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Book Reviews Review: New picture books from Esmé Shapiro, Katrin Stangl, Julia Donaldson and Sara Ogilvie

Ooko

By Esmé Shapiro

Tundra Books, 40 pages, $19.99

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There are some books that are almost not even worth reviewing, simply because their merits are too obvious that they're primed to become a hit without any outside help. This story, about a little fox who proudly possesses a stick, a leaf and a rock but has no best friend to call its own, is one of those books. Ooko sees plenty of other pairs of best friends out and about (generally between humans, whom Ooko has deduced are all called "Debbies," and their dogs, which Ooko assumes are funny-looking foxes). Wondering what these other foxes have going for them that make them Best Friend Worthy, Ooko decides the natural course of action is to change its appearance to better fit in. Shapiro's sugar-spun world that exists on these pages is an idyllic and compassionate place, where life lessons are learned at a softly rolling pace.

Strong As A Bear

By Katrin Stangl

Enchanted Lion Books, 40 pages, $24.95

As a kid, reading books designed to teach the alphabet led me to believe that xylophones and yetis were equally in abundance as apples and balls. This isn't an alphabet book, but it is a collection of illustrated animal idioms, some which are commonly used ("busy as a bee," "stubborn as a mule") and a few that are, well, less so ("chatty as a cockatoo," "pillowy as a poodle"). This book was originally published in Germany, and one wonders whether some expressions are just more familiar in Europe, or if Stangl is trying to make pillowy poodles happen. Either way, her broad, stark illustrations are consistently creative in the way they incorporate wild animals into the behaviours of children; sometimes, they are incorporated as characters interacting with the kids, other times they're just hanging out symbolically in the background, but each page is a playful little vignette.

The Detective Dog

By Julia Donaldson and Sara Ogilvie

Macmillan Children's Books, 32 pages, $24.99

Detective Dog Nell uses her nose to solve the neighbourhood's hardest hitting crimes, from "who threw hazelnuts down from the trees" to "who did the poo on the new gravel path." On her day off, she and her owner, six-year-old Peter, spend time with the schoolchildren, who read Nell wonderful stories from their collection of books. (Okay, writing a children's book about children who love books is a form of pandering, but at least here they're relegated to being background characters.) One day, all the books from the school go missing, and Nell and her nose are off to work on their biggest case yet. She runs through the town, passing through all different kinds of smells, looking to catch the kind of culprit that would steal from a bunch of kids. Donaldson – the woman who gave us The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom – is a master at combining clever storylines with original characters that feel familiar, setting it all to earwormy couplets, and making it seem easy.

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