Ages 2-up:The Very Lonely Firefly by Eric Carle, Philomel Books, $19.95.
Some adults are perplexed at the "Very" enormous popularity of Eric Carle's bug stories. Children love their single-mindedness, their dealing with one simple theme in as few words as possible. Carle's trademark collages add texture to the reassuring, rhythmic tales. In this installment, a firefly flits from one light to another, searching for a family to belong to. It is distracted by lanterns, headlights and even the eyes of animals, but it continues on its quest. There's no anthropomorphism in Carle's books; the animals stay animals, and this keeps them from becoming overly cute. Like last year's The Very Quiet Cricket, this volume comes with a built-in electronic surprise which doesn't distract from the simple concept. Carle says that he has completed his quartet of "Very" books, but don't be surprised if he has another bug or two up his sleeve.
Ages 3-up:Jump, Frog, Jump! by Robert Kalan, illustrated by Byron Barton, Greenwillow Books, $15.
It's a jungle out there in the frog pond. If you thought about it, the Darwinesque brutality of this reissue from 1981 would cause nightmares. But you don't think about it because its message of survival of the bounciest is conveyed through a catchy call-and-response device. The plot is narrated in cumulative fashion, as the imperiled frog escapes from one predator after another until he is captured by a group of kids at the top of the food chain. Each confrontation ends with a cliffhanger, punctuated by the question, "How did the frog get away?" and the inevitable answer: "Jump, frog, jump!" Those bold spondees provide the perfect opportunity for listener participation. The light touch employed by Kalan (author of Stop, Thief!) is echoed by illustrator Barton (Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs), who keeps nature's harsh realities at bay with his zesty, rudimentary pictures. There's a lesson to be learned here, but kids will be too busy enjoying themselves to worry about it.
Ages 3-8: Tractor by Craig Brown, Greenwillow Books, $15.
What has become an increasingly unfamiliar scene in the American landscape is here given a heartfelt tribute by a worthy advocate. The farmer hooks his versatile tractor up to the many machines which assist him in the cultivation of his crop. The text is easy enough for beginning readers, the only uncommon words being the names of the machines (manure spreader, harrow, cultivator, etc.), which appear in a glossary at the end. With very few words, the seed's progress is charted from fertilized soil to roadside stand. The illustrations expand the text's meaning by showing the other recipients of the farm's bounty, including the farmer's children and pets. In a deft touch, the whole enterprise is overseen by a family of robins, whose survival techniques mirror those of the farm family, emphasizing man's context in the natural scheme of things. Brown grew up in a farming community, and his experience and reverence for the life come across in this tender treatment.
Michael Maschinot's children's book column appears monthly.