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Word Play: Pictures for the fall

In "Knuffle Bunny" and "Knuffle Bunny, Too," readers fell in love with the highly expressive Trixie in her pre-verbal and preschool states. Along with her, we experience the drama of (temporarily) losing her beloved stuffed Knuffle Bunny, and we strain with the effort of giving proper vent to her emotions. A great part of the pleasure for adults is seeing the story also through the eyes of Trixie's doting but hapless parents. Mo Willems accomplishes this brilliant dual perspective through his complex illustrations (a collage combining photo and cartoon), in which we see not only Trixie at the center of the action but also her attentive grown-ups tenderly looking on or mired in various stages of panic in the background.

In "Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion" (Harpercollins/Balzer+Bray: $17.99, ages 4-8), Trixie is traveling with her parents to visit Oma and Opa (Grandma and Grandpa) in Holland. She is much older now, so big, in fact, that babies around her now speak the language Trixie spoke years ago in the first volume: "Blaggie Plaggie?" Since she's older, she's much braver when she discovers that Knuffle Bunny is lost — left behind on the airplane. She manages to soldier on, even accepting with good grace her grandparents' ridiculous replacement gift: a giant, Dutch-speaking robot rabbit. Although girl and bunny are eventually reunited, Trixie's final big-girl gesture makes readers realize — sigh — that the Trixie and Knuffle Bunny saga has come to an end. I won't give away the story of this final volume, except to hint that Willems' compassion for put-upon parents also extends to childless airline passengers.

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There is a great deal of humor to be wrung from adults dominated by their offspring, but never has it been done as deftly as Marla Frazee does in "The Boss Baby" (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster: $16.99, ages 4-8): "From the moment the baby arrived," we read, as an infant steps briskly out of a taxi in an impeccable onesie business suit, "It was obvious that he was the boss." Baby breezes past his stunned mom and dad — remember the deer-in-the-headlights look of new parents? — and sets up his office "right smack-dab in the middle of the house." The bouncer is his executive desk, the baby monitor positioned just so, like an intercom by his right elbow, so that his every whim will be instantly broadcast to his trembling staff. The infant as taskmaster is a cliché, but Frazee's pitch-perfect text and spot-on illustrations make every turn of the page a fresh delight. The bald tyrant presents a hilarious mash-up of frustrated infant and everyone's most dreaded, out-of-control boss: "He made demands. Many, many demands. And he was quite particular. If things weren't done to his immediate satisfaction, he had a fit." This is the perfect shower gift.

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Bink is short, wild-haired and not to be deterred; Gollie is tall, on her way to being elegant, and never uses a short word when a long one will do. With them, shopping for a pet is an adventure:

"Bink," said Gollie, "I must inform you that you are giving a home to a truly unremarkable fish."

"I love him," said Bink.

"Furthermore," said Gollie, "that fish is incapable of being a marvelous companion."

"I wonder what his name is," said Bink.

Kids' books are often about a pair of friends (Frog and Toad, George and Martha, Elephant and Piggie), but "Bink and Gollie" (Candlewick: $15.99, ages 6-8), illustrated by Tony Fucile, is an especially overt love letter to friendship. Just look at the dedications offered at the front of the book by the two authors: Kate DiCamillo (of "Winn-Dixie" and "Edward Tulane" fame) names the "friend of my heart," and Alison McGhee writes for the "marvelous companion of my youth." This is one of those books that doesn't fit neatly into any category. Recommended for ages 6-8, it will strike some (humorless) parents and librarians as "not really an early reader." But wouldn't you be proud if you spied your 6-year-old daughter rehearsing such lines as "Bink: I implore you, do not knock." Indeed you would, to quote Julia Gillian, another McGhee heroine with a passion for unusual turns of phrase. Who says simple words must come first to readers? When my son's babyhood friend, Grace, was learning to talk, she skipped all those dull one-syllable words and went straight for the twos, like "broc'li" (the vegetable, pronounced ever after in our household with two staccato syllables). Love of language is one of the tried-and-true ways into the reading life (another is humor, a popular path for boys). This is a book particularly suited to readers of the "Ella the Elegant Elephant" books by Carmela and Steve D'amico, the "Mercy Watson" books by Kate DiCamillo, and later the "Julia Gillian" books by McGhee and "Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep" by Eleanor Farjeon.

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A rhymed story of charming eccentricity, Rhoda Levine's "Three Ladies Beside the Sea" ( New York Review Children's Collection: $14.95, ages 4-8) has a fable-like quality. Three friends — Edith of Ecstasy, Catherine of Compromise and Alice of Hazard — live in harmony, doing their chores, drinking tea and playing chamber music. (Once you've seen Edward Gorey's pictures of their elongated figures and their odd, tower-shaped cottages, it's impossible to imagine them otherwise.) Alice has a disturbing habit of climbing a tree — in all weather! — and gazing intently out at the sky. It's a compulsion, she explains when her friends confront her about it:

It's hard to hold on when the wind blows.

The sun, though it's warm, strains the eyes.

I love the blue sky, but I'm damp when it rains.

And often, I'm troubled by flies.

Ah, then why does she do it? There's the question, to which Levine and Gorey's answer seems to be: One has to accept all kinds of mysteries in friends.

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Edwidge Danticat's first book for young children — "Eight Days: A Story of Haiti," illustrated by Alix Delinois (Scholastic: $17.99, ages 4-8) — is about her homeland and about the horrendous earthquake that decimated its capital in January. Danticat tells the story of 7-year-old Junior, who survived eight days trapped under his house. Junior begins his story when he is pulled from the rubble: "My family was there waiting. The following day, everyone asked me: 'Were you afraid? Were you sad? Did you cry?'" Junior recounts how he passed his time living his normal daily life in his mind, though on the fifth day he had to say goodbye to his best friend ("That was the day I cried"). This gentle but unflinching portrayal of a child's resilience is illustrated in vibrant colors by Delinois, another Haitian.

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"In Front of My House" by Marianne Dubuc (Kids Can Press: $18.95, ages 3-6) is an elaborate, beautifully illustrated circular story that takes as its engine a long chain of prepositional phrases: "Beyond the forest, a mountain. At the very top of the mountain, a cave. At the back of the cave, the dark. In the dark, a growl. At the other end of the growl…" The author ratchets up and down the level of drama in the story with a minimum of words, and a nice touch of humor: "In my room, my bed. Under my bed…Whew! Nothing at all!" A lovely bedtime read.

Bolle writes "Word Play," which appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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