Hamster has a need for speed

"Hot Rod Hamster," by Cynthia Lord and illustrated by Derek Anderson (Scholastic Press, ages 2-6, $16.99), is a fast-paced, read-aloud picture book that all ages will adore.

Hamsters may be small, but that doesn't negate their need for speed. With the help of a junkyard dog and a few enterprising mice, our hero builds a hot rod that can compete with much bigger race cars.

Lord's quick, short rhymes introduce new words and capture the attention of even the youngest listener. "Smooth wheels, stud wheels, driving through the mud wheels . . ." She further engages the audience by asking, "Which would you choose?" Anderson's illustrations are a fury of full-color fun.

Preschoolers will cheer "Hot Rod Hamster" on from start to finish, and over and over again.

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"Back to Bed, Ed!," written and illustrated by Sebastien Braun (Peachtree Publishers, ages 2-6, $15.95), deals with an age-old problem.

Ed loves to get ready for bed. Games with Dad, a drink, a bath, and, of course, a story by Mom are great fun. However, he hates staying in bed. Sleeping with Mom and Dad is so much better. Even his stuffed rabbit is not enough comfort to keep him away.

Braun writes an enjoyable, straightforward story. Bright colors accentuate simple line drawings. Only the most necessary details are added, such as Ed's little sister sleeping in a crib in the parents' room.

After too many sleepless nights, Ed's parents come up with a plan. They put up a big "Closed" sign and shut their bedroom door. Ed wonders what to do, but after gathering all his stuffed animals into his bed, he lets everyone get a good night's sleep. That is, until little sister wakes up!

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"A Very Big Bunny," written and illustrated by Marisabina Russo (Schwartz and Wade Books, ages 4-8, $17.99), is an endearing story of friendship.

Amelia is the biggest bunny in her class. Mom and Dad try to make the best of it, but all she knows is that her friends say her feet are too big for hopscotch and nobody can see-saw with her. Every day she spends recess time alone counting clouds or listening to the wind.

Russo writes insightfully of the stigma of being different. She captures the taunts and teasing all too common among children. Her bright illustrations add warmth and charm to the story.

A new girl, Susannah, joins the class. She is every bit as small as Amelia is big. The other children won't play with her either. Amelia rejects her attempts at friendship until picture day arrives, and Susannah devises a plan that makes it fun for them to stand out in a crowd. They even find a way to see-saw together.

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"The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)," written by Barbara Kerley with illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic Press, ages 7-11, $17.99), is an astonishing picture book biography for young readers.

Mark Twain's daughter, Susy, is upset that people think they know her famous father so well. So at age 13, she decides to write an honest biography about him.

Kerley's story alone is great, but most pages include separate mini-book excerpts from the actual diary that Susy wrote. Readers get an intimate look into the life of America's most famous writer. Fotheringham's illustrations range from dark, foreboding images to playful scenes, fitting the text perfectly. Extensive author's notes include tips for writing a biography. "The Extraordinary Mark Twain" is a must-have volume for school libraries and an excellent choice for any family that values literature.