Three picture books that will make kids laugh…and think

It’s difficult to say when children outgrow picture books. Educator and book expert Colby Sharp reads picture books daily to his fifth grade students. My fourth graders loved hearing and discussing picture books this past year. Often, picture books are aimed at older readers, but even those for younger readers can have important messages to impart and ponder. Here are three picture books which are adorable on the surface but also thoughtful and worthy of discussion.

Author Ryan T. Higgins is much beloved for his “Bruce” picture books about a grumpy but soft-hearted bear named Bruce. In the first book, “Mother Bruce,” he adopts the goslings that hatch from the eggs he was set on cooking. Life since then has been a series of ups and downs, and now Bruce, the ever-hungry geese, three feisty mice, and many others inhabit the pages of the Bruce books. In this new book, we ponder the meaning of the word “fun.” Just what does it mean? Is fun different for each of us? You might be surprised on Higgins’ take.

In “The Bruce Swap,” the end papers give a hint about Bruce’s proclivities, if one needs a hint. “No Skating,” “No Running,” “No Camping,” “No Talking,” and even “No Playing” are signs posted around Bruce’s woodland cabin. The “No Talking” sign might just be an homage to Higgins’ (hysterically funny) picture book abut the three mice, called “Be Quiet!” As in all the Bruce books, Higgins carefully spreads the delight so that every page is filled with humor—some more apparent than others. On the first page, we see one of the geese taking a letter out of the mailbox at 13 Go Away Lane. (Discuss with the kids why the street is thusly named.) We see the letter. It’s from cousin Kevin, who is coming over for a FUN visit. “Bruce didn’t like very fun visits. And he also didn’t like very fun letters. But he never got to read this one.” The goose eats it. Bruce doesn’t like fun—at least his family’s version of fun. But what happens when Bruce goes fishing on the very day that Kevin arrives and a goose eats the note telling the goslings and the mice of his absence? They think Kevin, the FUN bear, is Bruce (his doppelganger, which leads to all kinds of mangled-word humor like dinglepooper), and all kinds of “fun” ensues. But how much fun is too much fun? Higgins is a master at making us reconsider simple things like what it takes to be a good mother (“Mother Bruce”) and here, which kind of bear you would prefer to live with. (Disney-Hyperion)

My almost-five year-old grandson really likes “Beatrice Bly’s Rules for Spies: The Missing Hamster” by Sue Fliess and illustrated by Beth Mills. Maybe part of it is that he’s currently on the second “City Spies” novel by James Ponti and he’s interested in spies, but it’s also a book that will appeal to many young readers. In this picture book, we meet the titular Beatrice Bly and learn about her super spy rules. We are even privy to a few of her past missions, all successful, thank you very much! But this time, the stakes are high. The class pet, Edgar, a hamster, is missing. He could be in danger! Beatrice knows she must find him. Fliess strews the clues as carefully as she places the mystery leaves in the school hallway. Where did Edgar go? But super spy Beatrice Bly solves the mystery thanks to her logical thinking. And this book would be a great tool to introduce children to logical thinking and step-by-step problem solving. But in the end? The kids will be happy that Edgar is safe and back in his cage. Another successful mission for super spy Beatrice Bly. (Pixel and Ink Books)

“Nerdycorn” by Andrew Root and illustrated by Erin Kraan, is, as one might imagine from the title, not just another unicorn book filled with rainbows and glitter. Fern isn’t like other unicorns. Remember those rainbows and glitter? She doesn’t really care about them. She really prefers building robots, working in her laboratory, coding her computer, chemistry, and 3-D printers. She knows she’s not like the other unicorns, but she’s okay with that. She also knows that she’s an intelligent, good person who helps others. She also is a good friend. But the other unicorns exclude her and ridicule her for her intellectual pursuits. She decides that she is done helping the prejudiced unicorns who use her when they need her to fix something, but don’t invite her to parties and do make fun of her for being different. But when something goes wrong at the big unicorn dance, they come begging for help. Fern refuses. But then Fern thinks about who she is—a good friend, someone who helps others. And we find that sometimes, forgiving others and being the best we can be has unexpected rewards. (Beach Lane Books)

For some fascinating nonfiction picture books read “Picture books and beginning chapter books: Biographies about important people and events.”

Please note: This review is based on the final books provided by the publishers for review purposes.