CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 13 . . . . December 1, 2017
One day, a young orphaned elephant follows a lion to his palace. The young elephant is turned away at first (see excerpt above), but later the lion invites him inside. The two soon form a close, near child-parent relationship. However, when the elephant grows to become much bigger than the lion ("like all children do!" p.20) and learns to do many new things, while the lion remains the same (as "dads" do, p.21), it disturbs the lion to the point of destroying their relationship. The elephant is told to leave. Some time later, the elephant sees the lion lying in the street, old and weakened. He was driven away from his kingdom for arrogance, but the elephant assures the lion that he is still a king. It is implied that the elephant takes the lion in and cares for him thereafter.
You Big and Me Small is a disturbing picturebook with some clunky elements. I would, nevertheless, recommend it for inclusion in an Advanced Picturebook or Teen collection, although the publisher's suggested age range is 6-9.
To begin with, the clunky elements:
The text has little to no interaction with the illustrations: a wall of text on one page will be followed by a self-contained painting framed in thick black lines, or the painting will take up a double spread and the text will trot along underneath like a caption, an approach which can feel very stiff; however, this could be a matter of individual taste. I feel that it is different enough from contemporary trends, in which text and pictures mix freely and words will often have added visual elements such as font, size, or color changes, for readers to find the book less appealing. The text, itself, is either written or translated with a jarring "tell, don't show" style, and does not flow smoothly (see excerpt).
Visually, I feel the formatting does the text a disservice because it does not make good use of the available space of an entire page but keeps the words clumped in tight paragraphs in the middle, aligned left, leaving the rest of the page empty (it even looks to be single-spaced, adding to the cramped effect).
The narrative, itself, is strong, straightforward and emotionally charged, but to me it seems to be carried mainly by the pictures and not the text. I really like the illustrations, which could be viewed as a series of oil paintings on a theme, as in an art gallery exhibit. The use of different shades of red, blue and yellow to signal the emotional weight and intensity of a scene, or the amount of a color in a scene to denote whose presence is strongest (the power balance), or changing the color of the elephant's pants to signal his growth and eventual independence – all these are beautifully done. The paintings are striking, vivid and threatening.
You don't need more than perhaps a sentence from each of the text pages to follow the story through these bold paintings of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship that led to separation and eventual reconciliation – which is why the book is also disturbing. The book explicitly refers to the elephant and the lion as son and father, and the illustrations depict the lion with more human features in the face and hands than the elephant; it is essentially about a narcissistic and emotionally neglectful father who, nevertheless, finds a devoted son to look after him in his old age. It is not a fluffy story about loving you forever, unless you're talking about the stoic elephant, whose only portrayed emotion is his inexplicable but unwavering devotion to the lion.
What does the story want to tell us? That children should strive to please their parents and indulge them, no matter how capricious and self-centered they may be? That becoming "bigger" than our parents will threaten them, eventually leading them to banish us from their care? Or is this actually a portrayal of someone processing their own relationship issues with their father (not necessarily Solotareff, himself)? It certainly feels like it, and as such a depiction I would consider it a useful and valuable work, but certainly not as a bedtime story for anyone too young to have a proper discussion about it.
Recommended with Reservations.
Saeyong Kim has an MA in Children's Literature and an MLIS; she lives in British Columbia where she works as an auxiliary public librarian.