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Mouse & Lion

Rand Burkert, Nancy Eckholm Burkert (Scholastic/di Capua)

Retellings of the classic Aesop’s fable of good deeds rewarded are legion, but few are as elegantly and richly conceived as this mother-son collaboration. To say that the naturalistic and astonishingly detailed illustrations bring the African savannah to life hardly does them justice—paired with the story’s spare prose, each spread forms an intimate, perfectly framed vignette, charged with emotion.

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Everything I Need to Know Before I’m Five

Valorie Fisher (Random/Schwartz & Wade)

Everything? Believe it. Fisher introduces readers to a wealth of concepts—numbers, letters, colors, shapes, weather, and more—and does so using cleverly composed photographic tableaus made up of vintage toys, knickknacks, thrift-store finds, and other odds and ends. Thorough, fun, and as one-of-a-kind as the objects that fill its pages.

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I Want My Hat Back

Jon Klassen (Candlewick)

With deadpan humor and a hint of wickedness, illustrator Klassen makes his debut as an author with the deceptively simple story of a bear who just wants to find his missing hat. Don’t let the pared-down art and narration fool you: a wealth of emotion and personality hides behind the deadened eyes of Klassen’s woodland creatures, from anxiety to rage, stupefaction to satisfaction.

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E-Mergency

Tom Lichtenheld and Ezra Fields-Meyer (Chronicle)

So often it’s the simplest ideas that are the best—and the funniest. In this alphabetically audacious romp, the letter E has an accident, and while it is recovering, the letter O takes its place (with comodic rosults). The pages are jam-packed with so many linguistic puns, acronyms, and jokes that readers may not realize how much they’re learning about language along the way. Throo choors!

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Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans

Kadir Nelson (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)

Nelson raises the bar with every new book, and this ambitious account of the African-American experience, from slavery to the present day, may be his best yet. Pairing luminous, electric paintings with a grandmotherly narrative voice, it’s as unflinching, personal, and dignified an account as one could imagine, as Nelson confidently handles the triumphs and tragedies of African-American history.

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Sea of Dreams

Dennis Nolan (Roaring Brook/Porter)

Wordless stories have a magic all their own, and that’s especially true of Nolan’s maritime fantasy, in which a child’s sand castle is besieged by the tide, setting in motion a dramatic escape for the miniature family that lives within. Nolan’s lush spreads provide abundant ammunition for readers’ imaginations, giving them an enchanting world in which to lose themselves.

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Blackout

John Rocco (Disney-Hyperion)

Second perhaps only to snow days, blackouts are one of the best unplanned sources of life-disrupting fun, especially from a child’s point of view. Rocco’s joyfully illustrated story of an urban family drawn together by a power outage tingles with the magic of a night lit only by candles and stars, while reminding readers that the technologies that connect us can sometimes keep us apart, too.

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Where’s Walrus?

Stephen Savage (Scholastic Press)

A triumph of design, Savage’s wordless game of cat-and-mouse (or rather walrus-and-zookeeper) demonstrates how much one can do with a few simple forms, some repetition, and an effortlessly charming tusked hero. The delight comes not from finding Walrus (that’s easy), but in seeing the ways in which his swoopy gray curves mimic the mannequins, firemen, and can-can dancers he tries to blend in with.

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Grandpa Green

Lane Smith (Roaring Brook)

This may be Smith at his most earnest—a boy wanders through his great-grandfather’s topiary garden, the sculpted hedges reflecting the elder’s story, from a rural childhood to war and finding love. Grandpa Green isn’t dead, but he is in decline, and Lane’s young narrator serves as a poignant reminder that the things we create—stories, memories, art (in whatever form it might take)—endure long after we do.

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Press Here

Hervé Tullet (Chronicle/Handprint)

If Lane Smith’s It’s a Book was last year’s rallying cry in defense of the printed book, 2011 belongs to Tullet’s elementally simple and playfully interactive offering, which invites readers to press, shake, and turn it—and see the results on the next page. Let the apps proliferate: books like this prove that there will always be a place for smart, well-executed, and proudly low-tech picture books.

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Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator!

Mo WIllems (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)

Willems excels at putting his audience first, and the six and a half stories that make up this pitch-perfect collection are no exception. Friendship is friendship, whether with another child or with a blue toy alligator, and Willems treats the highs and lows of Amanda and her alligator’s relationship with honesty and humor, evoking such classic pairings as Charlie Brown and Snoopy or Calvin and Hobbes.

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