Childhood is ideally all about imagination, and Mud Is Cake celebrates that premise with a joyful marriage of text and art. This idea is repeated with many variations, starting with the first pages: Mud is cake/if you pretend/and don't really take a bite. And juice is tea/with a fairy queen/if you act it out just right. I've long been a fan of artist David McPhail (the Pig Pig books, Santa's Book of Names), and here, his work brings Pam Mu–oz Ryan's fittingly spare text to life.

A boy and girl both listen to their mother read as it rains outside. Once the sun comes out, they go to play in the fresh mud, and a rainbow appears. The two launch their imaginations full force, turning their stuffed animals into actors in a series of self-created dramas, becoming magicians, band members, sailors, explorers and more, with their animal friends joining the fun on every page. Bear and elephant are transformed into a king and queen, dog becomes a circus performer, lion snoozes in a tent. The children ride spaceships, become pirates, monsters and rulers of fortresses in glorious, adventurous romps. One of the spreads would make a fabulous poster: the boy, girl and their menagerie march out from giant copies of Mother Goose, The Wind in the Willows and The Jungle Book, celebrating both books and imagination. McPhail's watercolors have a nicely understated, old-fashioned appeal, reminiscent in energy and action to Maurice Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are.

Although this book has a message, it's never heavy-handed. Kids will drink up the theme without ever tasting the medicine. While the simple text could easily be read to a two-year-old (and the illustrations appreciated by all ages), kids probably need to be about four or older to fully grasp the theme of how simple objects and ideas can spawn fully realized journeys of the imagination.

As Mud Is Cake concludes: You can be most anything/in dreams, or wide awake./If you agree that juice is tea . . . /. . . if you believe/that mud is cake. Bring on the mud pies!

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