Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sweet New Books for Dad

Nothing beats a good snuggle on Father's Day. Here are just a few books to read in Daddy's lap.

Daddy Calls Me Doodlebug

By J.D. Lester, illustrated by Hiroe Nakata

Random House, 2010

$7.99, ages baby-preschool

A rosy-cheeked girl joins baby animals in celebrating the nicknames daddies give them in this tender board book about the special moments daddies and daughters never forget.

On one page, the girl bounces on Daddy's shins, yelling, "Yippee!" as Daddy calls her, "Doodlebug," while later a porcupine girl perched on a toadstool with flowers threaded through her quills, smiles as her daddy calls her, "Prickly Pear."

The Fathers are Coming Home

By Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Stephen Savage

Simon & Schuster, 2010

$16.99, ages 2-5

As night falls, fathers return to their little ones: a big green fish swims to a gurgling brook to see his tiny fry while a sailor fresh off his ship runs down the dock to embrace his happy boy.

Brown, adored author of Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, celebrates the constancy of a father's affection in this spare, sweet picture book.

I Love My Dad

Written and illustrated by Anna Walker

Simon & Schuster, 2010

$9.99, ages 2-6

Ollie the zebra adores every moment he spends with his dad. He loves climbing trees up to the birds and best off all, getting a piggyback ride on Daddy's back to bed.

Walker's latest Ollie book will leave daddies and their smallest children feeling warm and squishy inside.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fun Rhymes to Read Aloud: Four Books for Poetry Month

One of the rewards of a finding a great rhyme is that you don't have to be good at reading aloud to make it sing.

Think about the last time you read Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky. Chances are you didn't need to gear up to read the lines. The poems did a lot of the work for you.

Linked and spaced in a clever way, the words seemed to add their own inflection and enthusiasm to your voice as you read.

In celebration of National Poetry Month this April, I've spotlighted four new books of poems that are sure to put a hop and a skip into your reading voice.

In fact, some of the poems are so fun to say aloud, you might just hear them repeated back by the listener in your lap or those snuggled up beside you.

To help round out your library, I've followed the four reviews with a list of six more books of poems that rise above the stacks.

The Wonder Book

By Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by

Paul Schmid

HarperCollins, 2010

$17.99, 9-12, 80 pages

Funny, irreverent and hopelessly cute, Rosenthal's book is a gem from start to finish.

Matched with the whimsical line drawings of Schmid, her poems capture all the charm and naivety of being little, and, in tone, remind me of sketches in Maurice Sendak and Ruth Krauss 1952 classic "A Hole is to Dig."

Every poem in the collection is a delight to read aloud, but most you won't want to recite without sharing the pictures, as there are lots of little details that add to the fun.

Take this funny twist on Shakespeare's line, "A Rose by Any Other Name," a little poem about intestinal gas.

Beside the poem, a girl stands pigeon-toed with a look of dread on her face for what just happened, as a skunk looks on at her from the next page, smitten by her malodorous mistake.

It begins, "In Spain it's called a pedo / In Hungary you'd pass a fing / In Dutch you'd say en wind lateen / When your bottom sings," and ends, "No matter where you come from / Or what language that you speak / It's just really really funny / To hear a tushy squeak."

Throughout the book, there are clever little plays on words, and smart collaborations between verse and pictures.

On one two-page spread, a scientist in oversized glasses points to a Periodic Table of how to behave. Above him the title reads, "For Those Who Periodically Need Reminding About Table Manners,'" and to his right, a chart of atomic numbers list the manners 1-13, each with its own symbol, such as "Bu" for "Refrain from burping at the table."

Some poems play out in short comic strips and one even comes with a funny warning.

Leading into a poem about spoiled children, a two-page spread shows a path meandering out of woods and past an arrow sign pointing to the next page. Across the fold, you read, "Take a Deep Breath… You are About the Enter Brat City."

On the following page, readers come nose to nose with a big sour face. A girl is sticking out her tongue and her eyes are scrunched into slits. Then on the opposite side you find out about "Brat City," where children have no city limits and whine all the time.

