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Entertaining tales that speak volumes about children's books

Books about books may sound deadly boring, but some new children's books show just how entertaining the subject can be:
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Posted on April 3, 2011 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on April 3, 2011 at 3:59 a.m.

Scripps Howard News Service

Books about books may sound deadly boring, but some new children's books show just how entertaining the subject can be:

* The marvelously inventive author/illustrator Mo Willems has done it again in "We Are In a Book!" (Hyperion, $8.99), the latest entry in the "Elephant and Piggie" beginning-reader series. Here, Willems takes the two friends on a meta-fiction adventure as Elephant Gerald and Piggie suddenly realize that, as Gerald says, "Someone is looking at us." Shocked and then thrilled by the idea that, as Piggie says, "A reader is reading us!," the two then decide to see what else they can get the reader to do. Piggie decides to see if he can get the reader to say "Banana." Gerald finds that so funny that he's prostrate with laughter; his laughter quickly turns to anguish, though, when Piggie informs him that the book is coming to an end. But Piggie comes up with just the right way to make Gerald feel better -- and help beginning readers get some additional reading practice.

Willems' hilarious story is perfectly paced. It's also slyly educational, as Willems refers to "word bubbles" and has Piggie point to page numbers. The artwork, done in gray and pink on a white background, appears simple, but alert readers will clearly understand that Willems is a master of expressing worlds of meaning in a few lines. (Ages 4-7.)

* A monkey is reading a book when a jackass comes over to him and says, "What do you have there?" The monkey replies: "It's a book." But the jackass, clearly a technology snob, just doesn't get it, and asks the monkey a series of questions: "How do you scroll down?," "Can it text?" and "Can it tweet?"

In "It's a Book" (Roaring Brook, $12.99), author/illustrator Lane Smith comically details the confusion of the jackass, and the exasperation of the monkey, as they discuss the idea of what a book is -- and is not. One of the funniest two-page spreads of the book shows the jackass asking the monkey where his (computer) mouse is, and a mouse (the furry kind) popping out of a hat on top of the monkey's head. Young readers, who are, after all, digital natives, will get a real kick out of Smith's book, as will their increasingly technology-obsessed parents. (Ages 3-7.)

* Lemony Snicket, the nom de plume of Daniel Handler, won fame and fortune as the author of the "Series of Unfortunate Events" books.

Now in his new picture book, "13 Words" (Harper, $16.99), Snicket tells a quirky tale about a despondent bird whose friends -- a dog and a goat -- decide to go to a haberdashery and purchase a hat to cheer her up. A cake, a baby, a scarlet door and a mezzo-soprano add further panache.

In truth, Snicket technically showcases just 13 words, and then adds lots of other words to create his story. But young readers won't mind because the story is so silly and funny, as are the brilliantly colored, exuberant illustrations by Maira Kalman. (Ages 4-7.)

* A rabbit sees it first, a thick, red, square object that makes a cozy little house. Not long afterward, a bear sees the rabbit curled up in the object and commandeers it as a hat. The object later becomes a picnic table for some mice and a bed for a fox before a boy comes along and reveals the object's true function as a book.

In "The Wonderful Book" (Scholastic, $16.99), author/illustrator Leonid Gore playfully explores the various uses for a book. Gore's watercolor-and-ink illustrations, done on textured paper, add further whimsy to his story, which is sure to draw knowing laughs from the preschool crowd. (Ages 3-6.)

* In "Dog Loves Books" (Knopf, $16.99), author/illustrator Louise Yates tells the story of how a book-obsessed canine opens his own bookstore. It all seems so perfect, yet no customers come to the store. Bored and upset, Dog pulls down a book from his store's shelves and begins to read. Dog becomes so wrapped up in that book -- and the next and the next -- that he nearly overlooks the first customer who finally wants to buy a book. Yates' story is slight, but her illustrations are wonderfully expressive as they show the way that books bring Dog -- and indeed, all readers -- to other places. (Ages 3-6.)

* Calvin's different from the other starlings. They chase bugs while Calvin learns to read and eventually gains a reputation as a "nerdie birdie." But, as author Jennifer Berne shows in "Calvin Can't Fly" (Sterling, $14.95), knowing how to read comes in handy in an emergency. The watercolor illustrations by Keith Bendis bring Calvin's world to life in an entertaining way. (Ages 4-7.)



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