The Books That Shape Us: Animalia

From time to time, Bas Bleu’s editors will share with you some of the books that have had a profound impact on our lives. They won’t necessarily be grand literary classics or hard-hitting political tomes. They will be books that have stayed with us over the years and shaped who we are. If you’d like to share a significant title from your own life, feel free to do so in the comments section below.

I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I first discovered Animalia by Graeme Base in our local library. The book was first published in 1986, so it’s quite possible I stumbled upon it fairly young. What I do remember is checking it out many times and spending hours upon hours engrossed in its oversized pages, often with my siblings or my mom, seeing all that we could discover in the bright, elaborate illustrations.

The idea behind Animalia is a familiar one: author and illustrator Graeme Base dedicates a spread to each letter of the alphabet, along with an alliterative poem (“Lazy Lions Lounging in the Local Library,” for instance), and a vast, sprawling illustration containing multitudinous creatures and objects all beginning with that letter. The concept isn’t new—plenty of children’s books before and after have done it—but what Base does with his illustrations is what makes this book so magical. Each page is a work of art rooted in imagination and fantasy. Tusked boars ride armored horses across a dusty battlefield (“Horrible Hairy Hogs Hurrying Homeward on Heavily Harnessed Horses”), dragons spew smoke as they eat jewel-encrusted desserts (“Diabolical Dragons Daintily Devouring Delicious Delicacies”), anthropomorphic animals rush across a train platform in vintage garb (“Two Tigers Taking the 10:20 Train to Timbuktu”)…nothing in Animalia is simple, and it’s all the more wonderful for it. It seemed anytime I sat down with it I discovered something new hidden in among the alligators and zebras, an exercise Base encourages by inserting images of himself as a child in every page, and challenging the reader to find him.

Since I borrowed it from the library, it was returned one last time and eventually forgotten about as I got older and never entered the children’s section again—until I had kids of my own. When my oldest was about five, I bought him a copy of the book, and we spent many nights reading the poems in grand, ridiculous voices and studying the pages for hidden treasures. Even years later, we continued to find new things…one night, after we’d started watching the British television series Doctor Who, he came flying down the stairs, flipped open the book to the page covering “D,” and excitedly pointed to two distant figures in a window: the Doctor and a Dalek, characters from the show that we’d never noticed in all our years of reading the book. It was if they’d appeared almost by magic, inserting themselves brazenly into the pages, daring us to never stop searching.

For many great children’s books, their worth lies far more in the pictures than in the words. The words are the framework, but the evocative, detailed illustrations provide the real story. Animalia is no different…it takes a common educational literacy concept, twists it into something new, and constructs a scaffolding from which we can let our imagination soar. Not a book to be read once and then set aside, Animalia invites you to return to its pages again and again, to learn, laugh, and dream. (SM)

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