What makes a great children's book? Well, lots of things. Sometimes you're in the mood for an action-filled story. Other times something sweet and silly seems just right.
Depending on how old you are, illustrations (or the lack of them) might make a big difference in what you think about a book. And humor can be awfully appealing whatever your age.
One not-so-obvious factor is voice. Voice is harder to pinpoint than plot or pictures, but it can have a big impact. Just think of Lemony Snicket's distinctive delivery (and all those amusing asides) or the way Ian Falconer authoritatively describes Olivia's utterly self-important adventures.
Speaking of engaging porkers, you don't want to miss Piggie, who appears with Gerald the elephant in a series of books by Mo Willems. All of their adventures are funny and fun to read.
The latest is "Listen to My Trumpet" (Hyperion, $8.99, ages 3-7). Perky pink Piggie is pleased and proud to be playing her new instrument for her friend. Gerald, meanwhile, wonders how he'll manage to break the news that Piggie's playing is less than harmonious.
Luckily it turns out that Piggie isn't actually trying to make music. Rather, she's exploring new ways to express herself, and Gerald is happy to help.
Mr. Willems' illustrations reveal his background in animation. Crisp black outlines, simple shapes and lots of white space focus readers' attention on the two characters. Subtle changes in the pictures indicate emotion as do more dramatic variations in the size and shape of the text.
Although his style is very different from Mr. Willems', author-illustrator Kevin Henkes is also a prolific and popular author of books for children of all ages. Over the years he has created plenty of characters with strong voices.
Lilly, for example, of purple plastic purse fame shows up in at least five different stories. Even when she's not the star, she attracts attention.
"Penny and her Song" (Greenwillow, $12.99, ages 6-8) introduces another little mouse girl -- but this one has to try a lot harder to be heard. In his first book for new readers, Mr. Henkes once again captures the nuances of childhood experience and family connection.
The song Penny brings home from school is lovely, but no one wants to listen to it. Mama worries about waking the babies; Papa shushes her for the same reason.
Penny practices by herself then tries to share her song again, this time at the dinner table. Mama and Papa make her wait, but after dinner Penny gets her chance. Eventually everyone sings Penny's song.
Simple sentences, short chapters and plenty of repetition make this accessible to new readers. Pastel colored pictures on every page reflect the action and reveal emotions.
Penny's personality, quiet but determined, comes through clearly. Young readers and listeners will look forward to hearing more from this charming new character.
Hannah, the narrator of Sonya Hartnett's "Sadie and Ratz" (Candlewick, $14.99, ages 7-9) definitely has a voice (and a mind) of her own. An original thinker, she's named her hands.
That's who Sadie and Ratz are. And she describes their actions with somewhat unnerving objectivity.
When her little brother misbehaves, Sadie and Ratz "jump onto Baby Boy's head, and try to rub his ears off." Soon enough Baby Boy figures out how to pass the buck.
Now it's Sadie and Ratz who get blamed for his misbehavior. Hannah's creative solution? Send them "on vacation."
Black and white illustrations by Ann James capture the conflict between the siblings. Changes in the font size and intensity add emphasis as do evocative word choices. (At one point, Hannah "thunders" her accusation that Baby Boy is the real culprit for one particular piece of mischief.)
Short enough to read aloud, easy enough for kids just moving on from readers, this slice-of-life story will ring true for many readers and listeners.
Another great read-aloud choice is from yet another prolific author. Daniel Pinkwater has been writing humorous stories for kids for a very long time. "Mrs. Noodlekugel" (Candlewick, $14.99, ages 7-9) is something of a departure for him.
Reminiscent of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Mrs. Noodlekugel has unflappable charm. Plump, white-haired and apron-clad, she lives in a tiny house hemmed in on all sides by tall apartment buildings.
Two new tenants, Nick and Maxine, are warned by their parents not to bother their neighbor. Of course that ultimatum sends the siblings immediately in search of a way to get out into the courtyard and up onto her porch.
Expecting a fiercely unfriendly reception, the children are pleased to be invited in. They are surprised, of course, by her odd companions (a talking cat and a gaggle of vision-impaired mice) but soon find that an afternoon spent making cookies can offer more than just a tasty treat.
The old-fashioned tone and cheerful characters seem perfectly suited to a family read-aloud on a sunny summer day. And with luck more (mildly) magical adventures will be forthcoming.
With luck, one of these titles is calling your name. But if none of them sounds just right don't despair -- there's a whole chorus of stories out there waiting to be heard.
Lisa Dennis is coordinator of children's collections at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.