If the total number of waking hours an adult spends with a child were represented by a dozen eggs, two would be dedicated to arguments about food, clothes, and bedtime; three would be repeated viewings of Pixar movies; and the remaining seven would stand for endless discussions about the world – how big it is, how old it is, how its various components came to be, and why all the people on it happen to live where they do. Some of the discussion is spent answering questions, the rest listening to kids’ often wildly inaccurate but thoroughly entertaining theories and opinions. In light of this, any book that helps grown-ups feed youthful curiosity while correcting the non-facts is a welcome one. If the book also happens to be entertaining, even better.
Vancouver writer David J. Smith and Montreal illustrator Steve Adams strike an excellent balance between information and entertainment in If, an illustrated introduction to the concept of scale and a kind of child’s world almanac. Though its subtitle promises much bending of minds, the book’s conceit is fairly simple: Smith and Adams take a number of concepts that may be too large or abstract for a child to fully grasp (such as the size of the galaxy or the pace of human innovation over the past thousand years), and scale them down to a more accessible size using concrete-seeming metaphors. For example, the relative sizes of the planets in our solar system are explained by depicting them as balls on a playing field, with the Earth as a baseball and Jupiter as an exercise ball.
The effect is often humbling. When our planet’s long history is condensed into a single year, humans don’t show up until after Christmas. The implicit message can also be a little alarming, as with the spread in which all of the Earth’s water is represented by a hundred glasses on a waiter’s tray. In the scenario, the amount of fresh water available for human use makes up just one glass.
Smith, who employed the same kind of imaginative scaling down of ideas in his popular 2002 book, If the World Were a Village, does a great job making nearly incomprehensible concepts less so. Only occasionally are the condensed versions trickier than the reality: depicting life expectancies as footprints in the sand seems unnecessarily abstract – are “years” that hard to grasp? Adams’ painted images illustrate without overwhelming the ideas, and add subtle, funny touches while highlighting the book’s polished feel.
Why We Live Where We Live seems, at first, to be more straightforward in its approach. But while the book makes a worthy and well-informed attempt to answer the question implied in its title, the result is overcomplicated. Guelph writer Kira Vermond and Vancouver illustrator Julie McLaughlin aim to explain what makes our planet inhabitable, how communities and cities appear and grow, and how we might live in the future. It’s a fascinating subject, and one the duo tackles with a refreshing lack of silliness – no poop jokes (for better or worse), no jabbering mascot character – but such a broad and complicated subject cries out for a clever delivery system.
Instead, the book simply presents its facts en masse and in seemingly random order. In the first few pages, we jump from a discussion of the Earth’s uniqueness in our galaxy to different kinds of dwellings to the importance of food, water, languages and speech, and the role of family in determining an individual’s fate. In every case, the pages are filled with interesting and useful information, but with very little logical flow or connection between topics. After a while the sheer amount of information gives Why We Live Where We Live the feel of a school textbook, the kiss of death for many young readers. Some topics lack focus and are simply too expansive to be explained over two pages of a picture book. Take “money,” for example: where Smith and Adams illustrate relative world wealth with a few stacks of coins, Vermond and McLaughlin are overly ambitious, trying to cover taxation, business loans, interest fees, and mortgages in the small space allotted.
It’s a shame Vermond and McLaughlin didn’t stick to the time-honoured KISS principle. The idea of why we are where we are can be a legitimate mind-bender for kids, and is exactly the kind of thing they have endless questions about. While If provides clear answers and concepts that both generations will be able to grasp, the abundance of information presented in Why We Live Where We Live may prove overwhelming. And if adults can’t answer kids’ questions in a fully engaging way, the conversation will soon turn to yet another request to watch Finding Nemo.