Mrs. Noodlekugel and Four Blind Mice by Daniel Pinkwater; illustrated by Adam Stower; Candlewick Press, 90 pages ($14.99)


Leave it to the one-and-only Daniel Pinkwater (author of “The Hoboken Chicken Emergency” and “Lizard Music”) to come up with a simple but laugh-out-loud hilarious tale of father and son, with memorable characters and vivid settings, in 90 pages printed with large type. Siblings Nick and Maxine live in a tall apartment building; their baby sitter, Mrs. Noodlekugel lives in a small house in the secret backyard of the building with her cat, Mr. Fuzzface, and four mice who don’t see very well.

The action involves a trip on the bus (with the mice secured to the old lady’s hat with rubber bands and Mr. Fuzzface, complaining loudly, in a cat carrier) to the oculist to get spectacles for the mice. Mrs. Noodlekugel might be the best old lady in children’s books since Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. Whether it’s Pinkwater’s creation of an eye chart for mice or his rendition of the dialect spoken by an alleycat named Oldface or his description of Dirty Sally’s Lunchroom, this is a real winner for beginning readers.

– Jean Westmoore


The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert; Viking, 512 pages ($28.95)


Leave it to Elizabeth Gilbert to go back in time, rather than forward, for “The Signature of All Things,” a novel that’s also about survival and has its share of darkness, but overall fairly bursts with a sense of joy and life-affirmation.

As in her memoirs “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Committed,” Gilbert shows herself – through her heroine, the marvelous Alma Whittaker – as a woman deeply, recklessly in love with the world, in the sheer mad fabulousness of simply being alive on this planet.

Alma, born in 1800 in Philadelphia, lives with the curse of physical plainness and the blessings of a brilliant, inquisitive mind and the wealth left to her by her father, the enterprising Henry. She also inherits his love for botany, but as a 19th century woman, is limited in her ability to travel as the famous male botanists do. So genius Alma focuses her attentions on what’s at hand, literally in her own backyard.

Alma, a sensualist trapped in the body of an old maid, loves passionately but disastrously. She not only survives but thrives. Heartache doesn’t destroy her; it fuels her devotion to her scientific work. As she studies mosses over a lifetime, she comes dizzyingly close to the same thing that Charles Darwin and others were working on contemporaneously.

One of the great successes of the book is the way Gilbert portrays the “men of God” and “men of science” – who, prior to Darwin could be one and the same. She finds God in evolution, via 16th century cobbler and Christian mystic Jacob Boehme, who thought “that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code … containing proof of our Creator’s love.”

– Joy Tipping, Dallas Morning News