There are also silly palindromes, a poem to celebrate being half-way through the book and an instructional poem on how to sneak a cookie without mom seeing.

Clever bit: Who can resist this little verse, as a little boy wading in the ocean looks awkwardly at his tush. "Tinkle / Tinkle / In the sea / Don't look under / While I pee…"

Whether you love silly questions or are just in the book for the ride, this collection is sure to spread giggles around the room.


Words and pictures by Douglas Florian

Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster, 2010

$16.99, ages 4-8, 48 pages

A poem may not be as lovely as a tree, but Florian's tribute to these stalwarts of the forest is certain to inspire affection.

When reading these splendid little poems, be sure to hold the book upright for the listener to see, for it's the melding of words and pictures that makes this tribute so extraordinary.

Florian, author-illustrator of the hit book Dinothesaurus, overlays short poems on paintings of trees, tree parts and in one case the organic outline of child, so that the poems are as much about the pictures as the words.

On one two-page spread, a poem about roots is set over the torso of a child. Her outline is drawn in water-saturated lines of paint in varying shades of earth-brown. The lines, like roots, wind down two pages, which, like all of the book's spreads, are oriented vertically.

The poem begins just below the child's eyes and continues over her midriff, with an occasional word changing in spacing and direction to give it emphasis.

Every time Florian uses a word that means, "to expand," he spaces the letters widely, and when he uses one that means, "downward movement," he breaks from the horizontal structure of the poem to write vertically.

The words and pictures work so well together that you're swept along by Florian's passion for trees. In "Giant Sequoia," his awe for this ancient tree easily becomes your awe.

He paints a single massive sequoia rising "heavenly high," far above every other tree in the forest, and illuminated by an outline of radiant gold. Spaced up the trunk are human hands with their palms flat and facing the reader, as if to say "Halt," to any who would want to cut it down.

In some of the poems, the lines follow the shape of the subject, as in "Tree Rings," in which words move in a circular path, or "The Seed," in which the poem follows a figure eight, suggestive of the helicopter shaped maple seed.

All of the poems are fairly spare, and perhaps because their lines are short (sometimes just a word or two long), you might find yourself picking up the pace as you read and adding your own exclamation mark.

Clever bit: I loved that every "Poetree" must be turned and viewed vertically, as if to say that trees and their parts reach so far into the earth and sky that a book can barely keep them in.

Everybody Was a Baby Once: and Other Poems

By Allan Ahlberg, pictures by Bruce Ingram

Candlewick Press, 2010

$15.99, ages 4-8, 64 pages

Every page of Ahlberg's book is so playful and happy that you feel as though you're right there with the characters, skipping, splashing and seeing funny things unfold.

This is another book that begs to be held up as you read aloud, and is also a perfect book for children to get lost in, as there's so much to look at as they read.

Ahlberg puts a fun spin on everything from wash day to bath time to the nonsensical, while Ingram's ink drawings, punctuated with strokes of color, build on that whimsy and energy.

Each page celebrates the splendor of being little and at times the content feels as capricious as a child.

Poems and pictures are always on the go, dashing here and there. But they're so fun to read and look at that readers will be tempted to linger on one spread even as they itch to see what's next.

Some poems, like "When I Was Just a Little Child," are so cleverly worded, they feel like classics-in-the-making. This particular poem shows how larger-than-life things can seem to a small child.

"When I was just a little child / The world seemed wide to me. / My mom was like a featherbed / My bath was like the sea. / My high chair was a mighty tower / The view I had was grand. / With cups and plates stretched out for miles / Across the tableland."

Other poems reflect the kinds of crazy imaginative thoughts that come to a child, like what sausages would do if they had legs, and some are just plain wacky in a way that a child will appreciate.

Take "Dangerous to Know," a poem about the perils of being around inanimate objects that take on a life of their own.

Next to a drawing of a red-lipped eraser with a pigtail, a verse reads: "The Rubber Girl / Without a doubt / When rubbed up wrongly / Will rub you out."

Clever bit: A good finale often comes with a pause and with a few of Ahlberg's poems, you have to flip the page to read the final line, giving Ingram a chance to set up a funny scene, which in at least one case sets up the next poem.

