Steve Jenkins


Steve Jenkins: Putting Everything in Perspective by Susan Fry

Steve Jenkins’ books are deceptively simple. Flip through them, and you’ll quickly see that he’s fascinated by a single theme: comparisons. Jenkins loves to contrast animal sizes, mountain heights, ocean depths, and bone lengths. He’ll offer just a few pictures on each spare page, perhaps with a line or two of text. At first glance, his illustrations may even look clumsy – collages of cut or torn paper in muted colors, reminiscent of Eric Carle.

But Jenkins actually accomplishes something remarkably difficult. He can help a reader grasp difficult concepts in a single glance. And these concepts are accompanied by an emotional punch that reveals just how sophisticated Jenkins’ illustrations are.

Look closely, and you’ll marvel at how much detail Jenkins can portray with “just” paper. His collages are meticulously cut and pasted. A tiny square of white on a gray oval gives a drop of water its shine. A convoluted curl becomes an astoundingly-long jellyfish tentacle. Torn, fuzzy edges replicate the hair on a spider’s legs.

Jenkins also chooses his paper carefully — a mottled, water-stained brown for a flea’s back, a green sheet with wavy fibers for water, a thick, crinkled page for an iceberg. The figures seem to have depth and texture. And though they’re not realistic, they are instantly recognizable, and beautiful.

Jenkins’ combination of art and science will also give kids a new perspective on their own place in the world. In Biggest, Strongest, Fastest, for example, Jenkins shows two elephants, their trunks and legs delightfully wrinkled. But Jenkins isn’t just satisfied to write: “The African elephant is the biggest land animal.” Instead, in one corner, he draws a tiny figure of a man – to scale – next to an elephant. Hottest, Coldest, Highest, Deepest explains annual rainfall in several countries – in relation to a man’s height. Bones: Skeletons and How They Work depicts a life-size human skull (on the cover!), then contrasts it with the bones of other animals.

My favorite Jenkins book, Actual Size, makes comparisons even more visceral. Kids can hold their own hands up to a life-size picture of a gorilla’s hand. And even grownups will gasp when they find the enormous, staring eye of a giant squid spread across an entire page.

Biggest, Strongest, Fastest

Hottest, Coldest, Highest, Deepest

Bones: Skeletons and How They Work

Actual Size

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications. You will find links to all of her children’s book reviews on our Toys & Books page.

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