Review of the Day: When You Were Small
Pity the small publisher in this age of global conglomerates and massive buyouts. In a time of Harcourts and Harper Collins, and Antheneums it’s almost impossible for the little guy (the little guy in this case being Simply Read Books) to make any kind of a lasting impression on the marketplace. Worse than all of this is the snobbery involved in criticizing small publishers. I admit freely that when I picked up, “When You Were Small”, I looked at it long and hard with an eye towards finding any faults it might have. Not all small publishers are good, after all, and not all of their books readworthy. Simply Read Books is different, though, and “When You Were Small”, is infinitely readworthy. An unassuming title with a charming presence, great use of wry commentary, and some really outstanding pen and ink illustrations. “When You Were Small”, reminds all of us that sometimes the smallest publishers are the ones who find the best new talent around.
Every night, we are told, Henry and his dad sit down, “and have a chat”. Henry asks his dad to tell him what he was like when he was small and dad does so. The only thing is, dad seems to be a bit of a literal sort. The first thing he tells Henry is, “When you were small you used to have a pet ant and you would take him out for walks on a leash”. And here we see Henry, no younger than before, but tiny enough to walk an ant as if it were a particularly frisky dog. With each page we learn more about what “little” Henry’s life was like. Sometimes it’s straightforward, as when we’re told, “When you were small we took the toy castle out of the aquarium and you were king of it”. Other times the book acquires a dry wit, saying things like, “… your mother once lost you in the bottom of her purse. When she found you again, you were clinging to an earring she’d lost three years before”. We hear about how Henry would eat, use a ruler when it came to tobogganing, and take a bath. Near the end of the book Henry’s father notes, “we wanted to call you Hieronymous but it was too big a name for you and so we shortened it to Henry”. And when Henry asks if all of this is true (as I am sure he asks every night) his dad simply says, “Well ... don’t you remember?”.
With a steady hand O’Leary parcels out the information in this book in a familiar form. Each section that discusses Henry’s previously tiny state begins with the repeating phrase, “When you were small”. I think it was the understated humor that really won me over to this book, though. There’s a wonderful moment when Henry would ride around in his father’s breast pocket. “Your little head would just stick out and your little hands would grip onto the edge of the cloth. Actually you ripped a lot of my shirts that way”. It’s a small statement, but it makes the reader suddenly wonder if all the dad's stories were true after all. I mean, that’s a pretty realistic detail to include. Illustrator Julie Morstad further confuses the issue when she displays front and endpapers that consist of Henry staring at photographs of himself in his “small” state. Some show him posing alongside an ant. Others display him floating away on a balloon or doing something as mundane as posing for Halloween. What is a child to think?
Actually, I should be giving artist Morstad some definite props for this book as well. Using the thinnest of pen lines in a wide variety of colors (subdued, for the most part) the book feels almost like a foreign import. We rarely see such delicate perfectly rendered pictures in our American bookstores and libraries. There’s a picture of Henry standing astride a beautifully penned cat. Every hair of that cat is meticulously placed, making it my favorite image in, “When You Were Small”. Morstad could make even Peter Sis look like a thick-penned schlub in comparison.
I should mention that the book conveys a great deal of love without artifice or false sentiment. Some of this you might be able to chalk this up to the simplicity of the book's design itself. Publication information is in tiny type at the bottom of a single page. There is no information about either the author nor illustrator nor even a dedication section. The book also hasn’t any book jacket, giving it a rather classic feel. All in all, this is one of the lovelier picture book creations I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. A quiet, intelligent, rather sweet read in a style that everyone can enjoy. Recommended with honors.