One Bear Extraordinaire, by Jayme McGowan; Abrams Books for Young Readers, $16.95, 32 pages, ages 3-7.

Debut children’s book author-illustrator Jayme McGowan has crafted a triumph of three-dimensional illustration in One Bear Extraordinaire, and her dedication is evident throughout. After rendering the characters using watercolors and colored pencils, McGowan cuts out each piece of paper and assembles the scenes inside a book-size paper theater, suspending the characters and scenery with toothpicks, twine, and even clothespins. Once satisfied with the setup, McGowan scrupulously photographs her creations using various lenses and camera settings. (Art teachers might find this book useful in teaching design concepts and paper cutting techniques.) It’s not a popup, but every page in the book is full of depth and complexity, the result of many hours spent getting every last piece just right. The tale itself is one of camaraderie and acceptance: A musical bear wakes one day and discovers that he can’t quite play the song he hears rumbling in his head. So he sets out across the forest, and along the way collects a banjo-playing fox, a raccoon with an accordion, and even a little wolf pup who can’t seem to play any instrument…yet. The story, while charming, is upstaged by the fantastic art. That said, I think McGowan will bring wonderful things to the world of children’s picture book illustration and I’m looking forward to what she does for her encore presentation. 

In, by Nikki McClure; Abrams Appleseed, $16.95, 32 pages, ages 2-6.

Master cut-paper artist Nikki McClure (May the Stars Drip Down; How to Be a Cat) has crafted another stunning story full of bold images that demonstrate the deft skill of a professional at her best. Here readers meet a young boy who decides that today is just too cold and wet to venture outdoors, but perfect to explore the simple pleasures of playing make-believe. McClure’s books are generally done in black and white with one major pop of color – here it’s yellow, highlighting a toy giraffe, a yellow flag, and even a jar of marmalade. Keep an eye open for owls – McClure filled In with 35 different kinds of the bird of prey. Then check the last page to see if you found them all.

This joyous celebration of downtime will speak to overscheduled youngsters (and their parents), reminding us that unsupervised moments are blissful manna for the soul.