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Volume VIII Number 12 . . . . February 15, 2002
excerpt from "How are humans different from animals?":
Previously published in Australia in 1998, Jackie French's The Little Book of Big Questions made its North American debut in 2000, published by Annick Press, who paired French's text with the droll illustrations of Martha Newbigging. The prolific Australian French has authored over 60 books, many of them for children (www.jackiefrench.com), while the Canadian Newbigging has not only illustrated books for children/young adults (Crime Science and Cybersurfer), but also has designed Web sites and instructional/educational CD-ROMs for clients as diverse as Disney Online, the Royal Ontario Museum, V-Tape, and Canadian Payroll Association (see www.flippix.com for examples of her work). The artwork - "hand-drawn, scanned, and colored in Photoshop" - that one finds in The Little Book of Big Questions playfully interacts with a text that is reflective, humorous, speculative, and whimsical, by turns.
This physically "little" book (18 cm x 18 cm) condenses a great amount of unwieldy material into a mere 127 pages that could be divided into roughly five categories: origins, eschatology, humans and "otherness," space and time, and ethics. Topics range in magnitude from "How did the universe begin?," "What is life?" and "What happens when you die?" on the one hand to "Can people be invisible?" "How space travelers go to the toilet!" and "Can you make up a private sign language?" on the other. None of the seventeen chapters are numbered; instead, they rely on illustrated title pages to distinguish the start of a new line of question. "How are humans different from animals?" and "Do aliens exist?" are two chapters especially rich in scientific facts and concrete examples, and French should be commended for the extreme tact she exercises in approaching the formidable subjects of killing and suicide. This book in no way pretends to hold definitive answers to the "big" questions; on the contrary, it deliberately presents answers representative of a number of viewpoints. Frequently, French halts her download of information to interject, "What do you think?" thereby inviting the reader to "talk back." This characteristic of the book clearly embodies Annick Press's mandate to produce "books that help start dialogue" (www.annickpress.com).
Despite the numerous direct references tailored specifically to North American (p. 53, 68, 79, 92-93, 120) and Canadian (p. 21, 53, 90) audiences - which suggest that The Little Book of Big Questions may have been altered somewhat from its original Australian appearance - the text's scope exceeds national or continental interests. Yet the target audience's age is difficult to ascertain, for although Annick's Web site identifies The Little Book of Big Questions as appropriate for children 8-12, the author's vocabulary seems rather ambitious for readers at the younger end of that range. Here are a few examples of polysyllabic words embedded in the text: "replicate" (p. 18), "manifestations" (p. 45), "vanquished opponents" (p. 48), "exterminated" (p. 59), "obstinate" (p. 63), "expendable" (appears in a cartoon speech bubble, p. 63), "supposition" (p. 104), and "intrinsically" (p.115). Diction aside, this book would be ideal for children/young adults who enjoy conducting independent research into the big questions, or for parents who wish to use the book to discuss these "big questions" with their children. The "Other books to read" page and an index are excellent reference tools for further exploration.
Running rampant throughout The Little Book are Newbigging's delightful cartoon characters in shades of blue and black. Assuming the "lead roles" in the pictures that play out before one's eyes, and accompanying readers on their journey through the text are Raccoon and Crow. It is fitting that these two cartoon animals appear in a Canadian edition of the book, for crows often appear in Canadian literature, and the book itself reminds readers that "on this planet only North American has anything like raccoons" (p.68). The artwork underscores the fact that the book entertains multiple perspectives. For instance, Newbigging suggests three-dimensionality by pencilling in both eyes of an animal; yet in each animal's case, the eye that is located farthest from the viewer/reader appears to be detached, jutting out just above the animal's cheekbone. Apart from this unusual ability to see things from another perspective, which he shares with Crow, Raccoon also wears (square) glasses, which magnify his desire to comprehend things clearly. Then, too, Newbigging's skewed sense of humor provides much-needed comic respite from some of the bigger "big questions." For example, when French writes of the Milky Way galaxy, the illustrator ironically depicts Raccoon naively "visualizing," in a cartoon bubble above his head, cows and milk cartons floating free alongside stars (p. 12). A second example occurs when Crow waxes philosophical about aliens:"Holy Crow!" exclaims Raccoon (p. 77). Overall, Newbigging's cartoons essentially counterbalance French's text: where the text is serious, the illustrations introduce levity; where the text assumes a lighthearted tone, the cartoons can offer sobering insights.
The chapters on origins begin with the intent to present all options objectively but subsequently lean heavily in favor of evolution. The sophisticated vocabulary may deter readers at the younger end of the targeted age group, those who might benefit most from reading this book.
Recommended with reservations.
Nepean, Ontario's Julie Chychota continues to search for answers to many questions.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.