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The Wildlife ABC & 123, by Jan Thornhill Maple Tree, 64 pages, $19.95 ages 2 to 6

Published separately as The Wildlife ABC: A Nature Alphabet and The Wildlife 123: A Nature Counting Book in 1988 and 1989, respectively, each of these books was a finalist in its time for the Governor-General's Award for Children's Illustration. The combination of these two books has resulted in an early-learning primer of uncommon beauty.

Thornhill's agenda may be making ABCs and 123s more than palatable, but she has also done her bit for endangered wildlife -- as important a contribution now than it was in the 1980s, if not more so. There is a barebones rhyming text ("E is for Eagle/ Seeking salmon to eat,/ F is for Frog/ With webbed hind feet"), with captions and "framed" paintings of the creature in its natural habitat, each painting a marvel of colour, intricacy and energy.

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The 123s don't stop there: There are 18 prairie dogs, 50 flamingos, 100 penguins and 1,000 tadpoles.

This is Me and Where I Am, by Joanne Fitzgerald, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 32 pages, $19.95, ages 3 to 6

Sorting out where or how you fit into the overall scheme of things is one of life's great puzzles, so it's never too early to begin thinking about the question. One way children do it -- in the admirably concrete way that children do things -- is by breaking down the universe into its component parts. It could go like this -- remember? -- universe, Earth, North America, Canada, Ontario, Smiths Falls, Main Street, etc. This delightful picture book for the very young offers its own version of this exercise.

A succession of double-page spreads unfolds: "In the world there is a country. In that country there is a city. In that city there is a neighborhood . . ." Before too long, the reader will arrive at a blanket on a bed in a room, and, "Under the blanket is me!"

Then steps are retraced: "Me under the blanket. Blanket on the bed. Bed in the room. Room in the house," and so on. This is a small book that offers a manageable, child's-eye view of a child's known world. Each of the illustrations presents a colourful vignette of some part of that world, from trucks and cars driving through the country toward a distant city to the neighbourhood shops, to the happy chaos of a child's room.

Zigzag: Zoems for Zindergarten, by Loris Lesynski, Annick, 32 pages, $10.95, ages 4 to 6

"Kindergarten/ bindergarten/ peppergarten/ salt/ smartygarten/ partygarten/ millymarten/ malt . . ." These are the next-to-last lines of a collection of "zoems" well seasoned with Lesynski's characteristically exuberant watercolour, coloured pencil and gouache illustrations.

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Preceding these last lines are a multitude of other rhyming bits and pieces, some -- not surprisingly, given the title -- about zigzag things: "zigzag here and zigzag there/ see some zigzag everywhere."

There are zigzag edges on a paper bag and on the business side of a key, and there are zigzag noodles in the soup. There's a poem about the Kindergarten hamster, and another about a paintbrush and another about paper: "Paper to paint on/ paper to read/ paper for presents/ paper you need."

Hyperkinetic this collection may be, but there's method in Lesynski's madness: Taken all together, this collection is a paean of praise to the myriad pleasures of Kindergarten.

Drumheller Dinosaur Dance, by Robert Heidbreder, illustrated by Bill Slavin and Esperanca Melo, Kids Can, 32 pages, $17.95, ages 3 to 6

The dinosaur skeletons of Bill Slavin and Esperanca Melo, or fragments thereof, are a riveting sight in the purplish gloom of night in the Alberta Badlands. The bones of these Badlands dinosaurs lie buried during the day, but gather themselves up at night and come out to play.

During the day, "Drumheller dinosaurs make no noise. All day they are as silent as dinosaur toys." They lie around, "bones buried deep in ancient ground." When the moon comes up, though, things change: "Drumheller dinosaurs transmogrify./ They stir their bones from secret cracks/ and assemble themselves --/ fronts, sides and backs. Drumheller dinosaurs rise up tall./ Across the Badlands they skeleton-crawl." And then they congregate for a saurian rampage, "keeping the beat of their Drumheller band." It's a beat anyone would want to keep time to.

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Rachel's Library, by Richard Ungar, Tundra, 32 pages, $22.99, ages 7 to 10

Chelm, that Eastern European village that was home to happy, holy fools, is the centre of the action once again. In this story, one of the villagers, Simon the Carpenter, tells his neighbours they have been mocked by a traveller from Minsk because "we eat breakfast for dinner and dinner for breakfast." Perfectly true, but this and other assaults on the village's reputation necessitate a trip to Warsaw for a way to prove that the people of Chelm are not the fools they are purported to be.

A delegation is chosen by drawing straws. Simon, whose drawing is particularly fetching, is one of the chosen, but it is his young daughter Rachel, a stowaway on the wagon to Warsaw, who provides a solution to the villagers' dilemma. It is she who asks who the wisest man in Chelm is. It's their Rebbe, of course, a man who reads books. A library is what Chelm needs to prove its collective wisdom, and a library is what Chelm gets, a creation that is a winning amalgam of the wise and the foolish.

Richard Ungar's more than slightly fluorescent coloured pencil and watercolour drawings are as surreal and entertaining as the story they illustrate.

