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Saturday, February 28, 2009

The World According to Ben Hillman

How Big Is It?
by Ben Hillman

Universal Themes:
Comparisons, Juxtaposition, Magnitude
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?
Before Reading Questions
  • How big is a slice of bread? Who can show me? (Students will typically use hands to illustrate the dimensions, and some students will even use two fingers to show how skinny it is).
  • How big is a school bus? (Students will now either try to guesstimate its true length in feet, yards, or meters, or will try to compare it to the room they're sitting in, or against the size of a car of other vehicle). Can you show me how big it is?
  • How tall is a polar bear? Is he were standing on his hind legs, would he be as tall as me?

Ben Hillman has created four wonderful books which illustrate the magnitude of real life objects by comparing them with more common phenomenon with which students are familiar. 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 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.

After Reading Questions
  • What do you think of the illustrations? Why are they so startling?
  • Which topic was your favorite? Why?
  • Who heard a simile that the author used to make a comparison? What other methods did he employ that helped us to understand how big (strong, fast) things were?
Extension Ideas: Math
  • Many of the topics are backed with mathematical data. When this data is actually used, the author explains it well, but stops short of showing us "the math." Have students work in pairs to "show the work" that the author left on certain pages. In the above example of Rapunzel, for example, is the math correct? Does 140,000 blonde hairs equal a strength of 17, 500 pounds?
  • Extend the math. Use the facts given and ask additional questions. For example, "If princes weigh 200 pounds each, then how many princes can climb Rapunzel's hair at once?"
Extension Ideas: Language Arts
  • After reading a selection, show students a number of words which you've selected from the text. Have students sort them into categories of Explained by the Picture, Explained by Context, Not Explained. Use this exercise to begin a discussion of what good readers do when they encounter unknown words.
  • Have students research a word whose meaning is unclear (for example, the word leviathan above). Does it have a base word that helps to define it? Does it have a Greek or Latin root? Why did the author choose this word instead on another? (a leviathan is not just a monster, it is a huge mythical sea monster)
Extension Ideas: Science
  • As students learn about their own science concepts, encourage them to create Hillman-like images and texts. Students studying animal adaptations, for example, might be asked to juxtapose a feature of their animal with a comparable (yet different) every object. A turtle's shell is as hard as what man-made material? An iguana's tongue is as long as, or as sticky as, what common objects?
  • Have students use collage or cut and paste on the computer to create visual juxtapositions of phenomena not shown in Hillman's books.