Small World by Ishta Mercurio, illustrated by Jen Corace

Small World by Ishta Mercurio
illustrated by Jen Corace
Review Copy from Abrams Kids
The only thing I knew about this quiet, superb book before I began reading it is that the wonderful Jen Corace illustrated it. The first page begins, "When Nanda was born, the whole world was wrapped in the circle of her mother's arms: safe, warm, small. But as she grew, the world grew, too." Nanda's (a name I had never seen used in a picture book before) world expands to family, friends and eventually, "scaffolds of steel," and the "microscopic elegance of fractals in the snow." At which point I stopped reading and flipped to the back of the book. 

Is this a non-fiction picture book? Is Nanda a famous scientist? architect? mathematician? astronaut? Mercurio's author's note about her name reveals that, when the time came to name the girl in the book, she:

couldn't stop thinking about a picture I had seen of five women at the Indian Space Research Organization celebrating after they had put a satellite into orbit around Mars. The photograph spoke to girls all over the world. It said, "You can do this." In honor of these women and their work, I named the girl in my story Nanda, which means "joy."

So, while Nanda is a fictional character, her character is inspired by the Sanskrit word for joy and the image of Indian women scientists celebrating success. And Mercurio imbues Small World with this possibility and joy, space and science, learning and community. Corace's illustrations match this with intricate patterns on every page, smiles, celebration and thoughtful reflection. As Nanda grows and her world expands, Mercurio keeps her story wrapped in the theme of big and small, ending with grown Nanda, lifting off Earth in a rocket, then standing on the foreign soil of another planet, looking at Earth, "softly glowing, A circle called home: safe, and warm, and small."

Small World does with poetic creativity and remarkable subtlety what so many well intentioned but trite and boring picture books (written to be graduation gifts) try to do year after year: inspire young readers to be curious, to expand their worlds, to love life and to love the Earth that supports life. The next time you need to give a book as a gift - be it for a newborn or a graduate - skip Seuss and go straight for Small World.

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