It’s never too early to start teaching kids about the importance of friendship. Offering lessons to live by, three delightful new picture books demonstrate the rewards of team effort and the power of partnership. As these clever tales prove, pitching in to help a pal—whether it’s with a stroke-of-genius idea or a simple word of cheer—can make a world of difference. That’s what friends are for!

No goal is unattainable if you’ve got a gang of buddies to lend a hand. Of course it helps if they have smarts and pluck, like the animals that assist their penguin pal in Kerstin Schoene’s A Mountain of Friends. Giraffe, toucan, elephant, snake—all are concerned about the little penguin, who, attired in a tiny black hat and matching bow tie, slouches glumly on a chunk of ice. This bird clearly has the blues! Why? The flippers he possesses instead of wings prevent him from taking to the air. “Just once I want to soar above the clouds,” the penguin says.

In a fun twist, readers are prompted to rotate the book, which takes on a vertical orientation as the resourceful animals assemble themselves into a precarious pile that reaches to the sky. And who’s at the very top? The penguin! Poised on the tip of the elephant’s trunk, he’s able to enjoy—at last—the feeling of flight. Rendered vividly in chalk, pencil and watercolor, Schoene’s furred and feathered group shows just how important it is to support a friend in need. With its irresistible illustrations and inspiring upshot, this story soars.

Willingness to compromise is a terrific quality in a friend, as demonstrated by the companion-critters in Kit Chase’s new book, Oliver’s Tree. There’s Lulu, a dainty little bird, and Charlie, a trim, gray bunny. Both take to the trees in the forest with ease. If only Oliver, their elephant friend, could join them! During games of hide-and-seek, Oliver, with his big, gray bulk, is at a decided disadvantage. Lulu’s so light she can vanish up in the branches, and Charlie’s so slight he can hide inside a stump, but Oliver’s weight is too great for any tree. His attempt to scale a low-hanging limb ends in a crash.

Thoroughly dejected, Oliver stalks off and falls asleep. But Lulu and Charlie have an idea. On a broad, flat tree stump, using sticks and moss, leaves and rocks, they build a whimsical house. Size-wise—“not too small and not too tall”—it suits the trio to a T, and Oliver soon joins his buddies there for an inaugural game of pirates. Problem solved! Chase does a wonderful job of depicting the riches of nature—delicate mushrooms and vibrant blooms—with ink and watercolors. Her pink-cheeked woodland pals make this tale of cooperation a winner.

Lita Judge’s too-funny Flight School is the tale of a misfit (another anatomically challenged penguin, as it happens) who, with the help of his mates, graduates with—there’s no better way to say it—flying colors. School is in full swing, and birds of every feather have gathered near a dock to try out their wings, including one latecomer—a penguin who’s more than ready to soar. “I have the soul of an eagle,” he says. Teacher, a stern-looking bird with a pince-nez balanced on his beak, regards his tardy pupil doubtfully but allows him to join the group.

After weeks of practice, the class is ready for flight day. Penguin takes off, but his flippers fail, and he belly-flops into the ocean. When he resurfaces, he’s ready to quit. But his chums come up with a clever way of getting him into the air. In the end, Penguin is so happy with his flight-school experience that he brings a new student to class—an ostrich “with the soul of a swallow.” Uh-oh.

Ford’s storytelling genius shines through her richly detailed watercolor and pencil illustrations. Her birds have character to spare. Overall grade: A+.

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