February 27, 2012

Big & Little

Big & Little
By Steve Jenkins; illus. by the author
3-6 Preschool Primary
Houghton Mifflin 32 pp.
0-395-72664-6 Hardcover $16.00

With Big & Little, Steve Jenkins, author of Actual Size and the Caldecott Honor winning What Do You Do With A Tail Like This? brings comparative anatomy to the preschool set. Though the prospect may sound intimidating, Jenkins accomplishes this with a light authorial hand and illustrative grace. This is more than just a book of opposites, (though it might function as such for its youngest readers). At its heart, Big & Little is an exploration of evolution through the lens of size selection.

In the prefatory page, Jenkins poses a question: "How can one bird or snake be so big and another bird or snake be so small?" Emphasizing this question is the head of an African rock python watching the delicate illustration of a tiny coral snake twined around the "T" in the paragraph's first word. Jenkins goes on to answer this question in simple terms that nevertheless require the young reader to think about what it takes for a species to compete for resources and survive. Jenkins's cut-paper collages, which are made to scale, work hand in hand with the text to effectively and artistically communicate scientific fact.

As with the snakes in the preface, each pair of creatures Jenkins compares is fundamentally related (Siamese cat and Siberian tiger, hummingbird and ostrich) but so different in size that they seem barely connected beyond their genus. Jenkins takes advantage of the incongruity by presenting a comparative fact about the pair, ("a gorilla can weigh as much as four men, while the pygmy marmoset is smaller than a squirrel"), deepening a child's understanding of just how big or little each animal is. Jenkins's illustrations are detailed yet clean, with the facts dancing in single sentences along the animals' backs and tails, giving them a playful feeling while inviting young readers to engage the text even more fully.

There is a lot going on in Big & Little, not because it is cluttered, but because it is so rich. For the littlest readers, the illustrations tell the story, but for older readers, the final page (in which animal outlines are drawn to a 1 in. = 2.5 ft. scale for easy comparison) and the glossary provide more challenging material to ponder. This is a book that will grow with a child, providing ample opportunities for questions and answers at more than one stage of development, as they themselves grow from little to big.

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