Exceptional stories make these picture books valuable for more than art's sake.
All three books present distinctive stories that go far beyond the norm. Two tell striking true tales; the third is fulfillingly fanciful.
As a reconstruction of life in Europe, Africa and Asia, "The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela: Through Three Continents in the Twelfth Century" gives vast amounts of information informally. Although the book (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17), written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz, covers a huge amount of ground, literally and figuratively, his retelling of Benjamin's real "Book of Travels" is actually an exciting armchair adventure story.
Filled with drama and exotic colors, the illustrations and narrative capture medieval history in terms children can get excited about. The detailed text is filled with Shulevitz's vision of Benjamin of Tudela, who is portrayed as a courageous traveler with a sense of humor.
When Benjamin gets on a barge with a goat, the author imaginatively reconstructs the man's thoughts: The goat liked Benjamin "perhaps because he had a beard like me," the character observes, making readers able to relate to him. The story is filled with this contemporary feel, while the pictures present a long-ago world absorbingly.
Another history, "Pig on the Titanic: A True Story!" will charm children, who will be fascinated by the French music-box pig, Maxixe (pronounced Ma-sheesh). A rare happy event from the Titanic tragedy, this book (HarperCollins, $15.99) is a recounting of how a beloved toy is tossed into a lifeboat full of children, saving them from panic by playing a tune whenever its tail is wound.
The Australian writer-illustrator team, Gary Crew and Bruce Whatley, gives readers this unusual hero in broad, simple, effective strokes. The gently smiling musical pig actually brought giggles as children listened to it all night, until a rescue ship fortunately appeared.
This tale has the power to bring happiness far beyond the scope of most picture books. Although the phrase "heart-warming" has become shop-worn from overuse, in this case there is no more accurate way to describe the book. It succeeds in avoiding the horrific aspects of the shipwreck and instead provides enchantment.
Magic of another kind pervades "Sweep Dreams" by Nancy Willard, with illustrations by Mary GrandPre. A broom that can dance as it cleans a room - and eventually clears a cloud-filled sky - is cherished but almost lost before the rightful owner fully realizes the power it has.
Luminous and poetic, the book (Little, Brown and Co., $16.99) makes young readers care what happens to a broom. Of course, this is no ordinary broom, but still, it's quite a feat of sorcery to produce one that kids actually love.
Together, these books prove that no story is ordinary if the creators have vision and imagination.