After reading most of the first poem of the book, "Monday is Washday" on one spread, you turn the page to see a bathtub and soap bar chasing a boy on a bicycle, which takes us to the next pages and the second poem, "Dirty Bill."

As the boy continues to be pursued, you read: "I'm Dirty Bill from Vinegar Hill, / Never had a bath and never will." Terse and matter-of-fact, the lines capture his defiance, and are sure to put a mischievous giggle in your listener.

Name That Dog! Puppy Poems from A to Z

By Peggy Archer, illustrated by Stephanie Buscema

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2010

$16.99, ages 3-5, 32 pages

Stuck for a name for your little pooch? Listen to all of the silly things these puppies do and you might be inspired too.

In this snappy A-Z of dog names, Archer celebrates the lovable quirks of 26 breeds and shows how, if given a little leeway, dogs will almost name themselves.

The title of each poem is a name that reflects the look or character of the breed, or something funny that happens to the dog.

There's the yellow Lab "Aspen," who is the color of golden marmalade and plays in aspen leaves, the Bulldog "Jingles" who has so many dog tags you always know he's near and the Schnauzer "Whiskers" who has beads of dog food strung on his whiskers.

Some dogs are named for their mischief, like the Field Spaniel "Chewy," who devours slippers, the Mini Pinscher "Houdini" who's always gets loose and the Boston Terrier "Bandit," whose eyes, circled in black, pilfers everything in sight.

"…He sneaks around from room to room / a bandit in disguise. / Stealing socks and slippers, / baseball caps and soap, / garden gloves and wooden spoons, / keys and jumping rope."

"So if there's something missing, / like a book or cowboy boot, / just take a look by Bandit's bed -- that's where he keeps his loot."

Other dogs are named for the day they were born, the sounds they make or the things they can't resist doing.

Take the Dalmatian "Daisy": "She runs through Mother's petunias. / She thinks the pansies are fun. / Then she gets a bit lazy / and lies in the daisies / And quietly naps in the sun."

Every poem is matched with a playful picture of the dog caught in the act of being themselves, like the Boykin spaniel YoYo, leaping up and down among three of the spiraling toys.

"He's a Roller Coaster falling. / He's a Rocket in the Sky. / He's up and down, he's Stop and Go, / like a yoyo whizzing by!"

Clever bit: The idea of a book of names for puppies is hilarious. If only humans had such a fun guide to name their babies.

Six Poetry Favorites

It would be easy to fill up a list with titles by Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Eugene Field, Edward Lear and Robert Louis Stevenson.

But since many of us already know about these amazing authors and their books, I've come up with a list of six others that aren't as well-known, but are sure to make "toenails twinkle" just the same.*

Fold Me a Poem

By Kristine O'Connell George and illustrated by Lauren Stringer

Harcourt Children's Books, 2005

$16, ages 4-8, 56 pages

A boy folds and plays with origami animals in this imaginative collection of 32 brief poems. Stringer's acrylic paintings are magical. On one page, an origami elephant emerges from a crumpled lunch bag and on another a floral-paper frog takes the place of a water lily on a floating leaf.

The Underwear Salesman and Other Jobs for Better or Verse

By J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Serge Bloch

Simon & Schuster, 2009

$16.99, ages 9-12, 64 pages

In this hilarious collection of poems, Lewis explores almost every job imaginable, from exterminator to paleontologist to bubble bath tester, while Bloch's ink cartoons leap around the page and delight with whimsical touches of collage. My favorite: the fashion designer with parsley hair.

Here's a Little Poem:

A Very First Book of Poetry

Collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, illustrated by Polly Dunbar

Candlewick Press, 2007

$21.99, ages baby/preschool, 112 pages

It's hard to think of a sweeter anthology than this one. Rosy-cheeked children tumble from page to page in this collection of more than 60 short verse by talents ranging from Margaret Wise Brown to Langston Hughes. No one captures the joy in a child like Dunbar.

