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When the Giant Stirred: Legend of a Volcanic Island

by Celia Godkin

When the Giant Stirred by Celia Godkin makes a sincere attempt to both inform and engage young readers. Godkin, a University of Toronto professor and teacher of scientific illustration, has produced other picture books that introduce children to nature. This time around, she highlights an island’s ecosystem and its regenerative ability after a volcanic eruption. The ecosystem includes flora and fauna and peaceful human inhabitants who regard the volcano as a mountain god to be appeased when upset. When the mountain’s grumblings escalate to smoke and cinders, the people must leave their paradise in search of another island home.

While the cycle of life and the sprinklings of mythology carry some interest, this book lacks an engaging story. Elements that help to captivate young children like dialogue, identifiable characters, and easily followed repetition are all absent. Godkin’s clear prose makes the natural world understandable, but the simple declarative sentences have an unvarying rhythm that is lulling. Many of the oil paintings feature muted colours and conventional perspectives. Without dynamic artwork (aside from the volcano blowing), the drama is diminished. It’s not surprising, given Godkin’s vocation, that her greatest skill lies in portraying nature, not humans. At a crucial point when the islanders are supposed to be fearful, they appear angry instead.

With its forthcoming teacher’s guide, this book fills an educational niche. Information about volcano formation and Pacific migration is given in well-done endpapers, which are more challenging than the text. Preschoolers can enjoy this picture book on its own, ignoring the endpapers. Just don’t expect requests for repeat readings.