Peace Walker: The Legend of Hiawatha and Tekanawita, by C. J. Taylor, Tundra, 48 pages, $22.99, ages 8 and up

As a preface to her retelling of the Hiawatha legend, C. J. Taylor, who is of Mohawk ancestry, gives a succinct and excellent history of the five nations -- Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca and Mohawk -- that make up the Iroquois nation that extended from the Oswego River to the northern shore of the St. Lawrence.

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This is the state of the nation, so to speak, as Taylor begins her tale. The five nations lived peaceably for many generations, but eventually the two-headed monster of hatred and killing reared its head. War between nations became the norm, and no one could remember peace.

Chief Atotarho , the incarnation of evil as described and painted by Taylor, was responsible for much of this. His end is the goal of Hiawatha, of the Onondaga, and his Huron ally, Tekanawita, on their great march to his lair in the cause of peace.

Taylor's version of this legend is a powerful one, but equally compelling is her afterword, in which she gives an account of birth of the Great Peace and the Confederacy of Nations whose Great Council members were selected by the women of the community. The decision-making process of these leaders was emulated by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as they developed the Constitution of the United States of America.

Champlain, by Christopher Moore, Tundra, 56 pages, $24.99, ages 8 and up

Much has been written about the remarkable Samuel de Champlain. From the time he stepped ashore on New France 400 years ago, his imprint on the land that was to become Canada was huge.

He was not just an explorer, although he was certainly that. He made 29 crossings between France and New France, and he travelled from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to Lake Ontario. But he was also a mapmaker of enormous skill and a settlement builder, and, as Moore writes, "The alliances he helped build with the Huron and other Native nations allowed the French traders, missionaries and soldiers who came after him to continue the explorations he had begun."

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Moore's elegant book uses paintings, archival maps and photographs of old artifacts -- a 16th-century astrolabe, for instance -- to further enhance a biography notable for its delivery of not just the facts, but the human being behind the "great explorer" icon.

Stories from Adam and Eve to Ezekiel Retold from the Bible, by Celia Barker Lottridge, illustrated by Gary Clement, Groundwood, 144 pages, $29.95, ages 9 and up

A companion volume to her earlier book, Stories from the Life of Jesus, Celia Barker Lottridge's Stories from Adam and Eve to Ezekiel shares many of its predecessor's attributes. Lottridge, a gifted storyteller, writes prose but gives readers poetry -- or a sort of plainsong -- that tells the great sequential story that the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible has to offer. Again, noted in the margin of each story is the corresponding passage from the Bible.

Gary Clement's idiosyncratic and plentiful illustrations -- he's a dab hand at those beards, Esau's red hairiness and Jonah's whale of a whale -- provide both a perfect counterpoint and common thread to stories that range through Adam and Eve, Abraham, Sarah and Isaac and Ruth and Naomi, David and Goliath and Daniel in the lion's den, among others.

Picasso: Soul on Fire, by Rick Jacobson, illustrated by Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson, Tundra, 32 pages, $22.99, ages 10 and up

Author Rick Jacobson uses some of Pablo Picasso's best-known paintings to mark the places on the map of his subject's life. So, for instance, Jacobson begins this pictorial biography with a description of Picasso's childhood and a reproduction of Science and Charity, a conventional but highly accomplished work painted when Picasso was just 15.

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Facing each page of text and reproduction are powerful, full-page oil paintings of Picasso at various stages of his life, as interpreted by Laura Fernandez and Jacobson.

Not bound by the artistic conventions of the times, Picasso vowed to paint from the heart; his painting The Tragedy reflects his despair about the suicide of his great friend, Carlos Casagemas, and marks his Blue Period. A subsequent move from his native Spain to Paris, and life with the vibrant artistic community there, relieved his sadness and resulted in his Rose Period, and paintings such as The Jugglers.

Gertrude Stein, Henri Matisse, Cezanne and African masks were all influential in developing this passionate iconoclast's artistic vision, and in producing such masterpieces as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Guernica. Picasso's drive and energy are nicely captured by Jacobson's prose.

Monkey Business, by Wallace Edwards, Kids Can, 32 pages, $19.95, all ages

"IDIOM: a group of words whose meaning cannot be understood from the meaning of the individual words; an expression, peculiar to a specific language, that cannot be translated literally." With this statement/definition as preamble, Wallace Edwards begins an astonishing book that illustrates, one page at a time, 26 English-language idioms.

"Monkey business" is the starting point. Beneath an extraordinarily intricate and richly hued watercolour are these words: "Even in a serious meeting, Professor Apeson sensed there might be monkey business going on." The painting is a stunner, but the same could be said for the entire book. Seated at one end of a desk, some in plush purple seats, some on each others' shoulders, are a score of apes, monkeys and baboons, some bespectacled, others bow-tied, all paying close attention to a banana that seems to float in the middle of the table.

The caption "Quentin could always be counted on to rise to the occasion" delivers the idiom that inspires a painting of a penguin (Quentin) in mid-air, delivering drinks on a tray to two giraffes, a bridal pair. "A whale of a ride," "A lot on his mind," "A wolf in sheep's clothing" and "A fish out of water" are some of the other idioms that Wallace Edwards plays with in this tour de force. Each page is a wonder, to be returned to again and again.

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