Big lessons are wrapped in small packages

Bedtime hours can be maddening moments for mothers and fathers of preschoolers. But once children have been wrangled and tucked into bed, the time together can present a wonderful chance to take stock, allowing the kids to discuss the events of their day or mention what's preoccupying them.

Several new books gently tackle topics that might be troubling little minds. With the help of plucky characters, whimsical graphics and the occasional talking animal, these books aim to help parents broach an array of complicated subjects.

"Fred Stays With Me," written by Nancy Coffelt, illustrated by Tricia Tusa; Little, Brown Young Readers; $16.99

The heroine of this sweetly illustrated picture book copes with the challenge of shuttling between the homes of her divorced parents. The only constant is Fred, the girl's loyal dog, whose habits (chewing socks, tormenting poodles) infuriate both Mom and Dad. Fred is quickly wearing out his welcome at both houses, but the little girl is adamant: Fred is her best friend. Where she goes, he goes. Rather than fighting, the family decides to work together to find solutions — like buying Fred a new chew toy and keeping Dad's socks out of reach.

"I Love You, Little Monkey" written by Alan Durant, illustrated by Katharine McEwen; Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing; $15.95

Small moments can loom large in the minds of little children — and little monkeys. When Little Monkey earns a timeout by ruining dinner and messing up the beds Big Monkey carefully made, he worries that he's done permanent damage. "Do you love me when I'm naughty?" asks a tearful Little Monkey. Big Monkey responds with warmth, but doesn't let the little guy off the hook entirely: "Of course I do," says Big Monkey. "I may not always like the naughty things you do, but I love you always." The monkeys Big and Little end up swinging on vines together and sharing hugs, helping Little Monkey understand that parental love really is unconditional.

"Grumpy Bird," by Jeremy Tankard; Scholastic Press; $12.99

Grumpy Bird wakes up in a bad mood and things only get worse: His friend Sheep annoys him. His friend Rabbit annoys him. His friend Raccoon annoys him. By the time his friend Fox annoys him, Bird is ready to scream. But when his goofy pals stick with him despite his cranky mood, Bird realizes that there's really no reason to be miserable. Bold illustrations and intense colors should keep parents entertained, and kids probably will see parallels between Bird's experience and their own (or a sibling's) bouts of unnecessary crankiness.

"My Little Grandmother Often Forgets," written by Reeve Lindbergh, illustrated by Kathryn Brown; Candlewick; $16.99

A grandparent's memory trouble can be unsettling to a child and may be difficult for a parent to explain. This book explores the subject by following the adventures of Tom, a boy who helps his forgetful grandmother with simple tasks. He muses about her unexpected behavior ("Once she went to buy eggs and was gone the whole day.") and explains their unique relationship ("My little grandmother lives with me now. She doesn't know why and she doesn't know how. She can't find her cat, and she loses her way... But she says she's found ME, so she thinks she will stay."). This one is suitable for very small kids, but probably works best for the 4and 5-year-old set.

"Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend," by Melanie Watt; Kids Can Press; $14.95

Scaredy Squirrel is earnest, obsessive and totally lovable. He's also, as you might have guessed, scared. To protect himself from anything (walruses, bunnies, Godzilla) that might bite, Scaredy spends most of his time alone. When a carefully planned attempt to meet a goldfish leads to an encounter with a dog, Scaredy panics. He's sure he's going to get eaten. But the dog wants only to be friends and Scaredy discovers just how wonderful new friends can be. Great for kids who've just moved to a new town or switched schools.