Volumes of talent

Trio of children's books showcases artist-author hybrids

Being multitalented is always impressive, especially when it comes to creating children's books.

Authors who can illustrate, artists who can write - what's not to love? Here, three gifted creators show that it's possible to do it all and do it well.

In "The Gift of Nothing" (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, $14.99) by cartoon strip award-winner Patrick McDonnell ("Mutts"), Mooch the cat contemplates what special gift he can give pal Earl the dog. He runs into the classic question: What to give someone who has everything?

Suffice it to say, Mooch comes up with an imaginative answer.

The words are few, absolutely no more than needed, but every one necessary. The illustrations are classic minimalist. Together they tell a story unembellished by anything but the essentials of life. Even a very small child can understand the simple, profound gift revealed without elaborate pretentions.

And McDonnell is the perfect person to deliver the package.

John Segal's "Carrot Soup" (Margaret K. McElderry Books, $12.95) is a full-scale picture book at an unusually small price. But that's hardly its only selling point.

As a tribute to friendship, this book is tops. In a winning combination of pencil and watercolor, Segal gives readers a variety of animal characters whose smiles radiate off the pages.

The case of the missing carrots is not a garden-variety tale; it carries curious readers to a surprise ending that is as satisfying as the carrot soup Rabbit initially thinks he'll have to go without.

Expressive faces and a humorous narrative combine to give readers a repeated appetite for this book. An unexpected bonus at the end is Rabbit's own carrot soup recipe, with wise advice: "Be sure to have a grown-up help you make this soup!"

The art of cooking also stirs up emotions in Helen Cooper's "Pumpkin Soup" (Sunburst paperback/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $6.95). Teamwork, or rather the absence of it, causes Duck to simmer over the obstinancy of his fellow soup-makers.

Several mini-crises cause the three characters to re-examine their roles and their relationships. Fortunately good will supercedes the ego altercation.

Cooper's illustrations have depth and infinite shading. Her words evoke empathy. Children will turn to "Pumpkin Soup" repeatedly for its artistic richness. Her combination of language and art blend into a picture book where both abilities can be savored fully.

When one individual is capable of doing double duty, the result can be a unified effort that provides a very singular vision.


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