Today at the Bluebird Cafe:

A Branchful of Birds

By Deborah Ruddell, illustrated by Joan Rankin

Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007

$15.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

Ruddell captures the personalities of more then 20 kinds of birds, from the high-flying Kingfisher to the sequined hummingbird, while Rankin's watercolors dance on the page. My favorite, when penguins in knit hats dream of flight. On the last page, you see them with ostriches and fish, floating from helium balloons in the sky.

I Heard it from Alice Zucchini:

Poems About the Garden

By Jaunita Havill, illustrated by Christine Davenier

Chronicle Books, 2006

$15.95, ages 9-12, 32 pages

A garden fairy flits around the vegetable garden in this enchanting collection of poems, brought to life by Davenier's whimsical watercolors. Among the many gems: "Dainty Doily Dill Weed / dances in the breeze, / waving yellow blossoms, / calling to the peas."

This is Just to Say:

Poems of Apology and Forgiveness

By Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2007

$16, ages 9-12, 48 pages.

Sixth-grade characters write poems to say they're sorry in this funny and touching collection, cleverly illustrated by Zagarenski. In one poem a student apologize for belting a ball at his friend in dodge ball; in another, for stealing a jelly donut from the teacher's lounge.

* This wonderful phrase was coined by the late Welsh poet Dylan Thomas when asked how poetry makes him feel.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Going Green: 10 Books to Inspire Kids

"So many fail because they don't get started -- they don't go. They don't overcome inertia. They don't begin." (W. Clement Stone)

It's hard to accept what's happening to change Earth -- the pollution, the rising temperatures, the harm to creatures and places we always assumed would be around.

But it's also difficult to see how any one of us has the power to stop these bad things from happening. The problems are so big and complex, we ask ourselves, "Will our actions to help clean things up ever amount to enough?"

Experts say, absolutely. If we all do something for Earth every day, then soon we'll be doing it together, and the power of one action will multiply. But how do we motivate ourselves to believe this too and change the patterns we live by?

Perhaps we just have to act as if every action matters, even if we have nothing immediate to show for it and are unsure of what we can accomplish. The late writer-editor Dorothea Brande said, "All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail."

As Earth Day approaches, I've gathered 10 books, most new, a few older, that help kids do just this: try to change the world in anyway they can. They inspire children to care about what happens, think through the problems we face and recognize that even the smallest act of conservation can go a long way.

Each of the books below offers a gentle message. The first two are poignant, showing some of the problems we face, but with hope and sometimes humor. The next three are exploratory and do a great job explaining global warming and solar energy, while the last five are motivational and convey how far-reaching one action can be.

Here Comes the Garbage Barge!

By Jonah Winter, illustrated by Red Nose Studio

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2010

$17.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

Showing how ridiculous the trash problem can become, Winter and Red Nose Studio satirize Long Island's 1987 attempt to unload 3,168 tons of rubbish on someone else's shore in this delightfully wry book.

As if staging sets for a Claymation film, Red Nose Studios recreates with clay, wire, cloth and found objects the notorious garbage barge fiasco, and with such humor, you'd hardly believe an event like this could ever have happened.

Over the course of six weeks, the smelly barge pulled by a salty old tugboat captain attempts to port in one community after the next, only to be greeted by scowls and armed resistance (including a Texas Ranger straddling a horse in a speedboat) along the East Coast and beyond.

At first the plan is to bring the garbage to North Carolina and pay farmers to bury it on their land, but when word gets out to officials, a police boat swerves in front of the barge and forces it away. Then the barge heads to New Orleans, only to be stopped by the Coast Guard before it can go up the Mississippi.

Finally, after being turned away by gunpoint from the coast of Mexico and Belize, even the captain can't stand the stink anymore -- he dons an oxygen mask -- and calls his boss, a Long Island mobster, to say he's quit. His boss tells him to head back to Islip and try a few places along the way, but of course no one wants the festering trash.

The barge eventually pulls into New York Harbor, where it's met by the Statue of Liberty holding her nose and a restraining order to keep it from docking. Not even Islip will take it back, but after a heated legal battle, Brooklyn agrees to incinerate the trash down in size and bury the rest where it came from.

Some say the event, fictionalized here for the sake of good storytelling, brought to light the nation's landfill problem and spurred the recycling movement.

