February 08, 2024


Are You BIG? By Mo Willems. Union Square Kids. $17.99.

     The incomparable silliness of Mo Willems meets the everyday realities of size comparisons in Are You BIG? And when that happens, it turns out that “everyday” isn’t so everyday after all.

     The book’s idea is simple and has been done many times before: what do “big” and “small” really mean, and when it comes to comparisons, what about “bigger” and “smaller”? This is a never-ending topic of fascination for young children – and their parents, who often have a habit of wondering, say, whose house is bigger or smaller than whose. There is nothing mundane about Willems’ way of handling the topic, though. In fact, his considerations go so far beyond mundane that they become positively celestial.

     The book starts simply enough, with the question of its title accompanying a cute illustration of a child whose arms, hands, legs and feet are drawn onto a body and head that look like paper cutouts. The smiling child fills almost the whole page, but on the next page is frowning and looking thoughtful as something else created in the same drawing-plus-collage style appears: “A hot air balloon is big,” writes Willems, as the smiling (and eyeglasses-wearing) balloon floats above the much smaller child – who is not so big after all.

     It is obvious where this is going, but far from obvious how it will get there. The next page shows a much-shrunken version of the balloon, no longer smiling, looking up at a still larger figure: “A cloud is big.” Oh yes, it is, as it walks along on its very long legs (Willems’ perpetual illustrative silliness is a big part of this book’s charm). One page later, the cloud is much, much smaller as a whole group of dark, lightning-filled clouds appears: “A storm is big.” It is, indeed, very much bigger than the cloud – and even larger than the hot air balloon (shown wide-eyed and quite small next to the cloud) and the child (shown almost invisibly small next to the balloon).

     The unspoken message here – adults may want to speak it when reading the book with children – is that the notion of “big” depends on circumstances, on what is being compared with what else. And after the storm shows up, Willems starts on flights of fancy that just don’t appear in other big-and-small books for kids. You think a storm is big? “AUSTRALIA is big,” Willems states, as the entire continent (trailing Tasmania) strides along, wearing a bigger smile than any other participant in the book has sported so far.

     And now matters become increasingly absurd, increasingly silly, and equally accurate. A bemused Australia finds itself looking at the moon…which is only big when not compared with the Earth (whose nose is the continent of Africa in Willems’ clever portrayal)…which is certainly not big compared with the sun. And how much bigger can things get? Willems reaches out astronomically far for the remainder of Are You BIG? The sun is shown to be very small indeed compared to the star Pollux, which wears sunglasses (Polluxglasses?) and has a tongue sticking out of its enormous mouth as its two hands give the “number one” sign. Number one? Oh, please. Poor Pollux is vastly overshadowed by the Milky Way, which barely holds a candle (or a blazing star) to the M100 galaxy, which is certainly not big when compared with a galaxy cluster, and – well, things have to stop somewhere, and this is where they do, as Willems reintroduces the start of the book by asking, “So, are YOU big?” And the answer, thoughtfully provided by a friendly ant, is, “You are to ME!” And there you have the bigger-and-smaller topic done to a turn – the Willems turn, which is full of twists and turns and is delightful to follow.

     But wait – there’s more. Willems is determined to cram some actual science into this book, and he does so very entertainingly on the inside back cover – where he explains that the book’s illustrations are not true to scale, but it is possible to measure how much bigger some things are than others. And thus he reveals the true size measurements of everything so amusingly shown in the book, informing kids (and knowledge-questing adults) that, for example, the moon is five times larger in surface area than Australia; the sun is 1,300,000 times larger in volume than our planet; the star Pollux is 593 times bigger than the sun; and so forth. Oh – and “an average kid is 430 times taller than an ant.” And now you know. And so do all the kids and adults destined to be thoroughly charmed and educationally enhanced thanks to Willems’ Are You BIG?

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