I recall spending the majority of my childhood summers in primarily two places. Visiting my Grandma’s house in Edinburg, TX, and in the upstairs (children’s section) of the Bryan Public Library. The two had one thing in common: both housed a copy of the greatest picture book of all time. (Incidentally, it just happens to have had it’s 20th anniversary this year, and I maintain that it still holds this title…at least as far as I am concerned)
I first discovered Animalia in the summer of 1989. It was an uncharacteristically (for mid-summer in south Texas) rainy afternoon. My Grandmother had company over, and my siblings were sleeping off the adventures we’d had earlier that day, which left me tasked with entertaining myself. My Grandparents’ home was NEVER lacking for literature, but for whatever reason,the shelves of classic novels and worn volumes of World Book Encyclopedia didn’t excite me on this particular day. Instead, what piqued my interest was the glimmer of the ONE “modern” children’s picture book in the house! I couldn’t believe I had never seen it before. (Maybe Gramps had purchased it for just such an emergency?) The children’s library was my second home, and though I was an avid reader of chapter books, I still had a deep love for children’s books–especially those with really good illustrations…but this one was completely foreign to me. At the time, I was OBSESSED with Chris Van Allsburg (I loved searching for his trademark hidden dog tucked within the pages of all of his books!), but this book blew all of his out of the water!
At first glance, I was immediately taken in by the intricate detail of of the cover. Every square inch was covered. And the illustrator had an uncanny ability to draw realistic animals, that had a fun, expressive, caricature-like quality, without making them feel kiddish or tacky.
Nestled into the title page I discovered an intriguing poem, which promised the pages to come would be spellbinding. There was also a dare of sorts, to discover what only the “keenest eyes” would find. And, a challenge to find a boy in a striped shirt hidden amongst the pages! (Note: Although the boy’s attire bears a striking resemblance to another hidden book character’s, Animalia was actually published at least a year before the first “Where’s Waldo”, so it’s merely coincidental) I was hooked already.
I turned to the first page, eager to get started. I was instantly captivated. I had never seen anything like it. EVER. Each and every page was completely saturated with vibrant color and whimsical scenes. There was little text, but the depth of the illustrations more than made up for it. I almost overlooked the text completely because I was staring so intently at the pictures…the detail was phenomenal, but the picture made no sense, so I looked to the words on the page to explain the scene before me, and that was when I discovered the best surprise of all. It appeared to be an alliterative tongue twister, each word beginning with the letter “A”, at which point I realized that hidden throughout the illustrations on the page were GOBS of hidden depictions of animals and objects beginning with the letter A. Some of these objects/animals even contained additional hidden pictures within THEIR details (like a picture within a picture, within a picture! It was like standing in an elevator with glass walls where the reflection seems to just go on forever!) I was mesmerized! (If you don’t believe me, enlarge the picture and be amazed…see how many things you can find…atoms, antenna, autograph , accordion, and abacus only scratch the surface! Each page held a letter-specific tongue twister and corresponding illustrations, and they were so cleverly hidden and disguised (it also helped that he was English/Australian, so some of the pictures were of things that didn’t appear to begin with the letter until I considered alternate terms for words–such as the baby carriage on the “P” page, which I finally remembered was also known as a “pram”!). I lost myself in first two pages for what had to have been close to half an hour. And then I closed the book. I felt as though a sugary-sweet, delicious, chocolate cake had been laid before me, but instead of gorging myself, I wanted to cut it into tiny slivers and savor every morsel, which meant rationing myself to only a page or two per sitting–so I could make it last.
I was so excited to share it with my siblings when they woke up from their naps. And now, nearly 20 years later, I am equally (if not more) thrilled to share it with my kids. (Honestly, Animalia was my go-to, favorite birthday gift for friends’ kids long before Norah and Eli were born!)
In addition to being an awesome gift idea, I’ve also used it to trick my kids into writing exercises. First, I give each of us a piece of paper (yes, I play too because it is still so fun for me, PLUS, the prospect of the kids “taking down mom” together is always a good motivator in our house!). Next, I set a timer on my phone for 2 minutes, and we each list as many hidden objects beginning with the letters on a selected page. (My son who hates to write LOVES this activity, and I’ve been surprised to see how many words with tricky spellings he is aware of–such as gnome and pheasant!) At the end of 2 minutes, we go through our lists, Scattergories-style, crossing off duplicated answers, and see which of us came up with the most. We have so much fun pointing out our finds to one another, and then usually spend another 5-10 minutes per page searching together for others we’ve missed (there are always tons more than we can get in 2 min) and, of course marveling aloud at what an incredible genius Graeme Base is.
Why have I dedicated an entire blog post to this one picture book?
- I think that EVERYONE should own a copy. (Especially “grown-ups”…you never know when you’ll have a desperately bored child in your home on a rainy day, not to mention, you’d be surprised at how intriguing/what a great conversation piece this “children’s book” is for adults!)
- As amazing as this book is, I have heard VERY little buzz about it and have always been amazed that so few people are familiar with it, so I felt the need to spread some love.
- Christmas is coming, and Animalia would make a unique gift (read: unlikely to be duplicated by someone else)
- This blog is a space where I share some of my favorite things, and this book most certainly falls into that category. In addition my having some great childhood memories attached to it, I am now quite confident my children will have similar fond memories of the hours we’ve crowded around and poured over this book together.
Disclaimer: This is a completely unsolicited review. I was not asked, nor am I being paid to share my opinions. I only write about products that chose, truly love, and whole-heartedly recommend because I think they make the world a better place. I am, however, an affiliate partner with Amazon.com, so if you’re interested in purchasing a copy of this book, I’d love it if you would do so through any of the links on this page, which will give me credit for recommending it! (Not to mention, Amazon usually beats most everyone’s prices, so it may be the cheapest way to buy–especially if you have free shipping/Prime!)