Best Parts: As the barge nears the Florida shore, the tugboat captain is greeted by a flotilla of pasty-skinned retirees in float rings (one a rubber duck) shaking their fists.

Later off the coast of Belize, two stone-faced soldiers stand on either side of a little mustachioed general on a booster stool, shouting "Kungo," which in New Yorker slang means, "Fuhgeddaboudit."

The caricatures are hysterical and bring levity to a sad episode in history.

Flip over the sleeve of Here Comes the Garbage Barge! to see how the book was made and check out the trailer below of Red Nose Studio building the sets!

Bag in the Wind

By Ted Kooser, illustrated by Barry Root

Candlewick Press, 2010

$17.99, ages 4-8, 48 pages

Pulitzer Prize winner Kooser delivers a quietly powerful tale of a plastic bag unearthed in a landfill that speaks to all the forgotten trash that's slow to decompose.

When a tractor turning a pile of garbage frees a plastic bag from the dump, the bag is swept over a fence, into a tree, then pecked loose by a blackbird, only to become lodged on a barbed-wire fence, where it's found by a girl looking for a bag to collect aluminum cans.

Thus begins a fascinating and eye-opening journey that will inspire readers to reuse plastic bags and eventually stop using them altogether. At story's end, readers learn that it can take 15 years to 1,000 for one bag to break down -- a sobering statistic given that the average American uses at least 350 per year.

A synopsis of the book on the inside flap describes the story as "full of happenstance and connection, neglect and conservation," and echoes the book's power: Kooser doesn't try to tell readers what they should do. He sort of nudges them to think about all of the plastic bags that have nowhere to go and what they might do to change it.

Best Parts: Kooser's words drift along, gently telling the bag's tale, and blend so beautifully with the softness of Root's images that I came away feeling as though I had read a wordless picture book, though the narrative isn't particularly spare.

At times Root's images of the runaway bag were so familiar, they were almost uncomfortable to look at. Who hasn't seen a bag tumble along a ditch, get flattened against a fence or get caught up in a branch? But how many of us go chasing after it? We may be accustomed to seeing a bag on the loose, but do we stop our cars to deal with it?

I was particularly struck by the image of a plastic bag being spit out by the tires of a passing vehicle, which seems to me like the ultimate indignity of paying no mind to trash on the road. I found myself humming the sobering melody to Kansas's Dust in the Wind -- but thinking that a bag in the wind doesn't have to be an old song we've heard before.

How the World Works: A Hands-On Guide to Our Amazing Planet

By Christian Dorion,

illustrated by Beverley Young

Templar Books, 2010

$17.99, ages 9-12, 18 pages

This cleverly designed science book puts the processes that guide Earth into a child's hands.

Pull-outs, flaps, pop-ups and even a mini flip book illustrate the basics of Earth's activities: how Earth began, how seasons change, how plates shape the planet, why weather changes, how the carbon cycle works and more.

There are also fascinating facts that meander along the edges of pages or appear in little boxes, as well as answers to questions a reader might ask, such as "What if there was no moon?" The reader need only pull a tab to see the earth spinning in a blur.

Best Parts: What better way to teach a child about his impacts on the environment than a lift-the-flap that breaks down the carbon footprint of a cheeseburger?

Lift every layer from the bun to the pickles (condiments excluded) to find out how much carbon is emitted to produce each one, and eventually the whole burger. (A grand total of 4 lbs., 2 oz. of carbon, the weight of 19 Quarter Pounders!)

Equally fascinating is a fold-out of tips we've learned from nature; for example, the reason engineers put ridges on the blades of wind turbines is because they observed that the bumpy fins on humpback whales reduce their drag in water.

Other favorites include a mini flip book that shows how the continents of Earth slid over millions of years, and pull-outs that show mountains being pushed up and magma oozing out of the earth as plates separate.

I loved this interactive book for all that it does to make the earth's processes interesting and easy to grasp.

The Magic School Bus and The Climate Challenge

By Joanna Cole, illustrated by Bruce Degen

Scholastic Press, 2010

$16.99, ages 9-12. 48 pages

No one brings children into science quite like Ms. Frizzle and her latest ride around the globe is an eye-opening journey for children just learning about global warming.

