Book Reviews: Young readers will love these animal characters

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Little kids seem to have a special connection to animal characters in books. When animal stories are silly, count on giggles and smiles as you read together -- and be prepared to read them over and over.

By now almost everyone knows the value of reading aloud to young children. It helps build early literacy skills and offers a chance to strengthen family connections.

Parents may find it hard to find books that can compete with other forms of entertainment. Funny books can often catch and hold a child's attention.

Here are some favorite foolish animal stories from 2013. Consider reading these aloud before bedtime. But keep in mind that they are so silly they might just wind up your child instead.

The multitalented John Lithgow has just put out his latest children's book, "Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo" (Simon & Schuster, $11.37, ages 2-6). It comes with a CD, but this rip-roaring tale of zoo animals taking over an orchestra is sure to have your child hearing the music with or without the CD.

The bison play bass and the monkeys the fiddle. You can imagine how this story might unfold. It's full of "harmonious hilarity" while introducing orchestra instruments.

With colorful cartoon-style illustrations that emphasize the animals' musical aspirations, Mr. Lithgow's latest opus is sure to be a show-stopping hit.

At first glance, "Musk Ox Counts" by Erin Cabatingan (Roaring Book Press, $12.75, ages 5-7) looks like an ordinary animal counting book. Each page depicts a number of animals corresponding to a number.

By the second page, you know that it is not just any counting book. It is a hysterically funny counting book.

The premise may be a bit complicated and the pages overly busy for the very young. But it's perfect for preschoolers and kindergartners (and their parents).

Ms. Cabatingan's quirky sense of humor breathes new life into the counting book genre. Zebra is really trying to make the book a normal counting book, but Musk Ox just can't stay on his page.

A frustrated Zebra and Musk Ox have to do some addition and subtraction along the way to make the numbers fit. Zany illustrations center on Musk Ox and Zebra, but the other animals featured have plenty of personality, too.

Challenge your kids to count better than Musk Ox. As an added bonus (pun intended), Zebra and Musk Ox will have the adults in stitches. And don't miss "A Is for Musk Ox" when you're in the mood for alphabetical antics.

Adam Lehrhaupt's book title cautions readers: "Warning Do Not Open This Book!" (Simon & Schuster, $13.11, ages 4-8.) There are signs inside the front cover that repeat the message.

Yet nothing will stop you. Young children (and most adults, too) love to do exactly the opposite of what they are told.

When you turn a page, you set the monkeys free to take off and start painting a tree. It is entirely your fault for turning pages that the toucans swarm in and upset the monkeys.

And "you know who" is completely responsible when chaos strikes. But only you can make it right, so read the book if you dare.

Muted water-color illustrations contrast with the outrageous text, creating another layer of humor. Your children will want to turn each page and beg you to not stop reading.

The story "talks" to the reader directly and in doing so has an interactive quality that is engaging, especially for children who may be reluctant to sit still and listen to a story.

My own love of the ridiculous connects nicely with Jennifer Hamburg's new story "The Moose That Says Moooooooooo" (Farrar Straus Giroux Books, $13.69, ages 2-4). "If I was asked to invent my own zoo, the first thing I'd have is a moose that said 'moo.' "

From there Ms. Hamburg sets out to describe a mixed-up kind of zoo found in the creative imagination of a child-like mind.

There are silly pictures of animals doing the most hilarious things. Book-reading sharks have enormous scary grins, tap-dancing pigs look surprisingly light on their trotters, and tigers are positively domestic as they make macaroni and cheese.

The best part of all is the rhythmic rhyming text. Rhyming words are foundational for phonological awareness in young children. But readers and listeners won't care about that because this book just makes reading (and rhyming) fun.

Monkeys are playful and amusing, which make them an especially engaging animal to put into young children's stories. Most children would love to try counting the monkeys in Mac Barnett's "Count the Monkeys" (Disney-Hyperion, $12.78, ages 3-6).

Unfortunately, monkeys are harder to count than you might expect, particularly when you can't get them to show up in the book to be counted. They keep getting frightened off by all the other animals.

Kids will giggle their way through by counting the animals that do appear. The book interacts with its audience and expects some help from the listeners in scaring off the animals that try to take over.

This is definitely a book that might be dangerous to read aloud in a quiet place. But wherever and whenever you pick it up your kids are sure to ask to read it again.

So go ahead and re-read it -- or look for something new and funny. Just be sure to keep laughing and reading together.

Jamie L. Anderson Collett is children's library assistant at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, West End.

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