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Sunday, March 1, 2009

The World According to Ben Hillman

Slam dunks are no problem for this guy.
Polar bears are the largest carnivores on Earth. And when they stand on their hind legs, they’re the tallest. The biggest polar bear anyone ever saw stood at astounding 12 feet tall (3.7 m.). That’s two feet higher than the rim of a basketball net.

from How Big Is It?
by Ben Hillman

Ben Hillman has created four wonderful books which illustrate the magnitude of real life objects by comparing them with everyday phenomena. How Big Is It?, How Strong Is It?, How Fast Is It?, and How Weird Is It? have quickly become nonfiction must-reads for the upper primary and intermediate school set.

As shown above from How Big Is It?, the largest polar bear on record is a whopping 12 feet! Yes, students will be surprised to hear that a polar bear is taller than their classroom ceiling, but the surprising juxtapositions created by Ben Hillman's composite illustrations drive home each book's concepts in a really powerful, fun way.

Have some reluctant readers? They will devour these books! The text is as wonderful as the pictures, and is in no way dumbed down for the young audience for which it is intended. In speaking about the Akula (Shark) Submarine, for example, Hillman writes

This leviathan of the deep is one of the most dangerous submarines imaginable –
a giant submersible weapon of mass destruction.

Many of the contextual clues needed for comprehension are provided by the illustrations. Some words, however, are not made clear by the pictures alone, and the reader's curiosity will promote an interest in word study.

As seen in this description of our polar bear from How Big Is It?, the text, like the illustrations, uses similes, metaphors, and hard data to create memorable juxtapositions,

For short distances, a polar bear can charge along at 25 miles per hour (40
km/h) – almost as fast as the fastest Olympic sprinter.

From How Strong Is It?, a description of human hair's amazing strength:

The average human hair can support 2 to 3.5 ounces without breaking. That doesn't sound like much, but the average human head has more than 100,000 hairs.
And blondes have more than most. About 140,000 hairs per blonde... So how many princes can Rapunzel handle? Do the math. Her two golden braids can hold at the
very least 17,500 pounds of princes!

All four books are a blast! They make excellent nonfiction read-alouds due to their brevity and brilliance, and the individual topics need not be read in any particular order. How Strong Is It?, for example, features twenty-two two-page spreads, with a full color picture on the left (running onto the right page), and an article-length text appearing on the right.

Visit the author's site for an up-close preview of these books. Students especially enjoy the cool roll-over feature used to illustrate the sample pages provided.
Looking for questions and extension activities to use in the classroom? You can find those at my Teach with Picture Books site (along with suggestions for other excellent picture book read-alouds).


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