In this fact-packed picture book, Ms. Frizzle decides her old earth sciences book is too dated for her students to use and loads her class into the flying school bus to see what's changed in the planet's health since the book was published.

While flying over Earth, the class observes ice melting, sea levels rising, farmlands drying out, and animals being pushed out of their homes, and compares these images to pictures in Frizzle's book from when she was 9. By trip's end, the class not only understands what's going on, but learns how to slow warming and rally others to use less energy.

Best Parts: To explain how gases in the atmosphere can make Earth warmer, Ms. Frizzle instructs the class to jump out of the bus onto slides of sunbeams.

As the sunbeams gently land on Earth, they warm the soil, causing heat to rise. The heat then pushes the kids back up into the sky until they bump into greenhouse gases and are sent earthward again to make the ground even hotter.

An important clarification accompanies the image: greenhouses gases aren't all bad -- Earth would freeze up without some -- but because so many fossil fuels are being burned, too many gases are backing up in the atmosphere.

Other highlights include the Magic School Bus morphing into a hybrid vehicle near the end of the book and a comparison of the amount of CO2 each person contributes annually to the weight of 8 hippos.

The Kids' Solar Energy Book Even Grown-Ups Can Understand

By Tilly Spetgang, illustrated by Malcolm Wells

Imagine Publishing, Inc., 2009

$14.95, ages 9-12, 88 pages

A comic book about solar energy that's printed all in green. What an ingenious way to get kids motivated about sun power and spur them to try energy experiments of their own.

This stand-out book by journalist Spetgang and renowned architect Wells, first published in 1982 before global warming made headlines then rereleased in 2009 to coincide with the upsurge in public concern, will have readers cracking up as they learn.

Rather than passively learn about the issue, readers hang out in a 6th Grade classroom as their teacher, Mrs. Robinson, talks about issues surrounding solar energy, including why it's not more popular even though it's free, it's always available and it doesn't pollute the air.

On the top of the page, readers listen to the teacher explain how solar energy works, what it takes to get solar collectors in place and how the technologies operate, while below they see line drawings of kids at their desks bantering back and forth about what she's telling them.

When Mrs. Robinson brings up the subject of the energy crunch, one kid slumped in his chair ribs, "Yeah. It's a new candy bar," to which the girl ahead of him turns around and corrects, "I thought it was when two oil tankers collide."

But this isn't just a smart-alecky group; they're also working through what she's saying and imagining what it could mean. When Mrs. Robinson explains how photovoltaic solar cells can convert light to electricity, a girl raises her hand and suggests, "Like light bulbs in reverse."

The comic relief helps to bring home the subject: in one frame a boy looks down at his smoking feet, regretting that he walked on asphalt, which like passive solar systems in houses (inside walls, barrels of water, bins of rocks) soaks up heat during the day and releases it later.

You never actually see the teacher and somehow this makes her voice carry over all of the chatter. It's fun to take it all in, then review the lessons by reading just what the teacher says (which blots out the wise cracks, but allows you to focus in on all the facts.)

Best Parts: As the book begins, Mrs. Robinson offers such a thoughtful lead-in to the topic that you can't help but become engaged in what she's saying.

"This beautiful blue-green planet of mountains and oceans and skyscrapers and great beasts of the jungle…all yours," she says. "Have you ever thought of it that way? You may be about 12 years old and not feel as if you count in any special way outside your family. But, in the wink of an eye, you will be 18, 23, 32."

If I was a teacher, I'd be scribbling down all the great lines to use in my class. My favorite: "How do you catch sunbeams to make them work for you?"

365 Penguins

By Jean-Luc Fromental, illustrated by Joelle Jolivet,

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2006

$17.95, ages 4-8, 48 pages

Bold graphics of penguins accumulating in the house of a family of four highlight this unique book about one scientist's offbeat solution to help penguins relocate from the South Pole.

In this large-format book, the family gets a package in the mail every day of the year containing a penguin and tries to figure out how to keep them all happy, healthy and organized.

