty retreat, leaving Jack with three eggs. But the plan he had hatched runs awry when he decides to adopt what amounts to a set of feathered triplets.

Catherine Friend gives each character a unique personality, while John Manders' homespun illustrations provide a frenetic texture to the barnyard romp.

"Ella, Of Course!" story by Sarah Weeks, illustrations by Doug Cushman; Harcourt, $16, 32 pages, ages 4-8.

If there was ever a problem, Ella, a young piglet, would be the first to solve it. She was always the one who fixed any sticky situation, be it a frog jumping in a pool during a Hawaiian party, or retrieving an earring lodged in the kitchen drain.

But when Ella receives a blue umbrella with white clouds on it, she is mesmerized with opening and closing it to the point where she causes problems instead of solving them, knocking over everything -- and everyone -- in sight. One day, when her ballet teacher says that she cannot bring her umbrella to the recital, Ella takes matters into her own hooves and solves the problem by reinventing the umbrella in the shape of a form-fitting tutu.

Artist Doug Cushman infuses Sarah Weeks' spunky story with vivid colors and soft, friendly shapes.

"Everybody Has a Teddy," story by Virginia Kroll, illustrations by Sophie Allsopp; Sterling, $12.95, 24 pages, baby-preschooler.

Just about everybody has a teddy bear -- everyone, that is, except the wistful narrator, who lists the names of all the other kids he knows with stuffed pals of their very own. His list is long, and each child has a bear that boasts a unique style, one that invariably complements the personality and characteristics of its owner. There is a pleasant payoff at the end, one that suits the boy just fine.

Virginia Kroll introduces young readers to the fact that toy animals, like people, come in all shapes, sizes and hues. Sophie Allsopp's illustrations use classic colors and lines to demonstrate just how teddy bears have become beloved toys for all ages and generations.

"Tex & Sugar: A Big City Kitty Ditty," story and illustrations by Barbara Johansen Newman; Sterling, $14.95, 32 pages, ages 4-8.

Tex Mex Rex is a "real cowboy cat" with a voice so sweet he can make "an old rattlesnake give up her rattle," while at a ranch nearby, another talented feline, Sugar Lee Snughead, croons with a voice as sweet "as catbirds in June." When both leave the wide-open spaces of Texas to pursue their musical dreams in the Big Apple, they stumble onto hard times. Before long, they are drawn together in the most unlikely of ways, and their fortunes change dramatically.

Combining spirited rhyming couplets with vibrant acrylic illustrations, Barbara Johansen Newman moves seamlessly between the expansive American heartland and the bustling city lights with a comical charm, building a pair of unforgettable characters in the process.

"A Seed Is Sleepy," story by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrations by Sylvia Long; Chronicle, $16.95, 40 pages, ages 9-12.

Seeds come in a variety of forms and colors. They can be as large as a fist or as delicate and small as a grain of sand. What they all have in common is that they mark the earliest stages of plant life, just waiting to sprout and bloom.

Each page of this colorful effort opens with an array of different seeds, along with an adjective to describe what they generally are, such as "ancient," "secretive," "inventive" and "thirsty." Underneath each word is a further explanation of the seed's appearance, history and function.

Dianna Aston reveals the science behind these wonders of nature and how they generate new plants. Sylvia Long's explanatory drawings portray the anatomy of all these different wonders with great precision.

"One Frog Sang," story by Shirley Parenteau, illustrations by Cynthia Jabar; Candlewick, $15.99, 32 pages, ages 4-8.

On a misty spring evening, a group of frogs gather 'round and make happy noises under the stars. There are 10 clusters of the amphibians sprawled out separately, and each group has a different number of froggy occupants ranging from one to 10. Each makes its own amphibious sounds, from four tree-hugging frogs singing "ribbit," to nine lined up "like bumps on a log" singing "gree-deep," to the one lone frog's "ka-blurp!"

Shirley Parenteau's amusing text skillfully positions each assemblage in a different setting, while Cynthia Jabar portrays the lush spring night and a host of contented frogs as they count up and count down in a croaky dialect that is uniquely theirs, and theirs to share.

"Two Sticks," story by Orel Protopopescu, illustrations by Anne Wilsdorf; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16, 32 pages, ages 4-8.

Maybelle is a natural drummer who wields a pair of sticks with a beat that has the power to wake up an entire bayou, and she whacks away on every solid object in sight, be it doors, floors, nightstands or tabletops.

When she goes outside to drum on trees and bridges, the log she beats on shatters, thrusting her in a lake full of alligators. Instead of becoming a midday treat, she charms the toothy reptiles with the rat-tat-tatting of her sticks, leading the gators home, Pied Piper-style, to the chagrin of her parents. Mom and Dad decide she can have real drums of her own, if only she persuades her new friends to return to the swamp.

Orel Protopopescu writes with a fresh, tongue-twisting vitality, while Anne Wilsdorf captures the mood and rhythms of the Gulf Region with her lush illustrations; this one's pure entertainment.

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