If Roast Beef Could Fly
Jay Leno, illustrated by S.B. Whitehead
Simon & Schuster: 32 pp., $17.95
Comedian Jay Leno adapts a family-friendly stand-up bit for this pleasantly silly picture book. Dad, famous for his overblown projects, decides to build a patio deck and a giant barbecue rotisserie in the backyard. After a trip to the "Hardware Supermax store" ("Okay! We need five hundred bricks! Two hundred pounds of cement!" says Dad) and a few months of tinkering, his father unveils the rotisserie.
As a giant roast beef turns on the spit for the Leno family's end-of-summer barbecue, young Jay's mouth waters. ("Juice is dripping! Fat is sizzling! ... I'm dying to taste the roast beef.") Jay whips out his "secret weapon" -- a plastic comb -- and repeatedly steals some drippings with the unorthodox implement. But to Jay's great dismay, the comb ends up stuck in the roast, prompting a chaotic and funny denouement.
Though many youngsters will miss some of the humor that falls between the lines (which adults will enjoy), the wacky scenario is likely to keep children interested (especially young Jay's anxious look as he awaits the inevitable). Leno's talent for storytelling and affection for his family shines through -- especially on his CD recording of the text (packaged with the book).
Illustrator S.B. Whitehead ("Red Foley's Cartoon History of Baseball") exaggerates the features and expressions of the characters in his crisply rendered watercolors, in keeping with the farcical tenor of the tale. Period details, from automobiles and clothing to furniture, add flavor. And his likeness of Leno -- basically a miniature version of the TV personality -- is particularly engaging. All ages
Knopf: 32 pp., $16.95
Bluebirds wearing crowns soar overhead, pineapples spring from the ground and Indian women draped in saris look on as David Lucas' ("Shaggy and Spotty") shy hero triumphs over his fear of being noticed. Halibut Jackson likes "to blend into the background." Lighthearted, economical ink-and-wash spreads show the hero in camouflage that literally achieves that goal; in one ink-and-wash spread, he leans against a brick wall in town, his huge hat and almost hemispherically shaped coat printed with red and orange bricks.
In another, he stands in front of a library bookshelf, his hat and coat this time striped with book-width bands of color. When Halibut receives an invitation to the palace, he worries about going until it occurs to him to make himself a bejeweled hat and coat to match the palace walls. The event turns out to be a garden party, however, and Halibut stands out like a beacon. But the attention proves agreeable -- everyone begs for a gem-encrusted suit just like his.
"Now Halibut Jackson had friends," concludes the narrator with satisfaction. "Now Halibut Jackson had plenty to do." The pure fancy of Halibut's world distinguishes Lucas' first solo effort: Blue horses trot through town, trees sprout marvelous fruit and shy chaps named for fish receive invitations from the queen. Halibut may prefer to hide, but kids will immediately recognize the authenticity of his feelings. Ages 3-8
The Neighborhood Mother Goose
Greenwillow/Amistad: 48 pp., $15.99
Nina CREWS' photographic picture books ("One Hot Summer Day," "Snowball") have always captured a certain rhythm -- be it of the playground, a city sidewalk or just childlike interaction. Like them, her latest project rolls along with a strong beat; verse and image keep perfect time. Viewed through Crews' camera, an urban neighborhood (the author's beloved Brooklyn, as distinguished by various borough landmarks) resonates with activity.
Readers can almost hear hands clapping, babies cooing and children laughing in crisp photo-collages. A grassy park, storefronts, apartment windows and rooftops provide some of the backdrops for members of a multiethnic cast as they interpret such rhymes as "Ring Around the Rosie," "Dance, Little Baby" and "Humpty Dumpty." Crews includes lesser-known verses as well -- "Cobbler, Cobbler," "Three Wise Men of Gotham" -- which work to equally good effect.
Adding an element of whimsy, she digitally manipulates her photos, achieving a varied scale that allows Jack (of "Be Nimble" fame) to hurdle a cupcake with a candle in it, or three tiny men (those men of Gotham) to head seaward off a Coney Island pier. The updated look provides a freshness without being overtly contemporary; Mother Goose's timeless rhymes are quite at home in this new setting.
Throughout, the artist demonstrates a talent for coaxing seemingly candid moments from her child subjects as they enact their nursery-rhyme roles, and the other hallmarks of her work -- color, action and a sense of fun -- shine at full force. Ages 3-6
Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America
Edited by Jane Kurtz
Greenwillow/Amistad: 160 pp., $15.99