First the family tries arranging them in file cabinets, then stacking them into a cube until the four become so overwhelmed that they begin to live penguin, think penguin and become penguin.

Finally after a year, Uncle Victor, the ecologist, shows up in his parka and Birkenstocks to explain the mystery and trucks all but one of the penguins (a total of 364) to the North Pole.

But now that family life is returning to normal, what's this big, new package at the front door?

Best Parts: Jolivet's images, all in black, white, orange and blue, pull you into the mounting chaos, as an unprepared family tries to keep track of a fast-growing colony of endangered birds which they know very little about.

I loved the absurdity of the father trying to stack 216 penguins into a cube shape and thinking he could file them away into a cabinet, and how excited my 7-year-old son got every time the family tried to figure out how many penguins they'd organized into a cube or drawers.

Fromental poses a multiplication problem for the reader to figure out, then hides the answer upside down at the bottom of the page. Adding to the fun, readers are invited find a blue-footed penguin tucked in among the flock.

Uncle Victor's imaginative, yet dubious scheme to save penguins shows how difficult it is to help threatened species and how desperate the situation can become.

We Planted a Tree

By Diane Muldrow, illustrated by Bob Staake

Golden Books, 2010

$17.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

You don't need to plug it in. All you do is plant it and give it water. A tree, one of the most efficient air cleaners we have, and perhaps the most sublime.

In this rosy, exuberant book, author Muldrow and award-winning illustrator Staake celebrate the simple act of planting a tree and get us energized to plant one too.

The story follows two families of four, one from a typical American city, the other from rural Kenya, as they nurture a sapling and follow its growth through the years.

From the moment each family buries the root ball, their eyes and smiles grow wide and joyous, reflecting all of the possibility that the trees hold.

Each day sunshine pours onto leaves, bringing food to the trees, and soon plump buds appear at the tips of branches and pink blossoms spring open.

As summer settles in, the American children sit under a cooling canopy of leaves beside their napping dog; the branches are like broad shoulders and it feels as though the tree watches over for them.

Across the world, the Kenyan family tends a vegetable garden they've planted near their tree. They know the tree will keep soil from blowing away and help rainwater collect in the ground, and are thankful to the tree for helping them grow their own food.

At times the story cuts away from the two families to show other people and animals enjoying the splendor of trees, thus widening the celebration.

In a big city greenway, a broad tree shadows the path of joggers and horse-drawn carriage, as children run around a baseball diamond surrounded by trees that help to cleanse their air (a wonderful opportunity to explain to kids how trees remove the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it to make wood for their growth).

Then on the next page, an elderly lady gazes at the beauty of her Grecian coast as workers fill baskets with apples, oranges -- and lemons -- from her trees.

(Those familiar with Staakes' New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book The Red Lemon and his acclaimed book The Donut Chef will be charmed by Muldrow's reference to lemons and the image of a roly-poly baker carrying a cake into the garden.)

Best Parts: The energy that builds from one illustration to the next propels our excitement about planting a tree, and by the time we see a girl swing from a stout old tree near the end of the book, our hearts are filled with awe.

Girls Gone Green

By Lynn Hirshfield, foreword by Hayden Panettiere

Puffin Books, 2010

$11.99 pbk., ages 10 and up, 208 pages

Hip and stylish, this cause-inspiring book is packed with stories of teen girls making green choices in their daily lives as well as tips for readers to be green too.

After each girl's account of going green, adult mentors and eco-minded actresses offer advice, guidance and helpful websites to get readers involved.

Amy Galper, founder of Buddha Nose, an organic line of body-care products, gives directions to make a honey mask and sugar scrub, while Juno actress Ellen Page shares how to host a planting party -- all you need are some empty egg crates, dirt, a few spoons, a packet of organic seeds and your best buddies.

Readers will be inspired by 18-year-old Alberta Nells's heart-felt speeches to stop a ski resort from being developed on mountains held sacred by Native American tribes and 16-year-old Savannah Pope and Rachel Pelletier's award-winning campaign to erect a wind turbine at their Vermont high school.

Spurred by an assignment in their environmental studies class, the Vermont teens decided to enter the 2007 Ben & Jerry's Lick Global Warming contest after their school turned down their idea for aesthetic reasons.

