Little Big Girl – written and illustrated by Claire Keane
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016
There are many books about a family welcoming a new baby and the effect of this wonderful event on an older sibling. Some of these books are bland and didactic, although even those serve a purpose. Claire Keane’s Little Big Girl is not in this category. It is a witty and realistic description of the transition in one little girl’s life from small to big, as she gradually exchanges one role for another. Keane’s inimitable style of portraying people, captures the perspective of a child on how own size and importance relative to both the contained world of her own family and of the outside urban environment. Keane convinces young readers that becoming an older sister may seem to happen overnight, but that the arrival of a new baby is the beginning of a longer, and delightful, process.
When we meet Matisse, she is “a little girl in a big world,” lying peacefully on an almost empty vast beach. The outdoor terrain emphasizes how small she is, while her busy apartment and her family car are much more easily controlled. Yet she still perceives herself as small in both environments. Keane depicts Matisse as secure in her self-image, whether putting on “little shoes,” or brushing her “little teeth,” or traveling through a southern California city beneath tall buildings and palm trees.
A two-page spread shows her shopping for baby stuff with her pregnant mother, who has filled her cart with a double stroller, implying that Matisse is still a baby, but soon not to be the only one in her family. The story’s overwhelming display of baby essentials foreshadows the challenging nature of parenthood. Right before the new baby’s arrival, a sleepy Matisse rests on her bed, an image of the changes to come. She wears a toy stethoscope and holds a magic wand, as if both practical skills and fantasy will be part of her new status. Opened next to her is a useful copy of a “Big Sister Book,” but it is likely that this volume doesn’t yet hold much meaning.
The book skips the almost inevitable sibling rivalry that even an enthusiastic older sibling experiences. Little Big Girl is as sunny as its location, focused on the incredible excitement of becoming someone new, an older sister. Everything about her adorable new brother thrills her. When she leans over his cradle to kiss him while he sleeps, a ray of white light shines into the blue pastel background of the nursery like a Renaissance painting. There is nothing cloying about this scene, because Keane’s approach is to deliberately present the positive aspect of change. Matisse grows older in a parallel way with her brother, each of them making progress.
Matisse’s “big job” entails reading to her brother from an extensive library, helping her tired and informally dressed father to change the baby while she herself is in the process of getting dressed, accompanying him to the same beach which had appeared in the beginning of the book. Now she views everyday activities, as well as the unlimited world of clouds and sand, with a completely different perspective. As in all her books, Keane’s characters express the velocity of childhood, their faces reflecting changes and their bodies moving gracefully from one moment to the next. The bond between an older and younger sibling in the early years of life has probably never been painted with such elegance and affection as in Little Big Girl.