June 06, 2019


The Little Book of Big What-Ifs. By Renata Liwska. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $13.99.

     It is a mistake to believe that young children, even very young children, do not contemplate some very important issues indeed. They may think in simple language and without substantial philosophical musings underlying their contemplation, but they wonder many of the same things that their parents wonder – and will continue doing so until they are themselves adults. It is this reality into which Renata Liwska adeptly taps in The Little Book of Big What-Ifs, a thoroughly age-appropriate consideration of small childhood things and big whole-world things, couched in small words and filled with adorable illustrations that are just quizzical enough to engage children and parents alike.

     “What if you slept through your birthday?” opens the book, with a scene of five cute, furry, anthropomorphic animals clustered in front of a tree within which a sixth animal is sleeping – likely hibernating, this being a winter scene with snow falling gently. There is in fact an answer to this first question, very near the end of the book, on a page with the words, “What if you’re surprised?” Now it is spring, the same five characters are still (or again) at the tree, and a sixth one – yes, a small bear – is awake and delighted by all the attention, which includes the same gifts shown at the book’s start but, thankfully, a different birthday cake rather than a months-old one.

     Most questions here, though, do not get explicit answers, although many invite further questions that Liwska also illustrates. “What if no one could hear you?” features a character leaning out a window and calling to others, who are oblivious because each of them is plugged into a phone or music player. The next page is “What if everyone could?” – and this shows most characters sitting quietly in pews, while one has fallen asleep and is snoring. The contrasts between the questions and between the illustrations are apt, pleasant and thought-provoking for the young readers for whom The Little Book of Big What-Ifs is intended.

     Some questions here are designed to encourage imagination. “What if you swallowed a seed?” shows a bear sprouting apple-tree branches, blossoms and an apple from ears and nose while a panda looks on, amused – and parents can assure kids that this will not happen and ask them what they think really will occur. Similarly, “What if your imagination runs wild?” shows a bear acting as barber for a wide-eyed pineapple while a carrot stands nearby, apparently next in line, and broccoli sporting a bow on top takes a selfie after presumably having been suitably groomed. Other questions are intended as teachable moments: “What if you made a mistake?” shows an elephant who has fallen into a deep hole, after which “What if we all work together?” shows seven other animal characters (who have appeared earlier in the book, in various places) cooperating to get him out.

     In fact, Liwska builds the book to a final what-if that is directly intended to be carried along by young readers to their friends now and then into later life. “What if everyone shared?” Liwska asks, showing two characters giving out hearts, or heart-shaped something-or-others, to two others. “What if it spread?” she asks next, using two full pages to show “it” spreading in a figurative sense – not actual heart-giving but the giving of help and kindness, whether with hugs or by assisting in cleanup after a spill. And the final page, the only one that does not end with a question mark, states emphatically, “What a difference it would make!” And that is the point here: ask questions of all sorts, at any age, and think about what the answers might be and how you might feel if you are the questioner or the one answering – and then think of the power of your response and the way in which your answers (hopefully helpful, positive ones) can resound with others and spread far and wide. But of course that is far too philosophical and far too adult an approach to make sense to the very young readers for whom Liwska wrote The Little Book of Big What-Ifs. What she does so well here is to take the overall issue of what-if – one that adults encounter all the time – and present it in a way that children can find enjoyable and intriguing at the same time.

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