"The administration felt that the wind turbine would be an eyesore on campus," Pope writes. "…We decided then and there that we would win…and get enough positive publicity that it would make it difficult for our school's administration to turn us down."

The teens researched turbines, wrote grants and came up with a plan to auction off native trees to help fund it, and in the end not only won the contest, but convinced the administration that wind energy would save it thousands of dollars annually in electricity costs and reduce the school's CO2 emissions by 5,000 pounds per year.

Getting a turbine built at school might sound a bit overwhelming to some, but there are lots of other ways readers can help care for Earth -- whether it's wearing a stylish vintage dress to the prom, making a sandwich tote from recycled fabric, buying recycled school supplies or (and they'll love this) educating their parents about wise energy use.

In a section "Tips to help your parents kick gas," Colette Brooks, head of the Big Imagination Group, explains the benefit of trading in the family's gas vehicle for a good used diesel car (diesel engines can go for up to 300,000 miles before they need an overhaul.)

Best Parts: There were so many amazing stories of ordinary girls standing their ground for the environment that readers will have a tough time choosing favorites.

My favorite, however, is the story of the wind turbine. How two girls managed to get a 105-foot wind mill up and running on school grounds -- and found $40,000 to make it happen -- is amazing and brings home what a little moxie can do for someone.

This fun, easy-to-navigate book makes being green popular, fashionable and just plain smart.

31 Ways to Change the World

By We Are What We Do

Candlewick Press, 2010

$8.99 pbk, ages 8-12, 80 pages

Who thought helping Earth could be so fun?

This clever handbook gives little ways to make the world cleaner and happier, from lowering the thermostat at home (and slipping on a sweater) to using stuff until it's worn out (rather than throwing it out for something fancier).

The book comes from the London-based movement We Are What We Do, which encourages ordinary people to take on environmental and social problems through the slogan, "Small Actions x Lots of People = Big Change."

While many of the ideas will be familiar to kids (like turning off lights and being kind to others), each action is introduced in a way that is catchy and contagious.

Action #7 asks kids to look closer at their world and notice things no one else does, and conveys this idea with a two-page spread designed by the creator of Where's Waldo, British illustrator Martin Handford.

Readers are asked to find 10 images representing positive actions (along with the grinning man in the bobble hat), which gets them engaged in the world before them in a fun way.

Best Parts: Action #18 really grabbed my attention because at first I thought I was going to disagree with it, but as I read further I realized where it was headed and immediately wanted to make it my own.

The action, "Don't Sing in the Shower," is geared to getting kids out of the shower faster and offers an interesting fact: if all the kids in a class cut their shower time from seven minutes to two for one year, they could fill a swimming pool with the water they saved!

The authors end with the snappy catch phrase: "Take shorter showers. Save your singing for the rain," along with a humorous incentive that sleepy teens will surely love: "(P.S. Shorter showers also mean more time to sleep in. Which is almost as good as saving the world.)"

For more great ideas, click We Are What We Do under my "Blogs and Links I'm Following."

The Solar Car Book

By Doug Stillinger

Klutz, 2002

$19.95 spiral-bound, ages 9-12, 48 pages

Does your child's head snap in the direction of every SMART car on the road? Does he think the latest innovations in renewable energy are just awesome?

Then chances are he'll flip for this simple kit for a sun-powered car.

When my three boys set up their solar car, it began spinning its wheels the moment they walked out of the patio door into a sunny Colorado spring day.

Along with everything you need to build a basic vehicle, the kit comes with a book of instructions, trouble-shooting tips, fun ways to run the car, as well as quick facts about solar chips, motors and more. (Just be sure you have a tiny screwdriver on hand for assembly.)

Best Parts: Though the car doesn't move fast, and has trouble with inclines and bumps, our boys were in awe that it didn't require batteries or have exhaust burping out the back.

They were equally fascinated to see how quickly the car stopped when their shadows crossed its path.

For my husband and I, the reward was seeing our boys energized by the potential that lies ahead -- not only for collecting solar energy, but harnessing other clean energy.