Monday, July 17, 2017

Big Little Hippo by Valeri Gorbachev

 Today's reviewer, Katya Schapiro, is a Senior Children’s Librarian at the Bay Ridge branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. She is neither big nor little, but medium-sized, and served on the 2016 Geisel Committee. 

Cover from
Learning to read is a power move. Reading unlocks not only information but independence, and when you’re the smallest person around, it can literally make your world a bigger place. No wonder then, that the theme of being a small person in a big world, eagerly awaiting growth, is a popular children’s book and early reader trope, and always a compelling one. Several previous Geisel honorees have grappled with issues of relative size and perception, notably You are (Not) Small, Don’t Throw it to Mo, and A Big Guy Took My Ball.

Big Little Hippo, Valeri Gorbachev’s endearing new entry into the ‘little-guy-grows-in-spirit’ genre, reads like a fable, predictable and satisfying. Little Hippo is the smallest in his family, and feels like the smallest, period. When he offers a helping hand to a tiny beetle, he experiences a dual feeling of growth—taking responsibility for someone more helpless, and a realization about comparative sizes. With a new name to reflect his more complex understanding, he feels ‘just the right size.’

As noted above, feeling small and wanting to grow is a universally intriguing theme, and Gorbachev’s expressive and gently old-fashioned ink and watercolor illustrations welcome the beginning reader. The text is classically paced (‘X was bigger, Y was much bigger, Z was much MUCH bigger), drawing the reader through the page turns, and uses mostly simple, easily sounded out words, and the rhythm is consistent in both the rising and falling action. Although on the small side, the text is clearly visible on each page and never obscured by the illustration.

While the plot is simple, the text/illustration correlation clear, and the vocabulary fairly controlled, this is a book for an improving reader, not a rank beginner. While all rarer words are in context, a few (‘neighbor’, ‘helplessly’) seem gratuitous and may discourage less confident readers. The page-turns are clear, with no dangling concepts from spread to spread, but the line breaks are a bit random on the pages with more text. The text also incorporates italics, quotations, and all caps usage, which will require a bit more sophistication from the reader. The illustrations, in addition to being adorable, are almost all supportive of the text, although one ‘running’ spread caused my test reader to think that that another little hippo had joined the first. Throughout, Gorbachev adds a subtle additional size commentary in the form of peripheral animals smaller than Little Hippo (a tiny fish, a hummingbird), and while this adds a delightful layer to the telling, it has the potential to confuse readers relying heavily on the pictures.

In conclusion, a delicious and adorable title, with many rewards and increased confidence for a reader who has already begun their journey with some tools in hand.

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