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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Small written and illus. by Clara Vulliamy
Clarion, 2002 32p
ISBN 0-618-19459-2 $15.00 2-5 yrs

Plenty of youth services librarians, parents, and early childhood educators understand the value of a book that will hold the attention of preschoolers, that will connect with them on a personal level, and that won’t condescend to or confuse a young audience. Clara Vulliamy’s Small is just such a book. Its child-centered drama speaks directly to little listeners, and while its central focus—a child’s separation from and reunion with a beloved toy (in this case, a diminutive stuffed mouse)—is not a new one in children’s literature, it’s one that definitely bears retelling. Anyone who’s ever tried to take a “blankie” away from a toddler knows that the attachments children forge with comfort objects can be incredibly powerful, and young children will easily understand and respond to the bond that exists between Vulliamy’s young Tom and his stuffed mouse, Small.

Tom is going to stay overnight at Granny’s house for the first time, and, as he packs and repacks his tiny suitcase, he inadvertently leaves Small behind. Unaware at first of Small’s absence, Tom has a delightful time with Granny, but he sadly realizes what has happened when bedtime rolls around. Meanwhile, back at Tom’s house, the forlorn Small can’t sleep without his human companion and so, after climbing out the window and shinnying down the downspout, he bravely sets off to find Tom. Neither rain, nor wind, nor the “dark, dark woods” can stop the timid but determined Small (“He’s cold and tired and scared. But he doesn’t stop”), and he finally arrives at Granny’s house. At the same time, Tom has decided that he must go out to look for Small and, as he nears Granny’s front door, he sees that “there, on the mat below the mail slot . . . is Small!” Sensible adult Granny claims that Small must have been dropped there when Tom first came in; Tom, however, “doesn’t say anything. Tom knows.”

Vulliamy tells her story simply and matter-of-factly, quietly capturing the urgency of the situation, and her description of Tom and Small’s separation and reunion is emotional but not overly sentimental. Adults will see the happy ending coming from a mile away, but young children won’t mind such predictability a bit and will appreciate the reassurance and security provided by the joyful conclusion. Short, succinct sentences and selective repetition of words and phrases (“He’s climbing and tumbling. And the rain pours down. And the howling wind pushes him back”) offer additional stability and structure to Vulliamy’s writing, and her choice of a present-tense narrative voice further supports her young audience, who live very much in the here-and-now.

It’s no coincidence if Vulliamy’s style of illustration brings to mind the work of British author and illustrator Shirley Hughes; she happens to be Vulliamy’s mother. Watercolor spot illustrations (interspersed with lines of text against a creamy background) depict details of Tom’s indoor activities in warm russet and gold tones, while Small’s scenes are tinged with the sunset hues and dark blues ofevening; full-page paintings effectively illustrate Small’s nocturnal expedition. In these scenes, Vulliamy utilizes a nighttime palette along with varying perspectives—one dramatic spread uses a slightly overhead view to play up the contrast between the miniature mouse and the towering trees of the woods—to emphasize the vulnerability of poor little pink-eared Small. Given Vulliamy’s characters and storyline, her art could have easily tipped into the gooey and gushy, and the doe-eyed Tom is in fact somewhat idealized; overall, however, the homey, comfortable illustrations are more cozy than cutesy. The rumpled, bean-baggy-looking Small is a particularly sympathetic and endearing figure as he runs from an interested cat or struggles with human-sized curbs and a chain-link fence.

Ultimately, it is Vulliamy’s childlike point of view (in which only Tom and Small understand what really happened) that ensures Small’s success with toddlers and preschoolers. With her words and images, Vulliamy recognizes and validates the feelings of her young audience; she understands and zeroes in on the sorrow that children feel over what adults believe are small losses, as well as the jubilance and relief that we all feel when the rightness of things is restored. Small is just the right choice for a bedtime readaloud or a P.J. storytime at the library where kids bring their best stuffed-animal buddies—just make sure that when the program’s over nobody’s left behind.

Jeannette M. Hulick, Reviewer

Big Picture Image
Cover illustration by Clara Vulliamy from Small ©2002. Used by permission of Clarion Books.

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This page was last updated on April 1, 2002.