Although it may look, at first glance, like a grab bag of volumes for young children, there is a certain continuity to these picture books that range from art appreciation to appreciation of fantastic facts -- and to an appreciation of an amazing adventure, courageously fought.
The link between them, however intangible, is the success of these stories in giving new ideas to children, things they might not otherwise have thought of or had the opportunity to enjoy.
In "I Spy Shapes in Art" by Lucy Micklethwait ($19.95, Greenwillow Publishers), famous artworks get a surprising treatment that is educationally and aesthetically sound. The narrator of the text encourages small children to find simple shapes -- that aren't always simple to find -- as a way of learning to look at art in detail.
The resulting hunt is rewarding, to say the very least. There's no appreciation lecture here, just a satisfying challenge. Using art as a game really does work when it comes to creating a new and exciting interest.
Steve Jenkins's "Actual Size" ($16, Houghton Mifflin Company) must be seen to be believed. Well-known for his use of collage with cut and torn paper, Jenkins employs the medium to create creatures from all over the earth in their actual size by portraying real-looking body parts.
He can't fit an entire animal on a page, but he can do the next best thing. For example, he portrays a saltwater crocodile's head with such accuracy that it takes two folded-out pages to finish off what he started on the first page.
Then he puts the astounding facts right next to the astounding illustrations: The crocodile, for example, is in actuality 23 feet long, the world's longest reptile. No child -- indeed, no adult -- could look at this rendering and not be fascinated, just as they will be fascinated by the facts.
Just as artistically impressive is "The Cat Who Walked Across France" ($16, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which is not only impressionistically beautiful, but also offers a lyrical story in which a cat crosses an entire country in search of a new family after his old owner dies.
Written by Kate Banks and illustrated by Georg Hallensleben, the tale is filled with vibrant pictures of France, as the cat fearlessly goes from the northern city of Rouen to the southern sea city of St. Tropez. Told understatedly, the narrative still gives a vital look at the dangers and hardships the determined cat faced.
"The cat measured time against the weathered soles of his feet. His fur grew scruffy." Yet he continued until he found what he dreamed of and needed. Together, words and pictures paint a memorable vision of a journey few humans could endure.
Ultimately all three picture books encourage the appreciation of challenge, something no young person should be without.